Diabetic Diet: What to Eat with Diabetes
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Basics of a Diabetic Diet
Eating healthfully with diabetes is essential to controlling blood sugar and feeling better. This diabetic diet guide will show you what to eat with type 2 diabetes and how to easily integrate smart food choices into your eating plan. While there is no single "diabetic diet," a healthful eating plan will help you manage your weight and your blood glucose levels for life.
Keep reading to learn:
- Healthy breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack options
- Best snack choices
- How to successfully shop at the grocery store
- Best foods to include in a healthy eating plan
- Worst foods to include in an eating plan for diabetes
- How sugar fits into a meal plan
- How to create a balanced meal plan
When to Eat with Diabetes and Why
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.
Typically, a person needs to eat about every four to six hours during the day to maintain energy levels. "People with type 2 diabetes usually have better blood glucose control if their meals and carbohydrates are spaced evenly throughout the day," says Connie Crawley, M.S., R.D., L.D., a nutrition and health specialist.
Since weight loss is a goal for many people with type 2 diabetes, you'll also want to keep track of how many calories you eat per day and spread them out over the meals you consume. On average, a person needs to consume 2,000 calories per day.
What to Eat for Breakfast with Diabetes
Breakfast is an important part of a healthy eating plan, especially if you need to control your weight. It jump-starts your metabolism and makes you less likely to overeat later in the day.
"Breakfast gives you energy and serves as a way to get your daily requirements for vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients," says dietitian Toby Smithson, R.D. "It also helps to refuel your body by providing glucose most often from a food containing carbohydrate. Glucose is the body's main energy source for the brain."
A healthy breakfast should include one or more servings of a high-fiber whole grain food, a good source of low-fat protein or dairy (such as 8 ounces of fat-free milk), and a serving of fruit. Protein helps with satiety, the feeling of fullness. About one-fifth of your daily calorie count should be consumed at breakfast.
Try our delicious Egg and Potato Casserole for an excellent balanced breakfast, and round out the calorie count with a serving of low-fat dairy.
What to Eat for Lunch with Diabetes
A midday meal should provide about a fifth of your day's calories. Start by budgeting about 380 calories. You may have to adjust portion sizes to fit your specific meal plan. The remainder of your daily calories should be spread out equally over breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.
Need some suggestions? Try this delicious, 314-calorie veggie focaccia chicken sandwich, and round out your lunch with a low-fat dairy or veggie serving.
What to Eat for Dinner with Diabetes
Dinner guidelines for people with diabetes can vary drastically. Most certified diabetes educators recommend about 350-400 calories (up to 500 if you're a large man) and 30-45 grams carbohydrate (60 grams for a large man).
Dinner should include a lean protein, nonstarchy vegetables, and either starchy vegetables or whole grains, and be sure to watch your portion sizes.
Fill your plate with:
Nonstarchy vegetables. These should take up half of the plate. Nonstarchy vegetables include:
- salad greens
- sweet peppers
Lean protein. This should take up a quarter of the plate. Foods with protein include:
- chicken breast
- salmon fillet
Grains or starchy vegetables. These should take up a quarter of the plate. Grains and starchy vegetables include:
What to Eat for Snacks with Diabetes
Snacks aren't off-limits for a diabetic diet. If you need a pick-me-up between meals, a snack with 15-20 grams of carbohydrate can be helpful. But you'll need to count it.
For someone with diabetes, a fiber-filled and nutrient-rich snack can help curb appetite before the next meal, says Angela Ginn-Meadow, R.D., LDN, CDE, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Talk to your health care provider about whether a snack will work in your meal plan. You can also choose to "save" a serving of carbohydrate from your previous meal and "spend" it on a snack.
Best Foods to Include in a Diabetic Diet
Choosing these extra-healthy power foods for your diabetic diet will help you meet your nutritional needs as well as lower your risk of diabetes complications such as heart disease. Of course, the foods on this list shouldn't be the only foods you eat, but incorporating some or all into your diabetes meal plan in place of less-nutritious choices will help improve your overall health. Such foods include cranberries and asparagus.
Foods to Avoid on a Diabetic Diet
Choosing an eating plan doesn't have to mean deprivation, starvation, or bland and boring menus. However, that doesn't mean anything goes. Some foods are best left off the table or on the grocery shelf. Everyone -- with or without diabetes -- would be wise to avoid or limit the foods in this list. They are high in saturated fat and trans fat, which contribute to heart disease risk. They can also be high in added sugar, an empty calorie source that can lead to weight gain.
