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Food Remedies for Diabetes Easily Found in Sri Lanka

2020 Nov 12

According to the International Diabetes Federation, 8.7% of the adult population of Sri Lanka suffers from diabetes. That’s over a staggering 1.2 million individuals – and there’s no sugarcoating it. So with World Diabetes Day falling on the 14th of November, it’s a good time for us all to take stock of the sweetness within, and make lifestyle adjustments if necessary. 

When it comes to Diabetes, diet – and more specifically the carbohydrate content of food – has a major effect. The Glycemic Index (GI) is a relative ranking of carbohydrate in foods according to how they affect blood glucose levels. Or simply put – a measure of how quickly a food causes our blood sugar levels to rise. The index ranks food on a scale of zero to a hundred. Carbohydrates with a low GI value (<55) are more slowly digested, absorbed and metabolised and cause a lower rise in blood glucose and, therefore usually, insulin levels. Foods with a high GI (>70) are quickly digested and absorbed, causing a rapid rise in blood sugar and consequently insulin levels. 

Lucky for us Sri Lankans, we’ve got plenty of naturally good foods that not only boast of a low GI but also actively help prevent diabetes. So here’s a list of Lankan foods that are a surefire way to bring down your sugar level!

Karavila (Bitter Gourd or Bitter Melon) 

No surprises here! When it comes to preventing or controlling diabetes – Karavila is a superfood. This fruit/vegetable contains at least three active substances with anti-diabetic properties – including charantin (which has been confirmed to have a hypoglycemic (blood glucose-lowering) effect) and an insulin-like compound known as polypeptide-p (which has been shown to control diabetes naturally). 

Thus, its consumption helps body cells utilize glucose and move it out of the bloodstream to where it can be stored. The melon also helps the body retain nutrients by blocking their conversion to glucose that ends up in the bloodstream. Karavila can be eaten in many forms – as a vegetable curry/ accompaniment, juice and even in the form of capsules nowadays.

Nelum Ala (Lotus Root) 

Lotus root (known as Nelum Ala) is an oblong, tubular rhizome or stem that grows underground in bodies of water. It has a dense and crunchy texture with a nutty and sweet flavour, and is commonly prepared in Sri Lanka as a curry and more recently as a salad. Clinical tests have proven that the ethanol extracts in the root can reduce blood sugar levels and improve glucose tolerance.

Alu Kehel (Ash Plantain) 

Studies show ash plantains have a hypoglycemic effect – especially unripe plantains. However, plantains at any stage of ripeness are beneficial – and can be used for cooking e.g. as a vegetable curry. The ripe ones can be eaten raw. Ash plantains have high fibre content. The soluble fibre slows the absorption of sugar and helps blood sugar levels stay steady longer. The insoluble fibre also reduces the risk of Type 2 Diabetes.

According to Ayurveda, if the pancreas is not working normally (as is the case in Diabetes); the bitter taste of these plants holds much value as this property goes into the tissue at a cellular level.

Kohila (Lasia) 
Image from https://saaraketha.com/products/kohila-dalu-lasia-shoots

This is a herb common in the Wet Zones of Sri Lanka – in swamps and near ponds and lakes. It has a thorny stem and thick leaves. Kohila plant can be found abundantly in the local market throughout the year. The ‘kohila dalu’ or young, tender leaves of the plant are flavoursome and best eaten as a curry or stir fry. Kohila is great for blood sugar control as it helps reduce the body’s absorption of excess fats and sugar. It is also high in fibre and antioxidants. 

Antioxidants are substances that can prevent or slow the damage caused by free radicals and unstable molecules to cells- including the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.

Kiri Anguna (Sneezing Silk) 
Image from https://www.bfnsrilanka.org/ethnobotany-data/anguna

This is one variety of Anguna – it is a woody climbing plant with leathery leaves that grow mostly in dry lowlands. The leaves of the Kiri Anguna plant are rich in Vitamin C, tannins and flavonoids – all of which have antioxidant properties. Thus, it is believed to be beneficial for those who suffer from diabetes and cholesterol. 

Thebu (Crepe Ginger or Spiral Ginger) 
Image from http://cookbyazeezbook.blogspot.com/2015/06/health-benefits-of-thebu-costus.html

Thebu is a herb found in shady places in the low country. Its tender leaves – which can be made into a sambol in the same way as gotukola – contain the steroid diosgenin, which is anti-diabetic in nature and helps reduce blood sugar in diabetic patients. The leaves also possess hypoglycemic properties and insulin potentiating action in addition to the diosgenin, and therefore must be eaten in moderation in order to prevent blood sugar dropping to dangerously low levels.

Kovakki (Ivy Gourd or Scarlet Gourd) 
Image from https://balconygardenweb.com/everything-about-growing-ivy-gourd-perennial-cucumber-vegetable/

This is a tropical vine with compounds in its leaves (which can be eaten raw or cooked) that inhibit the enzyme glucose-6-phosphatase (G6Pase) – an enzyme that promotes the release of free glucose into the bloodstream, and is normally elevated in diabetic patients. The therapeutic potential of ivy gourd against diabetes is brought mainly by its hypoglycemic, β (beta) cell regenerative, anti-hyperlipidemic and antioxidant properties.

Beta cells are the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas that are most often damaged in those with Diabetes.

Young Jackfruit and Its Leaves

This plant helps manage diabetic symptoms by regulating the release of glucose and insulin in the body, and by improving insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance. It contains a high concentration of Vitamin C and flavonoids, which are antioxidants that are believed to help prevent cell death in the pancreas (the organ that produces insulin). The high soluble fibre content of the fruit also helps keep sugar levels in control and even lowers the risk of developing the condition. The leaves are best consumed on an empty stomach. 

Day to day foods such as whole grains, red rice, soya, honey, garlic, turmeric and cinnamon are also beneficial diabetic remedies. 

Useful tip: Fruits and vegetables are a good source of antioxidants and fibre – both of which provide a balanced defence mechanism against diabetes. The sugar in fruit is a natural sugar (fructose) and not what we need to cut down on. Furthermore, eating the whole fruit is better than having it as a juice, because when eating the whole fruit, its vitamins and fibre content remain intact; whereas when blending it, all the fibres break down, the antioxidant constituents change and these valuable benefits are missed out on. The sugar present will now also be more easily absorbed by our bodies – causing a more rapid rise in blood sugar level and thereby increasing the GI. The sugars present in the whole fruit are more slowly absorbed and hence have a lower GI.

Whether you are diabetic or simply sugar-challenged, we hope this list will help make life sweeter in the long run. Whatever changes you make to your diet, ensure you do so with the opinion of a doctor. Do you prefer controlling diabetes via diet or drugs? Are there other Lankan foods that have helped reduce your blood sugar? Do let us know- we’d love to hear your take on diet and diabetes!