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The Diabetes Diet

Take control of your health with a meal plan.

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For people with diabetes, maintaining nutritional health isn't as easy as it might be for folks without the condition. But that doesn't mean you have to stop eating delicious, satisfying foods! On the contrary, from the dietary end of things, diabetes management is all about eating regular, nutritious and tasty meals every day.

For people who find out they have the condition, daily life may change. Many doctors will recommend things like checking blood glucose levels regularly, getting exercise and making a meal plan and perhaps taking medication, too.

How are body responses to meals different for people with diabetes?

It's as much about how you eat as what you eat. So if you're worried that having diabetes means following a severely restricted diet, don't be. Talk to your registered dietitian or physician about what you eat each day. He or she will probably recommend that you create a meal plan.

After you eat a meal, your blood glucose slowly rises, peaking about an hour or two afterward. The pancreas releases insulin to help the body cells take in glucose as fuel. As glucose is utilized, the level in the bloodstream gradually falls. When glucose levels fall below a certain level, the body begins to use stored glucose (glycogen), at least until you eat again. However, for people with diabetes, there is difficulty controlling their insulin response to blood glucose levels, meaning the meal-to-meal up-and-down trajectory can turn into a roller coaster, with higher highs and lower lows. (People with diabetes may need to take insulin or other medications to help their bodies respond better to foods as fuel.)

A diabetes-based meal plan may help someone with diabetes get off the coaster and keep blood glucose more stable. Here's how.

A meal plan in a nutshell

For people with diabetes, most meal plans boil down to three things: how much, when and what.
  • How much you eat: Portion control is a major part of eating well with diabetes. Oftentimes, you'll still be able to eat the same foods your family enjoys; you might just have to be aware of how much you put on a plate. Most physicians recommend writing down the portions you eat and using a scale or measuring cup to be sure you're getting the proper portion.
  • When you eat: Rather than eating three large meals with nothing in between, it may be better for people with diabetes to eat smaller meals more often, or to enjoy small, healthy snacks between meals. This strategy can help prevent blood glucose levels from spiking or dipping too far. Be sure to follow the advice of your healthcare team.
  • What you eat: While people with diabetes can still enjoy tasty, satisfying meals, your doctor and registered dietitian will help you make an individualized eating plan, one that is based on things like your weight, lifestyle and general health. Learning to count carbohydrates is often an important part of healthy eating for those with diabetes. A typical meal contains about 45-60 grams of carbohydrate. You may need more or less carbohydrate depending on how you manage your diabetes. Your healthcare team can determine what the right amount is for you.
Most meal plans will incorporate a variety of foods, like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, fish, beans and low-fat dairy—and they often recommend eating foods in combinations, as well as including exercise, too. Regular physical activity can help to lower blood glucose levels by making the body's cells more sensitive to insulin. Be sure to follow the advice of your healthcare team when starting or maintaining an exercise plan.

Food groups to focus on

It is important for people with diabetes to eat a variety of healthy foods, including:
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Low-fat or fat-free dairy foods

Keeping tabs in a food journal

A food journal is a record of what, when and how much you eat. By using one, you can keep tabs on your diet and adjust it as needed. Your registered dietitian may recommend keeping a food journal so that you can keep track of things like the amount of carbohydrates you eat. For example, 15 grams of carbohydrate equals 1 Carbohydrate Choice. Your dietitian can help you figure out the number of Carbohydrate Choices that are right for you at each meal and throughout the day. Many food labels, and recipes list Carb Choices, so it can be easy to keep track. Also, maintaining a food journal can help you notice when your diet gets monotonous and encourage you to spice it up a little!

Things to track in your food journal:

  • Calories consumed
  • Carbohydrates consumed (or Carb Choices)
  • Portion sizes
  • Meal times
  • Blood glucose readings
Look for Carb Choices and nutrition information on all of our recipes.
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