Pass on these:
- fried foods
- takeout pizza
- sugary beverages
- store-bought baked goods
How Veggies Fit Into a Diabetic Diet
Vegetables supply excellent benefits to a diabetic diet. "They provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and they're relatively low in calories," says Madhu Gadia, R.D., a certified diabetes educator.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that everyone, including people with diabetes, eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day. If your blood glucose rises after you eat vegetables, check your portion sizes:
- One serving (1/2 cup cooked) of a nonstarchy vegetable has about 5 grams of carbohydrate and 25 calories.
- One serving of starchy vegetables (1/2 cup cooked) contains about 15 grams of carbohydrate and 80 calories.
How Fruits Fit Into a Diabetic Diet
Whether fresh, canned, or packaged with no sugar added, fruits should be part of a healthful eating plan. Fruits are natural sources of energy, vitamins, minerals, and -- except for juice -- fiber.
The American Diabetes Association recommends following the Dietary Guidelines for a healthful eating plan. Keep portion sizes in mind: One serving (1 small piece or 1/2 large piece) of fruit has about 15 grams of carbohydrate and 60 calories.
How Dairy Fits Into a Diabetic Diet
Dairy helps keep the digestive system healthy, bones strong, and blood pressure down. Adding low-fat dairy as part of your daily diabetic meal plan is smart.
When buying milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, and other dairy products, be sure to choose reduced-fat or fat-free versions. Regular dairy products can be high in saturated fat (the type that can lead to heart disease). Also avoid sweetened dairy foods, like chocolate milk or fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt, which contain added sugar.
To meet your calcium needs: Aim to get three servings of dairy products a day, staying within your diabetic diet. Try 1 cup of fat-free milk over your cereal, a piece of low-fat string cheese for a snack, and 6 ounces of fat-free plain or light yogurt for dessert. If you're lactose intolerant, look for calcium-fortified soymilk. Hard cheeses and yogurt are low in lactose, making them options for people who have mild to moderate lactose intolerance.
How Protein Fits Into a Diabetic Diet
Protein is an important part of a diabetic diet. It's vital to keep your body working properly, but it's also helpful for people with diabetes who are trying to lose weight. The body digests protein slowly, so it keeps you full longer than quickly digested carbohydrate. When protein is part of a carb-centered meal (such as whole grain pasta) or snack (think whole grain crackers), it can help prevent big spikes in blood sugar.
People with diabetes have a higher risk of heart disease, so choose protein-rich foods that are low in fat. These include poultry, fish, and lean cuts of beef, veal, and pork. If you're not sure which cuts of meat are lean, look for the words "loin" or "round," such as pork tenderloin or eye of round beef.
Try including some meatless meals that contain nuts, legumes, or soy products. These foods can lower cholesterol due to their combination of fiber, heart-healthy fat, and phytochemicals.
How Whole Grains Fit Into a Diabetic Diet
Replacing refined grains with whole grains in your diabetic diet can help improve your blood glucose control, reduce total cholesterol, and manage your weight.
"Whole grains don't increase blood sugar nearly as much as refined grains," says dietitian Angela Ginn-Meadow.
Experts recommend that everyone eat at least three servings (48 grams) of whole grains every day, so make sure some of your carb choices are whole grains.
How to add whole grains to a diabetic diet: Toss out white rice, white bread, and white pasta. Replace them with brown rice and whole wheat breads and pastas.
How Fats Fit Into a Diabetic Diet
Fats can have a place in a diabetic diet.
"Good" fats are unsaturated. Unsaturated fats don't increase your risk of heart disease. Monounsaturated fats, found in olive oil and avocados, and omega-3 fats, found in salmon and walnuts, are especially good for heart health. For everyday cooking, use canola and olive oils.
"Bad" fats are trans fats and saturated fats, which can increase your risk of heart disease. Found in red meats, full-fat dairy products, and baked goods, saturated fat causes total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels to go up.
Shopping tip: A food label may say "zero trans fat," but the product may still have small amounts. Check the ingredients list before buying -- if you see "partially hydrogenated oil" or "vegetable shortening" on the label, put the product back on the shelf. Also watch out for "palm kernel oil" -- one of the few oils high in saturated fat.
How to Enjoy Sugar on a Diabetic Diet
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) says people with diabetes may consume sugar (sucrose) as part of their total carbohydrate count. The current ADA guidelines suggest that people with diabetes should be more concerned about the total amount of carbohydrate they consume than the source.
However, nutrient-rich carb sources (such as unprocessed fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products) are preferred over nutrient-poor, refined, and added-sugar foods.
Sugar tip: To lose weight or simply eat healthfully, consume only small amounts of foods containing sugar because they may also be high in calories and fat.
