Controlling diabetes with a traditional diet

Most people affected by diabetes are unaware that they even have the condition. According to the Zimbabwe Diabetic Association over ten percent of Zimbabweans probably have diabetes .

The incidence rate in the country has increased 14-fold since 1980 and in 2014 almost 17000 Zimbabweans died from diabetes-related conditions.

In a Voice Of Africa interview this year, the President of the Diabetic Association and specialist diabetologist, Dr. John C. Mangwiro stated that most types of diabetes can be reduced through a proper diet. “Nutritionally, Zimbabweans are eating wrong, they are sticking to these so called western diets which make them very obese,” he said.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes has two types. Type 1 which people are usually born with and Type 2 which tends to develop in middle age and is related to consumption of excess sugar and refined carbohydrates coupled with lack of exercise. The condition can be fatal and may lead to heart and blood vessel disease; damage to the nerves, kidneys, eyes and feet as well as hearing impairment, skin conditions and Alzheimer’s disease.

There is no cure for diabetes and once you have it you have to change your diet and your lifestyle as well as take medication in the form of daily tablets or injections. In Zimbabwe this can be expensive and sometimes diabetes medication is hard to obtain.

Early detection

It is crucial to detect the symptoms as early as possible in order to limit possible damage. Detection of Type 2 Diabetes often only occurs at a doctor’s visit during an examination for an unrelated condition by which stage damage may have occurred already. Symptoms are as follows:

  • Fatigue, especially after meals
  • Often hungry, especially if shortly after eating
  • Urinating more often (especially at night)
  • Abnormally thirsty
  • Blurred vision
  • Genital itchiness
  • Slow healing of cuts or wounds
  • Regular Candida infections ( Thrush)
  • Skin disorders such as Psoriasis or Acanthosis Nigricans
  • Sudden weight loss or loss of muscle mass

Lack of awareness

It appears that little has been done to educate Zimbabweans about the dangers of eating too much sugar even though the mortality figures from Type 2 Diabetes are possibly on a par or higher than that of HIV/AIDS.

Thankfully, it is possible to either prevent or improve the condition through healthy food choices, dietary changes, and exercise used in conjunction with medication suggested by your doctor or clinic. Here are some suggestions:

Cut out the sugar

Cut down considerably or try to completely remove sugary foods from your diet. This does not just mean reducing the number of spoons of sugar in your tea although that is a good start. Sugar comes in many forms. Most snacks and processed foods (even those which are not sweet) often contain sugar or corn syrup which is even worse. Always read the label when buying food or drinks. If you feel hungry eat fresh fruit, roasted peanuts, maputi, roasted maize or caterpillars (madora, amaximbi).

Unfortunately honey and syrup are just as bad as sugar. Alcohol also has a high sugar content and should be reduced. Heavy drinkers are more likely to get diabetes than those who drink in moderation.

One of the main sources of sugar is fizzy drinks and sodas. A study published in the British Medical Journal ( found that drinking just one soda per day can increase your risk of getting Type 2 Diabetes by 22 percent. In Zimbabwe we are fortunate to have many healthy drinks alternatives including mahewu, baobab juice and delicious herbal teas.

Less is better

Reduce your meat intake and avoid processed meats such as polony, ham and bacon. Instead, a couple of times per week, eat legumes (such as cowpeas, nyimo beans or sugar beans), fish and lean meats such as chicken without skin.

Lowered salt intake and eating smaller portions has also been shown to reduce diabetes risks and symptoms. You should not take more than one 5ml teaspoon of salt per day in food. Avoid adding salt to meals during cooking and cut down on salty snacks. This will also help reduce blood pressure problems.

Use your hand to measure how much food to have in each meal. Your fist represents the amount of energy-giving food (such as sadza, rice, pasta, potatoes or bread); the palm of your hand represents how much meat and the tip of your index finger represents the amount of fat or oil you need. There are no limits on the amount of fruit and vegetables.

Boost your fibre

Increasing the amount of fibre (roughage) in your diet helps reduce the risks of diabetes as well as blood pressure, cardiovascular problems and some types of cancer. Dietary fibre is contained in fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grained cereals.

  • Eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day such as a cup of rape, a banana, half a medium sized avocado, a five centimetre piece of cucumber and half a cup of pumpkin. Remember that indigenous vegetables (such as amaranth, bonongwe, imbuya) and indigenous fruit (such as marula, baobab and masau) are rich in fibre and many nutrients often in higher concentrations than exotic fruit and vegetables.
  • Avoid highly refined carbohydrates such as refined maize meal, white bread, white rice and white pasta. Try to eat millet, sorghum and African brown rice a couple of times a week instead of white maize sadza. Switch to wholemeal bread or make your own using brown flour.

 More minerals

Eat foods rich in Magnesium, Potassium, Zinc and Chromium such as spinach, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, butternut, bananas, oranges, guavas, watermelons, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, beans, onions and garlic. Vitamin D which is produced in the body with regular daily exposure to sunlight is also important.

Lifestyle changes

Exercising for at least 20 minutes per day has also been shown to help people with Type 2 Diabetes. Regular movement helps regulate insulin and therefore less is needed to move sugar out of the bloodstream and into the cells.

There are also a number of herbal remedies which can be used to help control the condition. These include cinnamon, fenugreek and ginger which can be added to food or taken as tea.

If you suspect that you may have Type 2 Diabetes, firstly go to your doctor or clinic to be tested. Once your diagnosis has been confirmed you should start to reassess your lifestyle and dietary choices. By making these changes, this common and dangerous health condition can be brought under control. – Natural Zimbabwean 

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