Alongside exercise, a healthy diet is an important element of the lifestyle management of diabetes, as well as being preventive against the onset of type 2 diabetes.
Maintaining a good diet is also a vital part of keeping tight control of blood sugar levels, itself important for minimizing the risk of diabetes complications.1
The good news for people living with diabetes is that the condition does not preclude any particular type of food or require an unusual diet - the goal is much the same as it would be for anyone wishing to eat a healthy, balanced diet.2
What diet is best for diabetes?
Choose skim milk and low-fat dairy products to help reduce fat intake.
Having diabetes does not involve any particularly difficult dietary demands, and while sugary foods obviously affect blood glucose levels, the diet does not have to be completely sugar-free.2
Dietary concerns vary slightly for people with different types of diabetes. For people with type 1 diabetes, diet is about managing fluctuations in blood glucose levels while for people with type 2 diabetes, it is about losing weight and restricting calorie intake.3
For people with type 1 diabetes, the timing of meals is particularly important in terms of glycemic control and in relation to the effects of insulin injection.3
In general, however, a healthy, balanced diet is all that is needed, and the benefits are not confined to good diabetes management - they also mean good heart health.2,4 A healthy diet typically includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes and non-tropical vegetable oils.4
The following are some general dietary tips for a healthy lifestyle:2-5
- Eat regularly - avoid the effects on glucose levels of skipping meals or having delayed meals because of work or long journeys (take healthy snacks with you)
- Eat vegetables and fruits and eat them in place of high-calorie foods - a variety of fresh, frozen and canned is good, but avoid high-calorie sauces and food containing added salt or sugar
- Whole grains high in fiber are recommended as a healthy source of carbohydrate
- Eat pulses, a low-fat starchy source of protein and fiber, such as beans, lentils, chickpeas and garden peas
- Reduce intake of saturated and trans fats by having poultry and fish without the skin and cooked, for example, under the grill, rather than fried
- Take a similar approach to cooking red meat while reducing intake and looking for the leanest cuts
- Eat fish twice a week or more, but avoid batters and frying - go for oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardine, trout and herring, which are rich sources of omega-3
- Avoid partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and limit saturated fat and trans fat - replace them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats
- Dairy awareness helps reduce fat intake - select skim (fat-free) milk and low-fat (1%) dairy products, reduce consumption of cheese and butter and swap out creamy sauces for tomato-based ones
- Cut back on sugar by avoiding added sugars in drinks and foods - have tea and coffee without sugar, avoid fruit that is canned in syrup and pay attention to food labels
- Cut back on salt - prepare foods at home with little or no salt and avoid foods with high sodium such as processed foods
- Cut back on portion sizes - be wary of amounts consumed when eating out
- Be wary of "diabetic" foods - they are of no particular benefit and can be expensive
- Drink alcohol only in moderation - as a guide, no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two for men.
Try drinking water or tea and coffee instead of sugary drinks and avoid adding sugar to hot drinks.
Meal planning - American Diabetes Association
The video below from the American Diabetes Association gives help on meal planning. The organization also has a list of other useful videos on diet.
Professional help with lifestyle changes for diabetes
In the US, the Community Preventive Services Task Force run diabetes prevention programs that help with improving diet for people at risk of, or newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. The programs may include:6
- Goals toward weight loss
- Individual and group education sessions on diet and exercise
- Meetings with diet and exercise counselors
- Individually designed diet and exercise plans.
Participants in the national diabetes prevention program have access to a lifestyle coach to learn more about healthy eating and exercise.6
Obesity, diabetes and diet
Obesity is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, and obesity in people who already have diabetes results in poor control of blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.6
Another concern with being overweight or having obesity is that it can worsen many of the complications of diabetes.6
Weight loss can be achieved by following the recommendations above and restricting the intake of calories.