Many people visit a natural food store clutching a prescription from their doctor or other practitioners with the requirements for a diet that will help them reduce their weight, or reduce their risk for disease, or change their nutrition intake so they can better manage an existing disease.


About 25.8 million Americans have diabetes — 8.3 percent of the U.S. population.   Of these, 7 million do not know they have the disease.   In 2010, about 1.9 million people ages 20 or older were diagnosed with diabetes.  The most common diabetes is Type 2.   In Type 2 diabetes, either the body does not produce enough insulin or the cells ignore the insulin.  Insulin is necessary for the body to be able to use glucose for energy.   When people eat food, especially carbohydrates, the body breaks down all of the sugars and starches into glucose, which is the basic fuel for the cells in the body.   Insulin takes glucose from the blood into the cells.  When glucose builds up in the blood instead of going into cells, it can cause two problems:

  • Cells may be starved for energy.
  • Over time, high blood glucose levels negatively impact eyes, kidneys, nerves, and heart.

Managing diabetes requires close attention to nutrition and food intake.  Recommended meal planning tools include the plate method, carb counting, using the glycemic index to control blood glucose, blood pressure, cholesterol numbers, and maintaining the proper weight.   

People with diabetes have to make sure that their food choices balance the insulin they produce with the oral medications they take (if they take them), plus exercise to help manage their blood glucose levels.   Carbohydrates cause the pancreas to secrete insulin, the hormone that enables people to digest starches and sugars.   Eating simple carbohydrates, such as sugar, fruit juice, and refined wheat and grains, provokes higher insulin secretion (insulin spikes) than eating complex carbohydrates such as whole grains and whole fruit.   Diabetics must be careful not to take in more carbohydrates than they can digest because un-metabolized sugars circulating through the blood can cause dizziness and, in some cases, even turn into a diabetic coma.   Healthy diets for diabetics include vegetables, whole grains, whole fruits, non-fat dairy products, beans, lean meats, poultry and fish, and foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber.  Highly processed foods should be avoided and nutrient and fiber-rich carbohydrates that are slow to digest are recommended.    

Recommendations for a healthy diabetic diet include:

  • Avoid sugary drinks, including regular soda, sweet tea, fruit punch, and sports drinks.  Water or diet drinks like diet soda, sugar-free lemonade are recommended instead.
  • Whole fruit instead of juice.
  • Sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes.
  • Whole-grain bread and whole wheat pasta instead of white bread and regular pasta.
  • Whole grain oatmeal instead of processed cereals.
  • Brown rice or barley in soups, stews, and salads instead of white rice.
  • Using the plate method to manage portion size:
    • Only about 1/4 of the plate is for starchy foods including starchy vegetables or grains like rice.
    • Fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables.
    • The last quarter is for your protein foods like fish or chicken.
    • To keep portions smaller, keep the food to a depth of about the thickness of your palm.

Why this matters:

High-GI foods trigger a rise in blood sugar and release insulin, which is thought to trigger fat storage, intensify hunger, and lead to weight gain. By avoiding foods that have a high-GI score, appetite will decrease and weight loss can occur more easily.

Anti-Inflammatory Diet

It is now known that chronic inflammation is the root cause of many serious illnesses – including heart disease, many cancers, and Alzheimer's disease.  On the other hand, inflammation is also an important symptom of the body's healing response, bringing more nourishment and more immune activity to a site of injury or infection.  But when inflammation persists or serves no purpose, it damages the body and causes illness.  Dietary choices along with stress, lack of exercise, genetic predisposition, and exposure to toxins (like secondhand tobacco smoke) can all contribute to such chronic inflammation.

