Diabetes Diet: What to Eat
Foods for Diabetes: What you eat can make a big difference in how much diabetes impacts you in the short term and over the long run.
One of the biggest challenges many people face when they find out they have diabetes is figuring out what they can eat and when. Fortunately, healthy eating when you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes (or prediabetes) isn’t substantially different from how we all should eat. Diabetes-friendly meals feature the same healthy foods - whole grains, colorful non-starchy vegetables, whole fruits, lean protein, fish, low-fat dairy, nuts and healthy fats - recommended for everyone.
"If you have prediabetes or diabetes, your meals can still be (and should be) enjoyable," emphasizes Denise Arthurs, MS, RD, a clinical dietitian/nutritionist at the Frances Stern Nutrition Center at Tufts Medical Center. "In the past, diabetes diets were fairly rigid. Today, the guidelines of the American Diabetes Association (ADA) focus on healthful eating patterns that feature a variety of nutrient-dense foods in appropriate portion sizes to help you meet your weight goals."
Healthy Body Weight and Diabetes:
Underlying diabetes diet guidelines is the importance of following a heart-healthy eating plan and maintaining a healthy body weight. People with diabetes have two to three times greater risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, compared to people without diabetes.
To learn more, see: Healthy Fats Reduce Diabetes Risk
Modest weight loss, if you're carrying extra weight, reduces risk of cardiovascular issues. It also can delay progression from prediabetes to type 2 diabetes. "In people with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes who are overweight or obese, losing at least 5% - and ideally 7% or more - of body weight (and sustaining that loss) can significantly improve blood sugar control," Arthurs says. When your blood sugar is under better control, you feel better, too.
Carbohydrates and Controlling Blood Sugar:
Carbohydrate is in the spotlight in diabetes meal planning. That's because the carbohydrate you eat is ultimately broken down and converted to glucose in the body (if not consumed directly as glucose), which raises blood sugar, also called blood glucose. In type 1 diabetes, there is a complete absence of insulin needed to lower blood sugar, while in type 2 diabetes, the body doesn’t produce enough insulin and the body’s cells aren’t responsive enough to it.
"That doesn’t mean a person should completely avoid carbohydrate-containing foods; they're an important source of energy, essential nutrients and fiber," Arthurs says. “But, you do need to pay attention to the amount and timing." That requires knowing which foods contain carbs and which ones don’t (see "Carbohydrate Foods," right).
"The carbohydrate-containing foods we encourage people with diabetes to eat are those that are the least refined or processed because they're generally gentler on blood sugar," Arthurs says. For example, steel-cut oats (oat kernels simply broken into a few pieces) or rolled oats are a better choice than instant oatmeal, especially if flavored and sweetened.
"However, that doesn't mean you can never eat a piece of pie or a serving of ice cream," Arthurs says. "Those foods can fit in small portions, but they should be a treat, not everyday foods." If you know you're going to eat a scoop of ice cream at a birthday celebration, for example, then skip a carbohydrate-rich food you’d normally eat at that meal, such as the dinner roll or mashed potatoes. That can help prevent a big rise in your blood sugar.