A person can manage diabetes through a combination of exercise, healthcare, and careful dietary planning. Dinnertime can be varied, flavorsome, and fulfilling for people who have diabetes.
The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) report that in the United States, over 30 million people currently have diabetes and another 84 million adults have prediabetes, with 90 percent of them being unaware.
In this article, we look at some exciting, nutritious dinnertime options for people with diabetes. We also explain important considerations when eating at a restaurant or cooking for others and discuss how to manage alcohol intake.
Following a healthful diet does not have to mean that people with any type of diabetes have to give up their favorite foods.
The key is eating appropriate amounts and making sure there is a balance between proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, with an emphasis on fiber.
The following are classic American meals suitable for a person with diabetes. People can apply these to a range of individualized meal plans, as long as they carefully control the portions.
- Steak: Stick to 3-ounce (oz) portions. People should avoid or limit the amount of butter when cooking steak. Choose center cuts for less marbling and fat. While the occasional, 3-oz steak will not make too much difference within a diabetes diet, those with the condition should limit red meat intake. Apply the same caution when choosing cuts of lamb, veal, or pork.
- Regular or sweet potato: Skip high-fat add-ons and toppings, such as bacon, sour cream, and butter. Substitute sour cream for Greek yogurt, which can provide protein and healthful bacteria.
- Garden salad: Add vinaigrette for taste instead of using pre-packaged salad dressings. Packaged dressings can have a high salt content.
- Salmon: This fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which may reduce the risk of heart disease and inflammation. Baking or grilling wild salmon is a good way to avoid adding extra fat to the meal. Other oily fish options for diabetes include albacore tuna, mackerel, sardines, and trout.
- Steamed asparagus: Steaming is a healthful way to prepare vegetables. Be sure to choose low-glycemic-index (GI) vegetables, such as broccoli, tomatoes, green beans, and eggplant. These vegetables increase blood glucose at a slower, more manageable rate, decreasing the risk of a blood sugar spike.
- White meat: Roasted turkey or chicken is a good choice. Be sure to remove the skin, which contains high levels of saturated fat.
- Burgers: Wrap the patty in lettuce instead of using rolls, or eat only half of the bun to limit carbohydrate intake.
Exercising after any meal can reduce blood sugar. Physical activity allows the muscles to remove glucose from the bloodstream without insulin. This is especially helpful after consuming the occasional sweet treat or heavy meal.
Tips for quick, healthful meals
The following tips may help people with diabetes create healthful and interesting dinners:
- Keep a supply of frozen vegetables, low-sodium canned tomatoes, and low-sodium canned beans.
- Consider serving salad as an entrée.
- Eggs can be great for dinner, too. An omelet serves as an excellent source of protein.
- Prepare a batch of slow-cooker chili for storage and consumption over several days. Limit serving size to about one cup of chili and include a large salad or a side of veggies with this filling entrée.
- Combine frozen vegetables with a whole-grain or chickpea pasta for higher fiber, toss them into a stir-fry, or add them to a frozen, whole-wheat pizza crust.
- Enjoy corn tacos with rotisserie chicken, vegetables, salsa, and non-fat Greek yogurt.
A person with diabetes may have to take a dose of rapid- or short-acting insulin after a meal, even if they have a pump that provides slower-acting insulin to regulate blood sugar outside of mealtimes.
It is important to discuss an appropriate insulin dose with a healthcare provider who specializes in diabetes management.
Maintaining a consistent, well-balanced diet can help people with diabetes keep their blood sugar levels under control.
Portion control is also important. The “plate method” is a tool to help people control portion size more easily.
Several organizations, including the American Diabetes Association, endorse this method. It can be very useful for planning dinners and developing meal plans.
Follow these simple steps:
- Draw an imaginary line down the center of your plate.
- Divide one half into two further sections, so that your plate now consists of three parts.
- Fill the biggest section, half the plate, with non-starchy vegetables, such as spinach, green beans, salsa, mushrooms, broccoli, or others.
- Use proteins to fill one of the smaller sections, or a quarter of the plate. Healthful options include skinless chicken, salmon, shrimp, tempeh or tofu, eggs, and lean turkey. Legumes can fit in either the protein or the starch section as they provide both nutrients.
- Grains, legumes and starchy vegetables can fill the remaining quarter. These could include corn, beans, sweet potatoes, quinoa, and whole grain bread.
- Complete the meal with a serving of fruit or dairy.
This method allows people with diabetes to more easily visualize their nutrient intake.
Diabetes-friendly dinners do not have to exclude a dessert or treat. Holding back on carbohydrate-rich foods during the main part of the meal, such as bread or pasta, means that a person with diabetes can spend the “saved” carbohydrates on a small serving of dessert.
Remember to take a blood sugar reading 2 hours after a meal.
People with diabetes do not have to limit themselves to bland foods.
The following meal ideas offer a wide range of healthful meal options, including:
- one cup of Spanish-style brown rice mixed with pinto beans, chicken, and salsa
- cod fillets with puttanesca sauce, green beans, and quinoa
- tempeh or tofu stir-fry with a mix of Asian vegetables
- caribbean red snapper, a small baked sweet potato, and vegetables
- shakshuka, a spicy, North African egg dish
- Dijon chicken, baked sweet potato fries, and steamed broccoli
- skillet whole-wheat or corn tortilla pizza
- bean and wild rice burgers with spinach and avocado salad
- asian salmon fillets, shredded cabbage and peanut ginger sauce, zucchini, and chickpea or bean noodles
- shrimp tacos, using 100 percent corn tacos, pineapple salsa, jicama (yam bean), and carrot and bell pepper slaw
- add extra vegetables to a meal by using a spiralizer to make zucchini “noodles,” trying cauliflower “rice,” or using squash instead of pasta.
