If you want to take control of your health, a diabetes diet can be a great way to do it. And while the word “diet” might seem intimidating, registered dietitian Tegan Bissell says following one may be easier than you think. “A diabetes diet should include the foods you like and fit your lifestyle,” she says.
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Bissell teams up with diabetes educator and registered nurse Megan Asterino-McGeean, PA-C, to explain what you need to know to follow a meal plan if you have diabetes.
What is a diabetes diet?
Asterino-McGeean says that the best diet if you have diabetes isn’t a diet at all. Instead, think of a diabetes diet as a lifestyle.
“This diet plan helps those with diabetes live a healthier lifestyle that improves blood sugar management and reduces the risk of diabetes complications,” she says. “The best diet for those with diabetes should focus on meal planning and eating balanced, correctly portioned snacks and meals.”
Some factors that mean a diabetes diet may be right for you include:
- Blood sugar levels: You have high blood sugar levels or have been diagnosed with diabetes or prediabetes (or told you have “borderline diabetes”).
- Diagnosis of gestational diabetes: You’ve been diagnosed with a type of diabetes that occurs during pregnancy. People diagnosed with gestational diabetes are at an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes later in life — but you may be able to prevent it by following a diet plan for diabetes.
- Weight: You have been diagnosed with metabolic syndrome or obesity.
The best foods if you have diabetes— and why they’re beneficial
Bissell says the best foods to eat if you have diabetes are:
Proteins help you feel full and satisfied. Examples of lean proteins include:
- Low-fat dairy.
Try these diabetes-friendly recipes to get your fill of lean protein:
- Colorful Veggie Stew with Turkey Tenders.
- Crepes with Moroccan Vegetable Curry.
- Sweet and Savory Pork Chops with Grilled Peaches.
Non-starchy vegetables provide important vitamins, minerals and fiber. “You can consider them ‘freebie’ foods, as they contain minimal calories and carbohydrates,” Bissell says.
- Green beans.
- Salad greens.
Check out these seven vegetable recipes that are anything but boring, plus other delicious recipes to help you get more non-starchy vegetables into your daily routine:
Healthy fats help you feel full and are beneficial for heart health. They include:
- Natural peanut butter.
- Olive oil.
Try these recipes to get more healthy fats in your diet:
- Avocado Tapenade Bruschetta.
- Berry Chia Seed Jam.
- A Cool Twist on Avocado Toast.
- Strawberry-Almond-Coconut Smoothie.
Carbohydrates are necessary for energy, fiber and certain nutrients. Complex carbs tend to digest more slowly, which prevents erratic blood sugar levels. Complex carbohydrates include foods such as:
- Brown rice.
- Greek yogurt.
- Sweet potatoes.
- Whole-wheat bread.
These recipes are good if you have diabetes, and they can help keep your engines running all day:
- Pan-Roasted Smoky Chicken Over Rosemary-Garlic Cannellini Beans.
- Rosemary Garlic Mashed Sweet Potatoes.
- Spring Vegetable Stir-Fried Rice.
Avoid these foods if you have diabetes
Bissell recommends avoiding foods that tend to spike blood sugars suddenly and can promote sugar cravings. Foods to avoid if you have diabetes include processed items, such as cereals, candy and packaged snack foods, and sugary beverages, such as juices and sodas.
How to follow a diabetes diet
Bissell emphasizes that “one size fits all” doesn’t exist with diabetes diets.
“Many people incorrectly believe they need to cut out all carbs or ‘white foods,’” she says, “but you don’t have to eliminate — just limit carbohydrate portions to amounts that work for you. And try to choose more complex carbs in the right portion sizes.”
To make the most of your diabetes diet, try the following tips, too:
- Eat fewer processed foods.
- Cook at home more often than you dine out.
- Drink more water.
- Cut out sugary drinks.
- Include vegetables at most meals.
- Be mindful of portion sizes.
While you may have to do some trial and error, Bissell says these strategies can help increase your chance for success:
- Read food labels: Knowing what’s in your food can help you make better decisions about portion sizes and what to buy.
- Enlist help: Get a referral to your local outpatient diabetes clinic or a registered dietitian. These experts can help you get started with better eating habits and teach you how to manage diabetes in realistic ways.
- Follow the Diabetes Plate Method: The American Diabetes Association’s Plate Method involves filling your plate with these food ratios at each meal:
- Half non-starchy veggies.
- A quarter lean protein.
- A quarter complex carbs.
- Wash it down with water or a low-calorie beverage such as tea.
- Go tech: Use a phone app to make it easier and more convenient for you to count carbs.
- Try problem-solving: Bissell describes problem-solving as seeing how your food affects your blood sugars about one to two hours after eating. Then, adjust foods and portion sizes based on that.
- Plan ahead: “You can find many recipes online that are good if you have diabetes,” says Bissell. “We recommend making a meal plan each week, using healthy recipe websites or cookbooks.”
- Time meals: Because going too long without eating can cause a drop in blood sugar, Bissell recommends eating a balanced meal every four to five hours for more stable blood sugar levels. “The old advice to eat six small meals a day is not necessary and can elevate blood sugars,” she adds. “That’s another reason why planning the next day’s meals can be helpful — you can ensure you have nutritious foods on hand or packed and ready to eat on the go.”
Are there risks involved with eating this type of meal plan?
Following a diabetes diet plan is safe, says Bissell, if you don’t take it to the extreme.
“Some people eat a diet that’s too restrictive or low in carbohydrates. This causes them to lack important nutrients or have frequent low blood sugar levels,” she says. “Balance is key, along with being realistic about what habits you can maintain for the long term.”