Basics of a Diabetes Meal Plan
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Eating with Diabetes
Everyone needs to eat a certain number 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.
How many calories do you currently eat per day? For a few days, keep track of everything you eat and drink, weigh and measure the amounts of foods you eat, look at food labels, look up the calorie and nutrient counts of restaurant foods, and record the calories and other nutrients of concern, such as fat and carbs. Are you eating more calories than you need?
Talk to a diabetes educator or registered dietitian to figure out the amounts of calories and carbs that are right for you.
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
Creating a Balanced Diet
Try to eat a variety of foods from each food group, because no single food group can meet 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.
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
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.
It's important to watch portion sizes when you eat to help you lose or control weight. 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.
Nonstarchy vegetables take up 1/2 of the plate. Nonstarchy vegetables include:
- salad greens
- sweet peppers
Lean protein takes up 1/4 of the plate. Items with protein include:
- chicken breast
- salmon fillet
- ground beef
Grains or starchy vegetables take up 1/4 of the plate. Grains and starchy vegetables include:
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 can also be included.
Noncaloric beverages, such as water or unsweetened iced tea, are good choices for low-carb drinks.
When to Eat
As a person with diabetes, you may find it easier to control your blood sugar levels if you eat on a regular schedule. To keep glucose and weight under control, it’s best to not skip meals. Try to eat every 4-5 hours. For breakfast, try to eat within 1-2 hours after getting up.
The Emotional Side of Eating
It can be a challenge to eat healthfully at 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 and not be too hard on yourself. Having a positive attitude can help keep you motivated and feeling well.
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. Making your own meals increases your awareness of the foods you eat, is more practical to control portion sizes, and is easier to cook with healthful ingredients. Plus, it costs less!
Eat What You Love!
Food—sugar, carbs, fiber, protein—is not your enemy. With the help of a wide variety of tasty, carb-friendly recipes and quick tips to help you eat more healthfully, you can take control of your diabetes with every bite.