Diabetes diet: Create your healthy-eating plan
Medically reviewed on Mar 25, 2017
A diabetes diet simply means eating the healthiest foods in moderate amounts and sticking to regular mealtimes.
A diabetes diet is a healthy-eating plan that's naturally rich in nutrients and low in fat and calories. Key elements are fruits, vegetables and whole grains. In fact, a diabetes diet is the best eating plan for most everyone.
If you have diabetes or prediabetes, your doctor will likely recommend that you see a dietitian to help you develop a healthy eating plan. The plan helps you control your blood sugar (glucose), manage your weight and control risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure and high blood fats.
When you eat excess calories and fat, your body responds by creating an undesirable rise in blood glucose. If blood glucose isn't kept in check, it can lead to serious problems, such as a dangerously high blood glucose level (hyperglycemia) and long-term complications, such as nerve, kidney and heart damage.
You can help keep your blood glucose level in a safe range by making healthy food choices and tracking your eating habits.
For most people with type 2 diabetes, weight loss also can make it easier to control blood glucose and offers a host of other health benefits. If you need to lose weight, a diabetes diet provides a well-organized, nutritious way to reach your goal safely.
A diabetes diet is based on eating three meals a day at regular times. This helps your body better use the insulin it produces or gets through a medication.
A registered dietitian can help you put together a diet based on your health goals, tastes and lifestyle. He or she can also talk with you about how to improve your eating habits, for example, by choosing portion sizes that suit the needs for your size and level of activity.
Make your calories count with these nutritious foods:
- Healthy carbohydrates. During digestion, sugars (simple carbohydrates) and starches (complex carbohydrates) break down into blood glucose. Focus on the healthiest carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans, peas and lentils) and low-fat dairy products.
- Fiber-rich foods. Dietary fiber includes all parts of plant foods that your body can't digest or absorb. Fiber moderates how your body digests and helps control blood sugar levels. Foods high in fiber include vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes (beans, peas and lentils), whole-wheat flour and wheat bran.
Heart-healthy fish. Eat heart-healthy fish at least twice a week. Fish can be a good alternative to high-fat meats. For example, cod, tuna and halibut have less total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than do meat and poultry. Fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines and bluefish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which promote heart health by lowering blood fats called triglycerides.
Avoid fried fish and fish with high levels of mercury, such as tilefish, swordfish and king mackerel.
- "Good" fats. Foods containing monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can help lower your cholesterol levels. These include avocados, almonds, pecans, walnuts, olives, and canola, olive and peanut oils. But don't overdo it, as all fats are high in calories.
Foods to avoid
Diabetes increases your risk of heart disease and stroke by accelerating the development of clogged and hardened arteries. Foods containing the following can work against your goal of a heart-healthy diet.
- Saturated fats. High-fat dairy products and animal proteins such as beef, hot dogs, sausage and bacon contain saturated fats.
- Trans fats. These types of fats are found in processed snacks, baked goods, shortening and stick margarines. Avoid these items.
- Cholesterol. Sources of cholesterol include high-fat dairy products and high-fat animal proteins, egg yolks, liver, and other organ meats. Aim for no more than 200 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol a day.
- Sodium. Aim for less than 2,300 mg of sodium a day. However, if you also have hypertension, you should aim for less than 1,500 mg of sodium a day.
Putting it all together: Creating a plan
A few different approaches to creating a diabetes diet are available to help you keep your blood glucose level within a normal range. With a dietitian's help, you may find one or a combination of the following methods works for you:
- The plate method. The American Diabetes Association offers a simple seven-step method of meal planning. In essence, it focuses on eating more vegetables. When preparing your plate, fill one-half of it with nonstarchy vegetables, such as spinach, carrots and tomatoes. Fill one-quarter with a protein, such as tuna or lean pork. Fill the last quarter with a whole-grain item or starchy food. Add a serving of fruit or dairy and a drink of water or unsweetened tea or coffee.
Counting carbohydrates. Because carbohydrates break down into glucose, they have the greatest impact on your blood glucose level. To help control your blood sugar, eat about the same amount of carbohydrates each day, at regular intervals, especially if you take diabetes medications or insulin.
A dietitian can teach you how to measure food portions and become an educated reader of food labels, paying special attention to serving size and carbohydrate content. If you're taking insulin, he or she can teach you how to count the amount of carbohydrates in each meal or snack and adjust your insulin dose accordingly.
The exchange lists system. A dietitian may recommend using food exchange lists to help you plan meals and snacks. The lists are organized by categories, such as carbohydrates, protein sources and fats.
One serving in a category is called a "choice." A food choice has about the same amount of carbohydrates, protein, fat and calories — and the same effect on your blood glucose — as a serving of every other food in that same category. So, for example, you could choose to eat half of a large ear of corn or 1/3 cup of cooked pasta for one starch choice.
- Glycemic index. Some people who have diabetes use the glycemic index to select foods, especially carbohydrates. This method ranks carbohydrate-containing foods based on their effect on blood glucose levels. Talk with your dietitian about whether this method might work for you.
A sample menu
When planning meals, take into account your size and activity level. The following menu is tailored for someone who needs 1,200 to 1,600 calories a day.
- Breakfast. Whole-wheat bread (1 medium slice) with 2 teaspoons jelly, 1/2 cup shredded wheat cereal with a cup of 1 percent low-fat milk, a piece of fruit, coffee
- Lunch. Cheese and veggie pita, medium apple with 2 tablespoons almond butter, water
- Dinner. Salmon, 1 1/2 teaspoons vegetable oil, small baked potato, 1/2 cup carrots, side salad (1 1/2 cups spinach, 1/2 of a tomato, 1/4 cup chopped bell pepper, 2 teaspoons olive oil, 1 1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar), unsweetened iced tea
- Snack. 2 1/2 cups popcorn or an orange with 1/2 cup 1 percent low-fat cottage cheese
Embracing your healthy-eating plan is the best way to keep your blood glucose level under control and prevent diabetes complications. And if you need to lose weight, you can tailor it to your specific goals.
Aside from managing your diabetes, a diabetes diet offers other benefits, too. Because a diabetes diet recommends generous amounts of fruits, vegetables and fiber, following it is likely to reduce your risk of cardiovascular diseases and certain types of cancer. And consuming low-fat dairy products can reduce your risk of low bone mass in the future.
If you have diabetes, it's important that you partner with your doctor and dietitian to create an eating plan that works for you. Use healthy foods, portion control and scheduling to manage your blood glucose level. If you stray from your prescribed diet, you run the risk of fluctuating blood sugar levels and more-serious complications.