A diabetic diet is a way of eating healthily and choosing the best foods to manage the symptoms of diabetes.
Healthy eating is also one of the most important factors in preventing the development of diabetes.
A healthful diabetic diet includes foods that are rich in nutrients, low in unhealthy fats and calories, and that manage carbohydrates.
It also involves carefully planning meal times and exercising portion control. This helps people with diabetes to manage their symptoms, avoid complications of diabetes, and enjoy a better quality of life.
Eating the right foods is one of the primary ways of regulating blood sugar, or glucose, levels.
Glucose is the main source of energy for the body, and it comes from carbohydrate in our foods.
When blood glucose levels rise, the hormone insulin is released from the pancreas into the bloodstream. This helps the body use glucose effectively.
People with type 1 diabetes don’t make enough insulin and those with type 2 are unable to use insulin properly.
If not carefully monitored and managed, this can allow glucose to build up in the blood. This increases the risk of:
- heart disease
- vision loss
- kidney failure
- amputation of the feet and toes
Healthy eating also helps with weight management and reduces the risk of heart disease. Both of these things are linked to diabetes.
It’s possible to include most foods in a diabetic diet, although some need to be eaten sparingly or in moderation. Some foods can be considered “diabetes superfoods.” This is because they are rich in important vitamins and minerals, along with fiber and have a minimal effect on blood sugar levels.
Foods to eat regularly
The American Diabetes Association lists their top 10 superfoods as:
- citrus fruit
- dark green, leafy vegetables
- fat-free dairy, such as yogurt
- fish, not fried or breaded
- nuts and seeds
- sweet potatoes
- whole grains
Other foods to enjoy regularly include:
- lean meat and poultry
- olives and olive oil
- tofu and tempeh
Foods to eat sparingly or not at all
Several foods should be limited on a diabetic diet, especially those high in sodium and fats. These increase the risk of heart disease. This is of
- fatty and processed meats
- high-fat dairy products
- processed snacks and foods
- deep-fried foods
- baked goods
- high-sodium and salty foods
- refined grains, such as in white bread
In addition, it’s important to moderate the intake of carbohydrates, even from healthy food sources. This is because carbohydrates can cause blood sugar levels to rise if eaten in large quantities.
Food isn’t the only concern when it comes to planning a healthful diabetic diet. Drinks also play a role in affecting blood glucose levels.
The best non-alcoholic drinks to enjoy are:
- still or sparkling water
- black tea
- herbal teas
- water infused with fruits and herbs
Other drink options that can be enjoyed in moderation include:
- fruit juice
If drinking fruit juice this should be in quantities of 4 ounces or less and the carbohydrate amount this equates to should be kept in mind.
It is best to avoid regular sodas, energy drinks, and other sweetened beverages. Diet sodas should also be avoided as they have been shown to increase sugar cravings, and can still cause an insulin response.
It’s always a good idea to check blood sugar levels to see how your body responds to different foods and drinks.
Most people with diabetes can enjoy alcohol in moderation. That means a maximum of 1 drink per day for women, or 2 for men.
It is not advisable to drink on an empty stomach, or when blood glucose is low. It is a good idea to try to only drink alcohol with a meal, and take some alcohol-free days every week.
It may be helpful to see a registered dietitian for help planning meals, as there are a different ways to do so. The most popular methods are:
This method helps with portion control, and works best for lunch and dinner. It involves using a 9-inch plate as follows:
- approximately 50 percent of the plate has non-starchy vegetables
- 25 percent has a protein food
- 25 percent has whole grains and starchy vegetables
- include a serving of fruit or dairy
Non-starchy vegetables include:
- leafy greens
Starchy vegetables include:
- sweet potatoes
- winter squash
Protein sources are eggs, fish, meat, tofu, and beans.
This involves tracking daily carbohydrate intake to manage blood glucose levels. It can be useful for those who take insulin, as it may inform how much insulin is needed.
The amount of carbohydrates required varies for each person, depending on their activity levels and medication use.
Healthful sources of carbohydrates are:
- whole grains
- legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
- low-fat milk
Limit or avoid carbohydrates from refined grains and sugary foods.
Exchange lists system
The exchange lists system groups foods together in different categories based on similar amounts of carbohydrate, protein, fat, and calories.
All choices on each list are equal and so can be exchanged for any other food on the same list.
Glycemic index (GI)
Under this system, foods are ranked according to their effect on blood sugar. People who follow this method should generally choose their foods based on those with the lowest GI score, and avoid those with the highest.
Well-timed meals and portion control are both important parts of any healthy eating plan for diabetes.
Having three meals a day and two snacks, at regular intervals, helps the body regulate its use of insulin. This is especially important for those taking diabetes medications.
Research suggests people taking fixed daily insulin doses experience better blood sugar control if they time and monitor their carbohydrate intake.
The following sample meal plan is suitable for those on a 1,400-1,500 calorie diet. It is based on 3 meals and 2 snacks daily.
People can change quantities or eat additional snacks if they need to increase calorie intake. This should be based on specific needs and goals.
As well as the food from the sample menus, people trying this plan may have unlimited quantities of water or unsweetened herbal teas.