Recommended by Dr. Barry Sears (author of The Zone Diet) and by Dr. Andrew Weil, a pioneer in integrated medicine, the Anti-Inflammation diet emphasizes an overall healthful diet composed of 40% to 50% nutrient-rich carbohydrates from vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, 30% from healthy vegetable fats and 20% to 30% from protein, preferably fish, cheese, yogurt and plant protein such as beans and legumes.  Carbohydrates, fat, and protein should be included at each meal.  Additional recommendations that separate this diet from others include:

  • Lower glycemic load carbohydrates
  • Eat more beans, winter squashes, and sweet potatoes
  • Avoid products made with high fructose corn syrup
  • Fats should be taken in a ratio of 1:2:1 of saturated to monounsaturated to polyunsaturated fat
  • Decreased consumption of animal protein except for fish and high-quality natural cheese and yogurt, increased consumption of vegetable protein, especially from beans and soybeans in particular
  • 40 grams of fiber a day
  • Consume cruciferous (cabbage family) vegetables regularly
  • Drink tea instead of coffee, especially good quality white, green or oolong tea
  • If alcohol is consumed, use red wine preferentially
  • Consume dark chocolate with a minimum cocoa content of 70%) in moderation
  • Consume Asian mushrooms in unlimited amounts
  • Consume healthy herbs such as garlic, ginger, turmeric and cinnamon
  • Take nutritional supplements daily

Heart-Healthy Diets

Heart disease, such as coronary heart disease, heart attack, congestive heart failure, and congenital heart disease, is the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S. Prevention includes quitting smoking, lowering cholesterol, controlling high blood pressure, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercising.  A person’s diet is crucial in the development and prevention of cardiovascular disease.   Diet is one of the key things people can change that will impact all other cardiovascular risk factors.

The DASH and TLC Diet– The US National Institutes of Health developed diet plans for reducing the risk of heart disease:  The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet was developed in research sponsored by the US National Institutes of Health to lower blood pressure without medication.   The Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes, or TLC Diet, was created to effectively lower the levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.

Over the years, numerous studies have shown that the DASH and TLC diets reduce the risk of many other diseases, including some kinds of cancer, stroke, heart disease, heart failure, kidney stones, and diabetes.  The DASH diet is based on an overall healthful eating plan and emphasizes lower salt/sodium intake, proper portion size, and moderate calorie intake.  Salt should never exceed 2,300 milligrams per day, with a lower amount of 1,500 milligrams recommended.

The Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes, or TLC, does not primarily focus on weight-loss; instead, its focus is reducing saturated fats, replacing some saturated fats with unsaturated fats, maintaining ideal body weight and ideal daily calorie intake.  Guidelines include:

  • Intake of saturated fat should be kept below 7%  of the total calorie intake
  • 25-35% of daily total calories should come from healthy fat intake
  • Daily cholesterol intake should be kept below 200 milligrams
  • Sodium intake must be limited to 2400 mg per day
  • Calorie intake should be kept to a level needed for maintaining a healthy weight
  • Physical activity must be maintained regularly along with the diet, i.e. at least 30 minutes of exercise each day.

The Pritikin® Diet – was formulated in 1976 by Nathan Pritikin and was an early forerunner of dietary guidelines intended to maintain a healthy weight and fight heart disease.  It is a low calorie, high bulk, low fat, and low cholesterol diet with an average of less than ten percent of daily calories from fat.   It is almost entirely vegetarian and those who adhere to this diet avoid processed and fatty foods.  Some people choose the Pritikin® diet because it does not restrict the amount of food that may be consumed in one sitting.   Instead, the diet restricts the types of foods that may be consumed.  The food restrictions are based on the average calories per pound for the ingredients of every meal which must be less than 400.  To achieve this, the vast majority of foods in every meal must be low in calories and fat.

Ornish Diet – Dean Ornish, MD, was a founder of the Preventative Medicine Research Institute in California and was considered revolutionary in the early ’90s when he suggested that a basically vegetarian diet can reverse symptoms of heart disease and published The Ornish Spectrum Diet based on 35 years of research.  He ranks foods from healthiest ("Group 1") to the most indulgent ("Group 5").   In general, the more you stick with foods toward the Group 1 end of the spectrum, the more benefits you'll reap in terms of weight loss and overall health.  In addition to strong recommendations for exercise, stress management with yoga and meditation and eating smaller meals, this diet emphasizes

  • Eating all the beans, legumes, fruits, grains, and vegetables needed to feel full.
  • Using low- or nonfat dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt in moderation.  Only 10% of calories should come from fat.
  • Meats (both red and white) should be avoided along with oils and products containing oils, including avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, full-fat dairy, and sugar.

Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean Diet encourages an all-encompassing healthy lifestyle through the consumption of simple, fresh foods and fitness.  Based on the traditional eating habits of poor coastal regions of Southern Italy, Crete, and Greece, it includes vegetables and legumes, fresh fruit, olive oil, and moderate amounts of fish, poultry, and red wine and emphasizes:

  • Eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts
  • Replacing butter with healthy fats, such as olive oil and nuts
  • Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods
  • Limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month
  • Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week
  • Drinking red wine in moderation (optional)

Weight Loss, Weight Management

People gain weight due to a wide array of factors, including:

  • A diet full of fried foods, giant portions, decadent desserts, alcohol, and sugary soft drinks
  • Consuming more calories than are burned in physical activity
  • Lack of sleep and physiological stress
  • Use of some prescription drugs including those for depression, mood disorders, seizures, migraines, blood pressure, diabetes, steroids, hormone replacement therapy, and even oral contraceptives.
  • Medical illnesses such as hypothyroidism, a deficiency of thyroid hormone, and Cushing’s syndrome, a disorder that produces an excess of the cortisol hormone.
  • Aging due to the slowing of metabolism, particularly in women after menopause

Since excess weight contributes to many diseases, people are often trying a variety of diets to help them lose weight.  Full-service natural food stores offer a wide variety of products that are suitable for many of the diets people follow.

Low Carb Diet (Atkins & Eco-Atkins Diet)

Low carbohydrate diets became popular in the 1970s when Dr. Robert Atkins published his book Diet Revolution based on years of research in his cardiology practice.  Today the diet is used mainly for weight loss and to control blood sugar in people dealing with diabetes and other related conditions.  In this diet, foods higher in protein and fiber are ranked lower on the glycemic index than foods that are high in refined carbohydrates and sugar.  For weight loss, the restriction of carbohydrates (sugars and starches) puts the body in a metabolic state called ketosis which facilitates fat burning.  For blood sugar control, consuming low carbohydrate foods reduces insulin production.

People sticking to a low-carb, low-sugar diet mainly eat protein (meat), low-starch vegetables, nuts, seeds, some fruits (berries, citrus, stone fruits).  They avoid all processed foods and all grains, white potatoes and all processed sugars (cane, corn, beet, etc.)  They are able to consume in moderation some starchy vegetables and dairy items.

Although the Atkins diet has been shown to deliver weight loss, many experts believe that a diet so high in animal fats is not in keeping with overall good health.  For example, the diet reduces insulin resistance (the body's inability to respond properly to insulin) and raises "good" (HDL) cholesterol, but has little impact on "bad" (LDL) cholesterol.  As a result, a vegetarian version, coined “Eco-Atkins”, has been developed that eliminates the protein from meat and replaces it with a lower-calorie, vegetarian or lacto-ovo vegetarian diet with protein coming from gluten, soy, and other plant proteins.

Why this matters:

Although the focus on low carb products, which contributed over $485 million to the natural foods industry in back in 2004, has passed, the science behind low carb diets has shown that it works and consumers are now much more knowledgeable about how carbohydrates affect their body.  There are still popular low-carb products found on most health food store shelves.

Other Popular Weight Loss Diets

South Beach – This is a variation of a low-carb diet that focuses on the high-density nutrient carbs and good fats and is set up in three phases that become increasingly less restrictive depending on the weight goal.

Sugar Busters – This plan emphasizes the glycemic index and requires eliminating all refined sugar and flour such as white bread, white rice, white potatoes, white flour, and all sugar.

Zone – The Zone diet was created by Dr. Barry Sears and it too focuses on low carbs and calories.  Women get about 1,200 calories a day; men are limited 1,500 and both are required to follow a diet pattern of 30% protein, 30% fat, and 40% carbs.

Fat Flush – Developed by Ann Louise Gittleman, this diet emphasizes foods and eating habits that is intended to increase metabolism and cause fat to be burned efficiently.  The first phase in the diet is to detoxify the liver, the second phase raises caloric allowance and adds in certain carbohydrates.  Phase three is a diet pattern of 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein, 30% fat with limited dairy consumption.


Words to Remember


A system that ranks foods on a scale from 1 to 100 based on their effect on blood sugar levels. Glucose has an index of 100. The glycemic index estimates how much each gram of available carbohydrate raises a person's blood glucose level following consumption of the food, relative to consumption of pure glucose.

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