A diagnosis of type 2 diabetes often comes with recommendation from your doctor to improve your diet. While eating a healthy diet is important for everyone, when you have type 1 diabetes, eating smart is essential to managing your condition. A healthy diabetes diet can help you:
- Keep blood sugar levels stable
- Lose weight and maintain a healthy weight
- Prevent related health complications, like heart disease and high blood pressure
But if you’ve never paid much attention to nutrition, you might find it hard to balance eating healthy meals with the rest of your diabetes management plan. The answer is to follow some simple healthy-eating tips that can get you on track in no time. Start with these steps:
Focus on five food groups. When you have diabetes, it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough of the right types of foods in your diet. While there isn’t one perfect food that can provide all the nutrients your body needs, the key is to incorporate a variety of healthy foods into your diabetes diet. Focus on eating plenty of:
- Whole grains
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy products
- Lean protein sources such as chicken, fish, and lean beef
Although you can indulge in other foods on occasion, these five food groups are the building blocks of a healthy diabetes diet.
Create a meal plan. Taking the time to draw up a meal plan can save you time and stress in the long run. Jan Elsten, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Indiana University Health-Ball Memorial Hospital in Muncie, says is the main thing to focus on is spacing your meals and snacks evenly throughout the day. This is sometimes easier said than done, but eating meals on a schedule can help keep your blood sugar levels where they need to be.
Build a better plate. Make sure that you not only have the right kinds of food on your plate at each meal, but also have them in the right portion sizes. The American Diabetes Association recommends drawing an imaginary line down the center of your lunch or dinner plate and filling one half with non-starchy vegetables such as spinach, carrots, broccoli, and tomatoes. Next, draw another imaginary line through the other half of your plate and fill one section with a high-quality starch such as a whole-grain roll, pasta, or brown rice. In the remaining section, add a lean protein such as fish, beans, eggs, or a meat substitute. Add an 8-ounce glass of low-fat or fat-free milk and a small piece of fruit to complete your diabetes-friendly meal.
Get comfortable counting carbs. Your doctor or diabetes educator can work with you to create a diabetes meal plan to make sure you’re incorporating the correct balance of carbs with each meal. “Carbohydrates affect your blood sugar quicker than protein and fats do,” Elsten explains. “They’re broken down to glucose and used by the body for energy, and the body needs foods with carbohydrates throughout the day.” However, eating too many carbs at one time could cause a spike in blood sugar, so you want to spread your carb intake evenly throughout the day. Carbs are in many different types of foods: Whole grains, fruits, and low-fat or fat-free milk and yogurt are healthy options. Soda, candy, and sweets also have carbs, but offer very little nutritional value, so they should be eaten in moderation.
Learn the fine points about foods. You don’t have to know everything about every food, but try to get a grasp of the big picture. For example, foods high in saturated fats, like butter and fatty meats, can lead to heart disease, while foods with fatty acids called omega-3s, like coldwater fish and healthy oils and nuts, can help reduce the risk of heart disease. Foods with high salt (sodium) content — which is often most processed foods — can raise blood pressure, while potassium-rich foods, such as spinach, tomatoes, and bananas, can counteract sodium in the body and help reduce high blood pressure. And while fruits are often recommended as a part of a healthy diabetes diet, it’s important to watch your portion size, as fruit contains carbohydrates. And while dried fruits are nutritious choices, portion sizes tend to be smaller, so they may not be as filling as fresh fruit.
Make healthy food swaps. Making healthy substitutions and slight modifications to your food choices — and how you prepare your meals — can mean the difference between successfully managed diabetes and wildly fluctuating blood sugar levels. Try gradually implementing these changes for healthier eating for diabetes:
- Replace sweetened drinks with water, unsweetened tea, or other low-calorie options.
- Limit 100-percent fruit juice to one 4-ounce serving a day, as fruit juice is high in carbohydrates
- Increase your vegetable intake by substituting crisp, non-starchy vegetables such as sweet peppers, celery, and carrots for chips and pretzels.
- Buy lean cuts of beef such as sirloin instead of marbled cuts like rib eye, and try ground turkey instead of ground beef when making tacos, chili, or burgers.
- Use low-fat or fat-free dairy products instead of full-fat varieties.
- Substitute Greek yogurt in place of sour cream for a rich, creamy taste with more protein and calcium.
- Enjoy frozen yogurt instead of ice cream to satisfy your sweet tooth.
- Limit fried foods and instead use healthy diabetes cooking methods such as baking, grilling, and broiling.
- Reduce sodium by rinsing canned vegetables with cold water before cooking.
- Boost the flavor of veggies, fish, and pasta with fresh lemon juice instead of butter and salt.
- Use non-stick cooking sprays or small amounts of healthy oils instead of butter when cooking.
- Pay attention to portion sizes — keep your measuring cups handy to be sure.
By taking these simple steps toward a diabetes-friendly diet, you can gain better control of what and how it impacts your blood sugar, while protecting your overall health.