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Diabetes and Your Diet

How Your Diet Affects Your Diabetes

Haley Brennan

A healthy diet and the right food choices can improve your diabetes care by helping control your blood sugar levels. It can also provide other health benefits like controlling heart disease risk factors that are especially common in people with diabetes.

While Type 1 diabetes cannot be prevented or cured through your diet, the other types of diabetes listed above may benefit from weight loss, a specific diet or a nutrition plan. It’s important to talk to your doctor, dietician or healthcare professional before making adjustments to your diet and diabetes management.

We’ve rounded up some common questions regarding diabetes and your diet. Let’s get started!

What does diet have to do with diabetes?

When you have diabetes, your body either cannot produce insulin or can’t properly use it (depending on which type you have). Lack of insulin causes high blood sugar. 

In some cases, your diet can help control your blood sugar. Generally, foods lower in carbohydrates will cause less of a blood sugar spike.

What can I eat with diabetes?

No matter what type of diabetes you have, you can generally eat any type of food—in moderation! There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all “diabetes diet.” You should make sure to hit all of the food groups each day. 

This includes:

Fruit

While fruit does contain a lot of sugar, it’s natural sugar vs. added sugar, so you don’t need to completely cut fruit out of your diet! It’s important to still consume fruit while being mindful of portions. Berries, apples and bananas are all good options for diabetics. 

Vegetables

Vegetables are an important part of every individual’s diet, diabetic or not. For diabetics, gravitating towards non-starchy veggies like broccoli, peppers, carrots and greens is key. If you love potatoes, try choosing sweet potatoes instead of regular potatoes. Small swaps add up!

Grains

Grains do not need to be cut out of your diet if you have diabetes. However, it’s important to choose whole grains whenever possible. Think: wheat bread vs. white bread and brown rice vs. white rice. Oats and quinoa are also great options! 

Protein

Protein is a low carb, filling nutrient that’s great for diabetics. Options include lean meat, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, beans and more.

Dairy

Milk, yogurt and cheese are all healthy dairy products to include in your diet and they are available in both low and nonfat options.

What foods should I avoid?

As mentioned above, there aren’t necessarily any foods that must be cut out of your diet entirely as a diabetic. However, there are foods that you should try to limit, such as:

— High sodium foods

— Sugary beverages (juice, soda and sports drinks)

— Sweets like candy, ice cream and baked goods

— Foods high in saturated and trans fats

— Alcohol 

Should I be carb counting?

Contrary to popular belief, diabetes is focused more on carbohydrates than sugar intake. This is because carbohydrates turn into sugar in the body. 

Some diabetics eat a certain amount of carbohydrates per meal, while others may focus on a total amount per day—this is something your doctor or nutritionist will help you determine. Those using insulin will need to count all carbs consumed and dose accordingly about fifteen minutes before eating.

Carb counting means paying close attention to food labels, which may be new to you. You’ll want to check the grams of carbohydrates listed on the packaging—but make sure to also note the serving size! It’s easy to assume that the whole package is a serving, but that is often not the case.  

One simple way to lower your carbohydrate intake is to avoid added sugars. You can do this without sacrificing your sweet tooth by swapping regular sugar for sugar-free sweeteners, like Stevia.

Depending on the type of diabetes you have and what medication you’re on (if any), carb counting may not be deemed necessary for you.

If you do not rely on insulin, the American Diabetes Association recommends the following “plate method” which is a great option for many and focuses more on portion sizes.

— Fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables such as spinach, carrots and tomatoes.

— Fill a quarter of your plate with a protein, such as tuna, lean pork or chicken.

— Fill the last quarter with a whole grain item, such as brown rice or a slice of whole wheat bread, or a starchy vegetable, such as green peas.

— Include healthy fats such as nuts, peanut butter, olive oil or avocados in small amounts.

— Add a serving of fruit or dairy and a drink of water or unsweetened tea or coffee.

Does it matter when I eat?

Keeping to a schedule with your meals and snacks can be very beneficial to diabetics. If you are taking insulin, it is extremely important to create structure and an eating schedule to maintain consistent blood glucose levels and avoid low blood sugar.

If insulin isn’t in the mix, eating on a schedule isn’t as pertinent but can still be helpful to maintain stable blood sugars and/or to remember any medications that need to be taken.

A general rule of thumb to start with is to eat a meal every 4-5 hours. Eating your respective meals at the same time each day is especially beneficial.

Sample eating schedule:

8 AM: Breakfast

12 PM: Lunch

3:00 PM: Small snack

6:00 PM: Dinner

Do I need to meal plan?

While not necessary for everyone, meal planning can be a great way to stay on track with healthy eating. 

The general idea behind meal planning is that you plan out your meals in advance. Meal planning will help you avoid impulse purchases or snack binges.

Other benefits of meal planning include:

— Saving money

— Saving time

— Weight control

— Avoiding wasted food

— Learning portion control

— More likely to choose healthy foods

We’ve created a couple days worth of sample eating plans to give you some inspiration.

Sample meal plans

Day 1

Breakfast:

Steel cut oats with a handful of berries

Coffee with almond milk or light creamer and sugar-free sweetener

Lunch:

Canned tuna with lettuce, tomato and cucumber on a rice cake

Snack:

Apple with natural peanut butter

Dinner:

Chicken, vegetable and brown rice stir fry with low-sodium soy sauce

Day 2

Breakfast:

Wheat toast with sugar-free jam

Half a grapefruit

Coffee with almond milk or light creamer and sugar-free sweetener

Lunch:

Chicken “tacos” in lettuce wrap

Orange slices

Snack:

Hummus with carrots

Dinner:

Grilled salmon

Side salad with veggies

Quinoa

Day 3

Breakfast:

Scrambled eggs with spinach and seasoning of choice

Half an avocado

Coffee with almond milk or light creamer and sugar-free sweetener

Lunch:

Turkey sandwich on wheat bread with light mayo, lettuce and tomato

Handful of cubed watermelon

Snack:

Light or non-fat yogurt

Dinner:

Steak

Sweet potato

Green beans

Exercise and diabetes

Exercise is important for everyone, diabetics included. Lowering your body weight by just 5-10% can reverse prediabetes, and research has shown that lowering body weight by 10% can reverse Type 2 diabetes.

However, there are many benefits to consistent exercise even beyond weight loss.

Physical activity can help:

— Lower blood sugar

— Lower blood pressure

— Improve mood

— Improve sleep

If you are on insulin or a blood-glucose-lowering medication like Metformin, you will need to be conscious of low blood sugar while exercising and for several hours afterward. It’s important to keep a form of fast-acting glucose—like a juice box, glucose tablets or small snack—on you during physical activity. 

If you need help navigating your life with diabetes, you can reach out and talk to one of our care specialists at 415-475-8444, chat with us in real time, or send us a message here! We’re always here to help.

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