The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) report that 29 million Americans currently have diabetes, but a quarter of them do not know it. Another 86 million adults have prediabetes, with 90 percent of them being unaware.
Diabetes is a serious disease that can, if uncontrolled, lead to loss of eyesight, cardiovascular problems, kidney damage, and even amputation of lower limbs. The good news is, it can be managed and these serious health problems can be avoided.
Using the simple "diabetic plate" rule can help people with diabetes plan meals.
The even better news is that diabetes can be managed through a combination of exercise, health care, and diet. Despite popular belief, a diet can be varied, tasty, and fulfilling.
The "diabetic plate"
Maintaining a consistent, well-balanced diet can help people with diabetes keep their blood sugar levels under control.
Portion control is also important, which is where the "diabetic plate" comes in.
Endorsed by several organizations, including the American Diabetes Association, the "diabetic plate" can be very helpful when planning dinners.
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 is now divided into three.
- Fill the biggest section with non-starchy vegetables, such as spinach, green beans, salsa, mushrooms, broccoli, or others.
- Use proteins to fill one of the smaller sections. Good options are skinless chicken, salmon, shrimp, tempeh or tofu, eggs, and much more. Legumes can fit in either the protein or the starch section because they provide both protein and carbohydrate.
- Grains, legumes and starchy vegetables can go in the remaining quarter. These could be corn, lima beans, sweet potatoes, quinoa, whole grain breads, and more.
- Complete the meal with a serving of fruit, or dairy.
Carbohydrate counting is also an essential part of healthful eating for people with diabetes. The amount of carbohydrates an individual can eat in a day will vary based on health, activity level, and treatment plans.
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.
The glycemic index (GI) can help people with diabetes distinguish between carbs that will help or hurt their blood sugar, and can provide essential support when planning healthful dinners.
In essence, the higher the GI rating of a food, the more rapidly it will raise blood sugar. However, this does not mean that people with diabetes should avoid all high GI foods, since some are full of nutritional value. The important thing is to balance these foods with low GI foods, and monitor portion size.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to eating healthful dinners is portion control. This is particularly true when meals are eaten on the go.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, portion sizes in American restaurants have increased by 200-300 percent in the past 20 years, and may be a factor in the country's rising obesity rates.
These giant servings can spell trouble for people with diabetes. They should ask servers about the size of the portions. They could also ask for some of the food to be boxed up, or they could share it with friends.
Alcohol must be closely monitored by people with diabetes.
Drinking alcohol is an important part of a dining experience for many people. But people with diabetes need to be very cautious about drinking alcohol because it can seriously affect blood sugar levels.
However, one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men may be acceptable if consumed with food.
People should check their blood sugars, and check with their doctor and dietitian to find out whether any amount of alcohol is acceptable within their treatment plan.
Following a healthful diet does not have to mean that people with 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 foods that are suitable for a person with diabetes:
- Steak: Stick to 3 ounce (oz) portions and do not cook it in butter. Choose center-cuts for less marbling and fat. The Harvard School of Public Health and many other agencies recommend that people eat red meat no more than once per week.
- Baked potato, or sweet potato: Skip the high-fat add-ons, such as bacon. Substitute sour cream for Greek yogurt for protein and healthy bacteria.
- Garden salad: Add vinaigrette for taste.
- Salmon: Baked or grilled wild salmon is a good option.
- Steamed asparagus: Steaming is a healthful way to prepare vegetables.
- Turkey: Roasted turkey or chicken is a good choice.
- Corn on the cob: Avoid butter or other high-fat toppings.
- Burgers: Simply wrap the patty in lettuce, or only eat half the bun to keep the carbohydrates in check.
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.
- Remember that eggs can be for dinner, too.
- Prepare a batch of slow-cooker chili that you can store and eat over several days.
- Combine frozen vegetables with pasta, toss into a stir-fry, or add to a frozen whole-wheat pizza crust.
