Living with and managing diabetes is challenging for most people who have this condition. Figuring out what, when and how much to eat adds another layer of complexity, too. That’s because your food choices have a direct impact on your blood glucose levels. And the reality is, you have to eat. Which means that you need to figure out a game plan that works for you.
Nutrition is often considered to be a key “cornerstone” of diabetes management. Yes, you might be taking medication to help you keep your blood sugars in a safe range, but medication isn’t a green light to forgo healthy eating. Your food choices and eating patterns, along with physical activity, and medication, if needed, all work together to help keep your blood sugars in a target range. You need to balance what you eat and drink with your level of physical activity and your diabetes medicine, in other words.
Aside from diabetes, eating healthfully helps fuel and nourish your body. Nutrition is important for overall good health, keeping your weight at a healthy level, and for lowering the risk of some diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, and certain types of cancer. A healthful diet is even tied to good mental health, too.
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What’s the best “diet” for diabetes?
Many years ago, people with diabetes were prescribed what was commonly called a “diabetic diet.” This was a calorie-controlled plan that usually incorporated diabetes “exchanges” to help balance out carbs and foods over three meals and one to three snacks daily. These diets tended to be pretty rigid and tough to follow and, not surprisingly, adherence to a diabetic diet was often pretty low.
Thanks to new insulins and other diabetes medicines, diabetic diets are a thing of the past. Today, there are many options for eating for diabetes. And despite what many people think, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) does not endorse or recommend any special “diet” for people with diabetes. In fact, the ADA recognizes that many different eating patterns can work for people who have diabetes, and that there is no one eating pattern that works for everyone. What are these eating patterns? Some examples include:
- Mediterranean-style plan
- DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) plan
- Vegetarian or vegan plan
- Low fat
- Low carbohydrate
These particular eating patterns have been well-researched and can be effective for not just helping you manage your diabetes, but for lowering your risk factors for heart disease and stroke (which is super important) as well as reaching and staying at a healthful weight.
How do you decide what eating pattern is best for you?
With so many eating plans to choose from, it can be confusing to know how to proceed. Something that can be helpful is to worry less about what type of “diet” you should follow and instead, focus on eating healthfully. A healthy way of eating may not seem glamorous or exciting, but in the long run, it’s what can help you get a handle on your diabetes and your weight, along with reducing your risk for complications.
But if you’re looking for a little more guidance, a few options to consider include:
What about more regimented eating plans, such as a very-low-carb plan, a keto plan, or intermittent fasting? These kinds of eating tend to be a lot more rigid than the ones mentioned above. They can be very restrictive in terms of the types of foods you eat, as well as when you eat. For example, with a keto plan, you focus on eating mostly fat and protein, and very little carb, forcing your body to go into a state of ketosis. With intermittent fasting, you cycle between fasting (not eating) and eating on a set schedule. Very-low-carb is, well, very low in carb. These particular plans may be OK for you, but you’ll need to understand the implications of following them, and be prepared to plan out your meals, possibly spend more on food, and also consider how these eating plans impact others in your household, as well as how you handle social situations.
Understandably, any time you are faced with possibly changing your eating habits or food choices, it can lead to confusion and even discouragement. It’s very easy to become overwhelmed. Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. You don’t need to completely overhaul your current eating plan.
Focus on making small, doable changes that you can stick with. For example, you might switch out soda or energy drinks with seltzer water, or grab a piece of fruit instead of a handful of cookies at 3 p.m. You decide what you’ll change; then, commit to it for a couple of months. Once you’ve mastered that, move on to something else you’d like to tackle.
2. Start with the carbs.
Not necessarily cutting them out but making better carb choices. What are better carb choices? These are carbs that are less likely to spike up your blood sugar. Fresh fruit, vegetables, whole-grain foods, and legumes are your best carb buddies. Ease up on juices, soda, cookies, candy, white bread, white pasta, and most breakfast cereals.
3. Include protein and fat.
Make a point to include a protein and a fat food at each of your meals. At breakfast, for example, add an egg or spread some nut butter on a piece of whole-grain toast. Greek-style yogurt is another great option (and you don’t have to go with the fat-free kind, either). Lunch and dinner might include poultry, seafood, lean meat, tofu, or cottage cheese. Nuts, seeds, avocado, and vegetable oils give you healthy fat. Protein and fat help curb your appetite and can slow down the digestion of carbs. Result? A slower, smaller rise in your blood sugars.
4. Commit to checking — your blood sugar, that is.
Anytime you make changes in your routine, it’s wise to see how these changes impact your blood sugars. You’ll be amazed at what you learn. Set a goal to check before and two hours after meals. If you see a glucose spike, think back to what may have caused that (hint: keeping a food log makes this easier). And if you use CGM, all the better. You can pretty much see in real time how your food habits drive your glucose levels.
5. Get some guidance.
A registered dietitian nutritionist or a diabetes educator can help you get started with setting nutrition goals and designing an eating plan that works with your food preferences, lifestyle, and cultural beliefs. They can even help you fit some of your favorite foods into your plan, too. Ask your primary care provider for a referral or call your health plan for the names of in-network dietitians or diabetes educators.