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Can cinnamon have benefits for diabetics and dieters?

Can eating cinnamon help the diabetic control their blood sugar levels or the obese lose weight?

The straight answer: one study suggests eating cinnamon can reduce blood sugar levels but there is no evidence it can help with weight loss.

The facts: advocates make some powerful claims for the healing powers of the spice cinnamon. It is said to increase sensitivity to insulin and decrease blood sugar levels. Cinnamon is supposed to take more energy to process than other foods, thus boosting the metabolism, and is full of fibre, which helps give a feeling of satiety, signalling to the body that one has eaten enough.

The claims seem counter-intuitive – the spice is a component of five-spice powder, which is a common ingredient in Chinese cooking. The International Diabetes Federation says 10 per cent of Hong Kong adults have the condition. According to government statistics, 20.8 per cent of the population are obese.

Cinnamon is grown in large quantities across south India and used liberally by chefs in that region, earning it the label of “diabetes capital of the world”. One survey suggests that more than 40 per cent of urban south Indians are obese.

Cinnamon is no magic bullet then against diabetes and obesity.

Accredited dietitian Samson Lee Kit-yue says a recent systematic review collected from clinical trials has found that eating one to six grams of cinnamon a day can have a beneficial effect in controlling blood sugar for type 2 diabetics. “Research suggests cinnamon increases the uptake of glucose from adipose tissues and skeletal muscles,” she says.

Though the clinical trials suggest that cinnamon can decrease mean average blood sugar levels (HbA1c), they do not suggest that eating the spice can help prevent spikes or dips in blood sugar levels over the course of a day. For that Lee says diabetics need to maintain their intake of starchy foods ranging from 55 to 60 per cent of their dietary intake, depending on their weight and energy expenditure. High-fibre types of carbohydrates such as red rice or brown rice over white and jacket potatoes over mashed are the better choices.

As to why regions of the world that consume cinnamon on a daily basis also have populations with difficulties controlling their blood sugar levels, Lee says that there are a great deal of other health-related behavioural, dietary and lifestyle factors that contribute to the prevalence of diabetes in these populations.

Lee says she can find no studies indicating any positive link between eating cinnamon and losing weight. Although cinnamon is plant matter and therefore fibrous, it is not necessarily substantial by the time it is eaten. As any home cook knows, cinnamon sticks are used whole and not eaten or used in a powdered form.

The idea that the spice might help with feelings of fullness probably come about because it is commonly used in vegetarian dishes – eating a diet containing large quantities of vegetables can be very filling.

In the various Western cuisines, cinnamon is most commonly associated with desserts and pastries, items with a sugar content that should rule them out for anyone trying to regulate their blood sugar or lose weight. “The relation to weight loss is not established,” says Lee.

If you are aiming to up your cinnamon intake there are a few things to be aware of. Some cinnamon on the market is the closely related cassia bark rather than true cinnamon, originally from Sri Lanka and now mostly grown on the Malabar coast of Kerala.

From a culinary point of view, bear in mind that cinnamon should be harvested every two years, when it comes off the tree in small, ugly shards. Modern demand means that it is often harvested every year, when it comes off the tree in the beautiful curls consumers are used to. This has less flavour than the less attractive, older cinnamon.

“There is no single style of food that benefits a diabetes patient. Look for holistic treatment,” says Lee. That means planning meals carefully, having plenty of exercise and being careful when eating at restaurants. Rather than eating cinnamon, many diabetics are tempted to skip carbohydrates, says Lee. “Don’t skip carbs – you need to avoid low sugar levels as well as high ones.”