How to Enjoy Sugar-Free Foods on a Diabetic Diet
When people discover you have diabetes, they may proudly offer you sugar-free versions of favorite treats. But sugar-free claims don't mean these items are carb- or calorie-free. They often contain other ingredients with carbohydrate, such as milk, flour, or fruit. These foods count toward your diabetic diet's carb allowance.
In many cases, sugar-free and no-sugar-added foods offer significant carb and calorie savings, making them smart choices for a diabetic diet. But sometimes these foods cut your carb intake only slightly and may cost more, too.
Sugar-free tip: If you simply prefer the taste of the regular version of a food, you may find a smaller portion of it is just as satisfying as a full serving of the sugar-free option.
How to Enjoy Sugar Substitutes on a Diabetic Diet
Thanks to low-calorie sweeteners, having diabetes and satisfying a sweet tooth has become a lot easier.
Sugar substitutes are safe to include in a diabetic diet. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved sucralose, saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, and neotame as food additives.
How to use sugar substitutes: You can find an array of sugar substitutes and sugar substitute blends to use in cooking and baking. Choose sugar substitute packets to sweeten coffee or tea.
How to Enjoy Alcohol on a Diabetic Diet
Guidelines for alcohol that apply to the general public also work for people with diabetes: If you want to drink alcohol, you should do so in moderation. However, people with diabetes may take medications or have other medical issues that conflict with alcohol, so check with your doctor as a precaution.
The biggest concern about alcohol intake is low blood glucose several hours after drinking. If you don't take a blood glucose-lowering medication, then this is not a concern. If you take medication such as a sulfonylurea or insulin, this could be a problem. "Therefore, when you drink alcohol, you should consume it along with food because alcohol affects blood glucose levels less when a person is eating at the same time," says Jeannette Jordan, M.S., R.D., CDE.
Moderation is defined by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans and other organizations as no more than two drinks a day for men and no more than one drink a day for women. One drink is defined as:
- 12 ounces of beer
- 5 ounces of wine
- 1.5 ounces of hard liquor (distilled spirits)
How to Enjoy Restaurant Foods on a Diabetic Diet
Dining out with diabetes is possible! Refer to a restaurant's menu or web site or carry a reference guide to help you determine nutrition information for a dish before you go. For lunch or dinner, opt for the following and you'll gain a nutritional bargain:
Best fast-food picks:
- Pizza loaded with veggies rather than high-fat meats and cheeses. Limit yourself to one large or two small slices. Thin crust keeps the carbs down.
- 6-inch sub with turkey, lean ham, or roast beef on whole grain bread. Pile on the vegetables -- lettuce, tomatoes, peppers (green and hot), onions -- and other low-fat toppers. Request mustard and vinegar on the side, but skip the oil and mayonnaise altogether.
- Grilled chicken sandwich with a garden salad.
Best restaurant picks:
- Main-dish salad with a low-calorie dressing on the side. Then go light on the dressing.
- Roasted chicken quarter with two steamed-vegetable side dishes.
- Vegetable plate or stir-fry with brown rice.
- Baked potato stuffed with broccoli or chili and a little cheese.
Top tips for dining out:
Before you go: Search the restaurant's web site or refer to a restaurant dining resource to find healthy menu items and combinations. If a restaurant's nutrition information isn't available, ask the staff about lighter menu options.
When you order: Ask for dressings and sauces on the side.
When your meal comes: Measure out the proper portion for your meal, and put the rest immediately into a to-go box to save for another meal.
What to Look For in the Grocery Store
"The most important tool for shopping is the nutrition label," says Susan Weiner, R.D., CDE. "Practice label-reading at home so that you don't have to spend 10 minutes per food item when you're in the market."
Weiner suggests looking first at suggested serving size and number of servings per container, keeping in mind that the serving size may be different from diabetes exchanges or your dietitian's recommendations.
Next, read down the label, which is always in the same order according to federal guidelines:
Calories: Watch for calories per serving if you're managing your weight.
Protein: Consider the grams of protein you need for a balanced diet.
Carbohydrate: Look at total carbohydrate grams to figure out how the food fits into your meal plan.
Fats: Look for fat count per serving; fat is a concentrated source of calories. If the food contains saturated and trans fats, it can raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase heart disease risk.
Sodium: Pay special attention to sodium if you have high blood pressure.
What to Eat Tonight with Diabetes
A healthy eating plan includes all major food groups, so eat a wide variety of foods to meet all your vitamin and mineral requirements. Because your meal plan may limit your total calories and carbohydrate, choose the most nutrient-rich foods you enjoy.
Foods to Avoid
We're all about eating what you love. But even in moderation, some foods are poor choices for anyone -- even people without diabetes. These top foods to avoid contain high amounts of fat, sodium, carbohydrate, and calories. Instead, indulge with our satisfying and delicious alternatives!
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.