Diabetes diet: Create your healthy-eating plan
A diabetes diet is a healthy-eating plan that helps control blood sugar. Use this guide to get started, from meal planning to counting carbohydrates.By Mayo Clinic Staff
A diabetes diet simply means eating the healthiest foods in moderate amounts and sticking to regular mealtimes. It's 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, this type of diet is the best eating plan for most everyone.
Why do you need to develop a healthy-eating plan?
If you have diabetes or prediabetes, your health care provider will likely recommend that you see a dietitian to help you develop a healthy-eating plan. The plan helps you control your blood sugar, also called blood glucose, manage your weight and control heart disease risk factors. These factors include high blood pressure and high blood fats.
When you eat extra calories and carbohydrates, your blood sugar levels rise. If blood sugar isn't controlled, it can lead to serious problems. These problems include a high blood sugar level, called hyperglycemia. If this high level lasts for a long time, it may lead to long-term complications, such as nerve, kidney and heart damage.
You can help keep your blood sugar level in a safe range. Make healthy food choices and track your eating habits.
For most people with type 2 diabetes, weight loss also can make it easier to control blood sugar. Weight loss offers a host of other health benefits. If you need to lose weight, a healthy-eating plan provides a well-organized, nutritious way to reach your goal safely.
What does a diet for people with diabetes involve?
A diet for people living with diabetes is based on eating healthy meals at regular times. Eating meals at regular times helps to better use insulin that the body makes or gets through medicine.
A registered dietitian can help you put together a diet based on your health goals, tastes and lifestyle. The dietitian also can talk with you about how to improve your eating habits. Options include choosing portion sizes that suit the needs for your size and activity level.
Make your calories count with nutritious foods. Choose healthy carbohydrates, fiber-rich foods, fish and "good" fats.
During digestion, sugars and starches break down into blood glucose. Sugars also are known as simple carbohydrates, and starches also are known as complex carbohydrates. Focus on healthy carbohydrates, such as:
- Whole grains.
- Legumes, such as beans and peas.
- Low-fat dairy products, such as milk and cheese.
Avoid less healthy carbohydrates, such as foods or drinks with added fats, sugars and sodium.
Dietary fiber includes all parts of plant foods that your body can't digest or absorb. Fiber moderates how your body digests food and helps control blood sugar levels. Foods high in fiber include:
- Legumes, such as beans and peas.
- Whole grains.
Eat heart-healthy fish at least twice a week. Fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These omega-3s may prevent heart disease.
Avoid fried fish and fish with high levels of mercury, such as cod.
Foods containing monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can help lower your cholesterol levels. These include:
- Canola, olive and peanut oils.
But don't overdo it, as all fats are high in calories.
Foods to avoid
Diabetes raises your risk of heart disease and stroke by raising the rate at which you develop clogged and hardened arteries. Foods containing the following can work against your goal of a heart-healthy diet.
- Saturated fats. Avoid high-fat dairy products and animal proteins such as butter, beef, hot dogs, sausage and bacon. Limit coconut and palm kernel oils.
- Trans fats. Avoid trans fats found in processed snacks, baked goods, shortening and stick margarines.
- Cholesterol. Cholesterol sources 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 no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day. Your health care provider may suggest you aim for a smaller amount if you have high blood pressure.
Putting it all together: Creating a plan
You may use a few different approaches to create a healthy diet to help you keep your blood sugar level within a typical range. With a dietitian's help, you may find that one or a combination of the following methods works for you:
The plate method
The American Diabetes Association offers a simple method of meal planning. It focuses on eating more vegetables. Follow these steps when preparing your plate:
- Fill half of your plate with nonstarchy vegetables, such as spinach, carrots and tomatoes.
- Fill a quarter of your plate with a lean protein, such as tuna, lean pork or chicken.
- Fill the last quarter with a carbohydrate, such as brown rice or a starchy vegetable, such as green peas.
- Include "good" fats such as nuts or avocados in small amounts.
- Add a serving of fruit or dairy and a drink of water or unsweetened tea or coffee.
Because carbohydrates break down into sugar, they have the greatest effect on your blood sugar level. To help control your blood sugar, you may need to learn to figure out the amount of carbohydrates you are eating with the help of a dietitian. You can then adjust the dose of insulin accordingly. It's important to keep track of the amount of carbohydrates in each meal or snack.
A dietitian can teach you how to measure food portions and become an educated reader of food labels. You also can learn how to pay special attention to serving size and carbohydrate content.
Choose your foods
A dietitian may recommend you choose specific foods to help plan meals and snacks. You can choose a number of foods from lists that include categories such as carbohydrates, proteins 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 sugar — as a serving of every other food in that same category. For example, the starch, fruits and milk list includes choices that are all between 12 and 15 grams of carbohydrates.
Some people who live with diabetes use the glycemic index to select foods, especially carbohydrates. This method ranks carbohydrate-containing foods based on their effect on blood sugar 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 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% low-fat milk, a piece of fruit and coffee.
- Lunch. Roast beef sandwich on wheat bread with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, medium apple and water.
- Dinner. Salmon, 1 1/2 teaspoons vegetable oil, small baked potato, 1 tsp margarine, 1/2 cup carrots, 1/2 cup green beans, medium dinner roll and unsweetened iced tea.
- Snack. For example, 2 1/2 cups popcorn with 1 1/2 teaspoons margarine.
What are the results of this kind of diet?
Embracing a healthy-eating plan is the best way to keep your blood sugar level under control and prevent diabetes complications. And if you need to lose weight, you can tailor the plan to your specific goals.
Aside from managing your diabetes, a healthy diet offers other benefits too. Because this diet recommends generous amounts of fruits, vegetables and fiber, following it is likely to lower your risk of cardiovascular diseases and certain types of cancer. And eating low-fat dairy products can reduce your risk of low bone mass in the future.
Are there any risks?
If you live with diabetes, it's important that you partner with your health care provider and dietitian to create an eating plan that works for you. Use healthy foods, portion control and a schedule to manage your blood sugar level. If you don't follow your prescribed diet, you run the risk of blood sugar levels that change often and more-serious complications.
April 13, 2023
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See more In-depth
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