People living with diabetes often have a lot of questions about food. What foods are OK? Which ones should I avoid? Does having diabetes mean I can’t ever have treats or eat at a restaurant?
Fortunately, eating well when you have diabetes is a lot like eating well when you don’t have diabetes. In fact, health care professionals no longer recommend the strict “diabetic diet” that you may have heard about years ago.
Research shows that there are lots of ways to maintain a healthy diet while enjoying each and every meal. By learning what your body needs and how to keep your blood sugar levels under control, you can help prevent the complications of diabetes without feeling deprived at the dinner table.
Why Does Nutrition Matter?
What you eat affects the amount of glucose (sugar) in your blood. When you have diabetes, your body either doesn’t make enough of the hormone (insulin) that helps keep blood sugar in check or can’t use it as well as it should. Because of this, your body can wind up with too much glucose, which leads to health problems.
One of the most common health problems people with diabetes face is heart disease. Adults with diabetes are nearly twice as likely to die from heart disease or stroke as people without diabetes. Today, managing diabetes is just as much about managing your risk of developing heart troubles—or preventing problems if you already have heart disease.
Proper nutrition and healthy eating can help. Think of your food as a central part of your routine to keep your body running well, just like any medications you take. The pillars of diabetes care include:
- Eating a healthy diet
- Exercising regularly
- Watching your blood sugar levels
- Taking your medications (if needed)
Q: What happens when you overeat or fuel your body with too much fat or added sugar?
A: Excess calories, fat and sugar cause dangerous spikes in blood sugar. Over time, complications develop including heart disease, blindness, kidney failure and nerve problems.
Do I Need to Follow a Special Diet ?
Gone are the days of the one-size-fits-all, very restrictive “diabetes diet,” which focused on avoiding sugars altogether. Today, health care professionals recommend finding a healthy eating plan that fits your life.
An eating plan helps to define the total calories you should consume and the amounts of different types of food—carbohydrates, protein, fats and so on—to include in your daily diet.
So how many carbohydrates should I eat? It depends on many factors, including:
- What recent blood work reveals about your blood sugar level
- Your weight, age and sex
- How much you exercise
- If you take insulin or other medications
A dietitian or certified diabetic educator can determine what is best for you. Consider asking your health care professional for a referral to a dietitian or diabetes educator. Your health care team will recommend an eating plan for you based on:
- Your body weight
- How much you exercise
- The medications you take
- Your age
- Your other health conditions
Eating well doesn’t have to become a source of stress. Your health care team can help you make your eating plan a natural part of your everyday routine. Also, because your care should focus on your needs, make sure to tell your health care professionals if you are worried about how to eat and feel supported, especially around social events such as family holidays or weddings.
Don’t Forget to Exercise
The calories you take in matter—but so do the calories you burn. Exercise is an essential part of managing diabetes and ties into good nutrition and healthy eating.
Losing weight, which involves both limiting calories and getting more physical activity, can make it much easier for you to control your blood sugar. Research shows that losing just 5% of your body weight improves blood sugar and your body’s use of insulin, lowers your risk of heart disease and reduces joint pain.
For people with pre-diabetes (blood sugar numbers that are higher than normal, but not diabetes yet), staying active and trimming extra pounds can be enough to keep diabetes at bay.
Sources for Support
Changing your eating habits can feel overwhelming, especially when you first find out you have diabetes. Don’t hesitate to ask questions. It can take some time to understand exactly what it means to “eat healthy.” Take advantage of resources such as a dietitian or nutritionist, diabetes self-management education programs at your local hospital, and online resources.
If sticking with an eating plan is especially hard for you, talk to your health care professional. For many people, food is a source of emotional comfort; it’s also often a focus of many social events. There are special techniques you can use to change your eating habits if you have a history of stress or binge eating.
Tips to Stay on Track With Nutrition
Sticking to your eating plan is crucial to keeping your blood sugar under control. Here are some ways to form healthy habits that you’ll be able to sustain for many years.
1. Carbs count.
Carbohydrates raise blood sugar faster than proteins or other foods. This makes counting carbs particularly important for maintaining proper blood sugar levels. In fact, counting carbs can be even more important than counting calories, because some low-calorie foods can affect glucose more than others. For example, fat-free rice cakes can be high in carbohydrates. Experts also say many people think wraps are healthier than bread, but they often have added oils and fats. Be sure to check the label on all foods.
Some sources of carbohydrates are better for your body than others. Watch out for high-carbohydrate processed foods that contain added fats, sugar or salt (sodium). These contain mostly simple carbohydrates, which break down quickly during digestion. Instead, most of the carbohydrates you eat should come from vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and dairy products. These foods contain complex carbohydrates and more fiber, so they take longer to digest. This means they’re less likely to cause a rapid spike in blood glucose. The American Diabetes Association recommends that you fill only 25% of your plate with grains and starchy foods.
Learn to count carbs to calculate how much insulin you need. Talk to your health care professional about how many carbohydrates you should eat per meal to maintain the right balance. Your health care team may recommend a lower amount of carbohydrates, especially if you have other conditions such as high blood pressure.
Did you know?
Carbohydrates—starches, sugars and fiber—affect your blood sugar much more than any other foods. While many people know to watch out for foods with lots of refined sugar (think candy, cakes and ice cream), carbs hide in a surprising number of foods.
For example, condiments like ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard are often overlooked sources of carbohydrates. Other sources include alcoholic drinks, milk and popcorn. Learn about carbs and limit how much of them you eat to keep your blood sugar in control.
2. Watch your portions.
The number of calories you consume is important, especially if you need to lose weight. Check labels when eating prepared foods, and learn what a serving size is for different types of food.
Be choosy when eating out at restaurants, which often serve up portions that are far larger than what your body needs in one meal. You might also ask the server to hold the bread before the meal and opt for a salad or low-carb appetizer. At home, one simple way to keep portions in check is to use a salad plate instead of a larger dinner plate.
3. Choose healthy fats.
People with diabetes are at high risk of developing heart disease. Foods with a lot of fat can increase this risk by clogging the arteries in your heart.
Unhealthy fats include those found in meat and dairy products, fried foods, and baked goods. On nutritional labels, these are often listed as saturated fats or trans fats. Limit these unhealthy fats in your diet. Healthy fats, or unsaturated fats, are those in nuts, avocados and olive or canola oil. While these fats are part of a healthy diet, be careful not to go overboard because these foods tend to contain more calories.
4. Know the power of protein.
Don’t forget to eat lots of healthy protein. Protein-rich foods help you feel full—and that means you’ll be less tempted by unhealthy foods throughout the day. But not all types of proteins are equally healthy. Fish and lean poultry are typically preferred over red meat. The amount of protein recommended may be different for each person, so check with your health care team to learn how much is right for you.
5. Go for water.
Drinking lots of water can help you keep calories in check. Many other beverages are packed with added sugars. Drinks with sugar substitutes can carry health risks. Limiting your alcohol intake is especially important to cutting carbs and calories.