A doctor will prescribe an individualized meal plan, so people with diabetes should follow this closely.
When planning to switch out certain foods or prepare the meals above, research the nutritional content to make sure the alternative is safe for your meal plan.
Although people with diabetes can eat most foods in moderation, they need to keep their blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels within the target range, as they have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
The first step in planning healthful dinners for family members or friends with diabetes is to balance the levels of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, while providing enough fiber.
By using the “plate method” to plan the basic framework of a meal, it is much easier to produce healthful and flavorful options that will be safe and nutritious for everyone.
As well as the examples above, the American Diabetes Association offers an extensive list of recipe ideas.
If an individual has a specific time range during which they need to eat, such as those following an insulin regimen for type 1 or type 2 diabetes, be sure to serve up any meals within this period.
Carbohydrate counting and GI
While it is important to limit and be aware of carbohydrate intake, carbohydrate counting is now a less vital part of diet management.
No single amount of carbohydrates works for everyone, so the doctor will individualize a target carb range as part of an individualized meal plan.
The type of carbohydrate is more important. The Glycemic Index (GI) is a method that scientists developed to measure the speed at which a particular carbohydrate releases glucose into the bloodstream.
Foods with a high GI number, such as rice and watermelon, increase blood glucose more rapidly than foods with a lower ranking. Low-GI foods, such as apples, release glucose more slowly, making blood glucose easier to bring down.
Knowing the carbohydrate content of foods can help individuals eat appropriate amounts at each meal or snack and still enjoy a varied and satisfying diet.
People who have diabetes should closely monitor portion size and balance high-GI foods with a protein, healthy fat, or fibrous, lower-GI food choice.
The biggest challenge within a diabetes diet might be strict portion control. This is particularly true when a person eats their meal in a hurry.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, portion sizes in American restaurants have increased by 200–300 percent in the last 20 years and might be a factor in the country’s rising obesity rates.
These giant servings can cause huge blood sugar spikes for people with diabetes. They should ask servers about portion size, take some of the food to-go, or share the serving with other people at the table.
The “plate method” is an effective tool for portion control when preparing meals at home.
Many people enjoy having a glass of wine or lager with their meal. However, people with diabetes need to be cautious about drinking alcohol, because it can seriously affect blood sugar levels.
However, one drink per day alongside food might be safe for women with diabetes, and two may be safe for men as an accompaniment to food.
Health authorities consider one drink to be a 12-ounce (oz) serving of beer, a 5-oz serving of wine, or 1.5 oz of distilled spirits, such as whiskey or vodka.
Avoid drinking alcohol when blood sugar is low or without also eating food. It is best to avoid craft beers, which often contain a far higher number of calories and alcohol content than light beers and lagers.
Calorie-free mixers, such as club soda, can also help reduce the health impact of alcohol for people with diabetes.
If a person with diabetes is taking metformin to manage blood glucose, alcohol might also interact with the medication and increase the risk of severe health problems, such as lactic acidosis, a life-threatening complication.
People should check their blood sugar levels and meet with their doctor and dietitian to find out whether any amount of alcohol is acceptable within their treatment plan.
People with diabetes have much to consider when eating at a restaurant.
- Preparation: People with diabetes should find out how the chef has cooked any meat or fish. Order grilled, roasted, or baked meats, or choose a vegetarian option.
- The contents of a sauce or soup: Choose broths over cream-based soups. Ask waiters to serve sauce and salad dressing on the side.
- Ratios of different ingredients: It is important to identify the balance of vegetables and carbohydrates in the meal. Request steamed vegetables when possible.
- Cuts of meat: Lean cuts of meat are best for people with diabetes. Be sure to trim any fat from the meat.
- Making substitutions: Instead of choosing french fries or potatoes, go for non-starchy beans, cooked vegetables, or a salad.
- The types of carbohydrates: Always select whole-grain options, such as whole wheat bread and pasta, if possible. Legumes and fruits are higher in fiber and are great carbohydrate choices for people with diabetes.
Portion size is also important. Take home half the meal to go, or share it with the table.
There are some foods and drinks that a person with diabetes should either avoid or strictly limit.
- fried foods
- sweetened beverages, such as blended coffee drinks, soda, sweet tea, or juice
- white rice and white breads
- “loaded” baked potatoes or nachos with excessive toppings
- dishes with rich, creamy sauces
- alcoholic beverages
- artificial sweeteners
When people with diabetes plan dinner, a wide range of menu options are available and safe.
The main focus should be on controlling portion size and eating the recommended amounts of fiber, protein, and healthful fats. This becomes especially important when eating in restaurants.
A person who has diabetes may drink alcohol, but it is best to do so in moderation and alongside food.
Try to avoid fried foods, sweets, and food with excessive toppings.
Are low-sugar foods always a good choice?
Low-sugar foods may not necessarily be a healthier option. Many diet drinks and foods containing zero sugar have artificial sweeteners, which research has shown to disrupt gut microbiota and lead to insulin resistance, obesity and heart disease.
Not only that, but artificial sweeteners are much sweeter and can cause possible cravings and overeating.
This can lead to weight gain, which is counterintuitive to the original thought that low-calorie foods can help people lose weight. Low-calorie foods sweetened with stevia, xylitol monk fruit may be a better option.
However, these are typically still highly processed sweeteners. Choosing the actual stevia plant, for example, would be a better choice as a sweetener.Natalie Olsen, RD, LD, ACSM EP-C Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.