Basics of a Diabetes Meal Plan

One of the biggest concerns for people newly diagnosed with diabetes is, "What can I eat?" Here you'll find the answer to that question and more, with simple tips and advice to eat healthfully with diabetes and form a meal plan that will work for you.

Basics of a Diabetes Meal Plan

Everyone needs to eat a certain numbers of calories to survive. Eat more than you need and you gain weight; eat less (or burn more) than you need and you lose weight. It sounds simple, but how many calories do you really need?

Calorie needs depend on gender, age, height, activity level, current weight, and the number of calories your body burns at rest.

For instance, a 35-year-old 150-pound woman who is 5 feet tall and does not exercise needs about 1,500 to 1,600 calories per day to maintain her weight. If she eats more than that each day, she will gain weight. If she eats less or exercises more, she will lose weight.

How many calories do you currently eat per day? For a few days, keep track of everything you eat and drink, look at the food label, and record the calorie amounts. Are you eating more calories than you need?

Find out how many calories you need each day by using the calorie estimator.

Calorie Estimator

USDA Nutrient Database

How Are You Spending Your Calories?

One way to think about your caloric intake is to imagine it like a "budget" where you "spend" your calories on food. The important thing is to spend your calories on food choices that will invest in your well being, not on items that will bankrupt your long-term health. In other words, fill your calorie requirements with nutrient-rich foods rather than nutrient-poor foods.

Invest in your health by:

  • Substituting whole grains for foods made from refined grains; eating less refined sugar and flour
  • Eating more vegetables and fruit; eating fewer french fries and sweetened drinks
  • Drinking low-fat milk and eating yogurt instead of high-fat ice cream and cheese
  • Eating more lean chicken, fish, and beans; eating less high-fat fried chicken and fast food
  • Choosing to use small amounts of fats like canola oil and olive oil rather than butter, stick margarine, shortening, or lard
  • Making sweets, alcohol, and salty foods an occasional indulgence instead of an everyday occurrence

Learn how to read food labels.

Creating a Balanced Diet

Try to eat a variety of foods from each food group, because no single food group meets all of your vitamin and mineral requirements. Also, there are no special "diabetic" foods you need to buy or a "diabetic diet" you need to follow. A healthful eating plan that includes all of the major food groups is what's important. So, strive for a mix in your day.

The American Diabetes Association recommends:

  • Grains, beans, and starchy vegetables (such as potatoes): 6 or more servings per day
  • Fruit: 2-4 servings per day
  • Vegetables: 3-5 servings per day
  • Meat, fish, and cheese: 2-3 servings per day
  • Milk and yogurt: 2-3 servings per day
  • Fats, sweets, and alcohol: Small amounts

Incorporate veggies into your diet.

Tracking and Counting Carbs

While you don't need to follow a "diabetic diet," it will be easier to manage your blood glucose if you eat similar amounts of carbohydrate at your meals from day to day. Carbohydrates, one of the three nutrients that provide calories from food, have the greatest impact on your blood glucose, particularly after eating. But that doesn't mean you should restrict foods that contain carbohydrates. You need the energy, vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber that these foods contain.

Carbohydrates are the body's main and preferred source of glucose. Your cells need glucose for energy. Your body needs an ample amount of carbs to do its work.

Carbs can be found in many foods, including:

  • Grains such as bread, pasta, rice, popcorn, oatmeal, cornmeal, and cereal
  • Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, yams, acorn squash, carrots, and corn
  • Non-starchy vegetables such as spinach, salad greens, and green beans (a small amount)
  • Beans and legumes such as navy beans, kidney beans, black beans, and black-eyed peas
  • Fruit such as apples, grapes, strawberries, bananas, and oranges
  • Dairy products such as milk and yogurt
  • Sweets such as cookies, cakes, pies, ice cream, candy, and chocolate
  • Sugary foods such as regular soda, fruit drinks, hard candy, and syrups

There are no (or very few) carbs in these foods:

  • Animal protein such as fish, chicken, beef, pork, cheese, and cottage cheese
  • Fats such as oils, margarine, and bacon

Try these 3-carb choice entree recipes.

How Many Carbs to Eat a Day

The second-most-asked question after "What do I eat with diabetes?" is "How many grams of carbohydrate should I eat a day?" As with the number of calories you need, the amount of carbohydrate you need depends on gender, weight, age, activity level, weight goals, and lipid levels. However, the American Diabetes Association offers a rough estimate you can use as a starting point. Talk to a registered dietitian for a personalized carb amount.

Carbs per Day Estimate

To lose weight:

  • Women: 2-3 carb servings per meal (30-45 grams of carbohydrates)
  • Men: 3-4 carb servings per meal (45-60 grams of carbohydrates)

To maintain weight:

  • Women: 3-4 carb servings per meal (45-60 grams of carbohydrates)
  • Men: 4-5 carb servings per meal (60-75 grams of carbohydrates)

For active people:

  • Women: 4-5 carb servings per meal (60-75 grams of carbohydrates)
  • Men: 4-6 carb servings per meal (60-90 grams of carbohydrates)

Note that one carb serving is 15 g of carbohydrates. So, if you eat a bag of potato chips with 30 g of carbohydrates, that is two carb servings.

Enjoy these tasty low-carb snacks.

Portion Control

It's important to watch portion sizes when counting carbs. Portion control is also necessary for weight management. Because portion sizes vary depending on where you're eating and even the dishware you use, it can be tricky to know exactly how much you're eating at any given time. One thing that can help is to have a visual reference.

Some people use a food scale, measuring cups and spoons, and even their hands to gauge portion sizes. One method that helps with eyeballing portions as well as meal planning is the "plate method". It's relatively easy to use; all you need is a plate that's 9 inches across. Then follow these simple guidelines.

Non-starchy vegetables take up 1/2 the plate. Non-starchy vegetables include:

  • spinach
  • salad greens
  • tomatoes
  • onions
  • green, red, or yellow peppers

Lean protein takes up 1/4 of the plate. Items with protein include:

  • chicken breast
  • salmon fillet
  • steak
  • ground beef
  • eggs

Grains or starchy vegetables take up 1/4 of the plate. Grains and starchy vegetables include:

  • pasta
  • rice
  • bread
  • potatoes
  • yams
  • corn

A medium-size piece of fresh fruit (about the size of a baseball) or 1/2 cup of canned or packaged fruit in its own juice (such as grapes) is shown on the left.

A glass filled with a non-caloric beverage such as water or iced tea is shown on the right.

When to Eat

As a person with diabetes, you need to eat fairly regularly. That means no skipping meals! Even if you are trying to lose weight, you need to eat regular meals to keep your blood glucose and your metabolism on track. Try to eat every 4-5 hours. For breakfast, try to eat within 1-2 hours of rising.

The Emotional Side of Eating

It can be a challenge to eat healthfully every meal, every day. Try your best to make healthy choices where and when you can. Take heart in knowing that no one is perfect -- everyone has an off day now and again. It's important to keep trying.

One thing that can be extra helpful in keeping you on track is to make your own meals. Try not to dine out more than three times a week at the most. Making your own meals increases your awareness of the foods you eat, it's more practical to control portion sizes, and it's easier to cook with healthful ingredients. Plus, it costs less!

Eat What You Love!

Food -- sugar, carbohydrate, fiber, protein--is not your enemy. With the help of a wide variety of tasty, low-carb recipes and quick tips to help you eat more healthfully, you can take control of your diabetes with every bite.

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