- Make tacos with rotisserie chicken, vegetables, salsa, and non-fat Greek yogurt.
People with diabetes do not have to limit themselves to boring, bland foods. The following meal ideas illustrate a wide range of ideas for healthful dinners with less than 3 servings or 45 grams (g) of carbohydrates:
- 1 cup 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 Asian vegetable mix.
- Caribbean red snapper, a small baked sweet potato, and vegetables.
- North African Shakshuka.
- 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.
Cooking for others
The first step in planning healthful dinners for people with diabetes is balancing the levels of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, while providing ample fiber.
By using the "diabetic plate" method to plan the basic framework of a meal, it is much easier to produce healthful and flavorful options that will appeal to everyone. As well as the examples listed above, the American Diabetes Association offers an extensive listing of recipe ideas.
People with diabetes have lots to think about when eating out:
- How the food is prepared: People with diabetes should find out how the meat or fish is cooked. Order grilled, roasted, or baked meats, poultry, and fish, or go for a vegetarian option.
- What is in a sauce or soup: Choose broths over cream-based soups. Ask for sauces and salad dressing to be served on the side.
- Ratios of different ingredients: It is important to identify how the meal is balanced between vegetables and carbohydrates. Request steamed vegetables, when possible.
- Cuts of meat used: Lean cuts of meat are best for people with diabetes.
- Making substitutions: Instead of choosing french fries or potatoes, opt for non-starchy beans, cooked vegetables, or a salad.
- What types of carbohydrates to choose: 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.
Foods to avoid
There are some foods and drinks that a person with diabetes should avoid or strictly limit. These include:
- fried foods
- sweetened beverages, such as blended coffee drinks, soda, sweet tea, or juice
- white rice and white breads
- "loaded" anything, as in baked potatoes or nachos
- dishes with rich sauces
- alcoholic beverages
Other dietary tips
Other tips that may help a person with diabetes maintain a healthful diet include:
- eating a variety of fruits and vegetables every day
- increasing the amount of fiber consumed to 25-38 g per day
- reducing sugar and salt intake found in sweetened beverages, canned foods, and processed meats
- replacing saturated fats, such as those in red meat and butter, with mono- and polyunsaturated fats, such as those in fish and olive oil
- using alcohol sparingly, if at all
- aim for a low salt diet of less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily
Learn your ABC
One of the most important general tips for managing diabetes comes from the CDC, as well as other health experts, who advise people with diabetes to "know their ABCs." This acronym helps individuals monitor measurements that are essential for keeping their diabetes in check: These include:
- A1C test: This test measures a 3-month average of blood glucose scores, which should be less than 7.
- Blood pressure: The targeted measurement is below 130/80.
- Cholesterol: The targeted levels for LDL (bad cholesterol) should be below 100 and HDL (good cholesterol) should be above 40 for men and 50 for women.
Things to remember
When it comes to planning dinners, people with diabetes should keep the following tips in mind:
- A measured plate: Rough amounts for the "diabetic plate" method would include 2 cups of vegetables, 3-4 oz of protein, and a half to 1 cup of complex carbohydrates.
- Be willing to trade: Healthful dinners do not have to mean no dessert. Simply hold back on carbohydrate-rich foods, such as bread or pasta during the main part of the meal and spend the "saved" carbohydrates on a small serving of dessert. Make sure to check your blood sugar 2 hours after you eat, so you know how much the dessert raised it.
- Add extra vegetables: Use a spiralizer to make zucchini "noodles," try cauliflower "rice," or use squash instead of pasta.
- Plan a walk: Exercising after meals can reduce blood sugar because muscles remove glucose from the blood stream and don't need insulin. This is especially helpful when you do consume the occasional sweet.
- Check your blood sugar: The common times recommended to check blood sugar levels are first thing in the morning after fasting, and two hours after meals. This will help a person to see how well they are managing their blood sugars, and how the food they are eating is affecting them. This can help people make better choices in the future.