Diabetic Diet

Diabetic Diet: What Kind of Diet Should You Follow?

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Updated on February 4, 2024

Reviewed by AFAD Team

Whether you are looking for a diabetes diet, a type 2 diabetes diet, a gestational diabetes diet, or a pre-diabetes diet, all of these plans have one thing in common:  balanced, healthy eating habits. Understanding diabetes is the first essential step to understanding how to plan for a healthy diabetic diet.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes occurs when your bloodstream has amounts of blood glucose or sugar that are at a higher-than-desirable level. This can happen because your pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin or your body doesn’t use the insulin it has effectively. Insulin is a necessary hormone that your body uses to turn blood sugar or glucose into usable energy.

Diabetes types

  • Type 1: characterized by a lack of insulin.
  • Type 2: characterized by ineffective use of insulin by the body.
  • Pre Diabetes.
  • Gestational Diabetes: characterized by raised blood sugar during pregnancy, usually after the twentieth week of gestation.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), diabetes is becoming a global problem. Once common only in industrialized countries, the disease is spreading to new populations. The WHO lists these facts about diabetes:

  1. The new global epidemic can be traced back to rapidly increasing weight gain and lack of physical activity.
  2. The number of deaths due to diabetes is projected to increase by 50% in the next 10 years. In 2005, 1.1 million people died from diabetes, though the cause is often listed as heart disease or kidney failure. Living with untreated diabetes causes great damage to internal organs such as the heart and kidneys.
  3. Type 2 diabetes accounts for 90% of all diabetes cases.
  4. Type 2 diabetes was previously rare in children, but now, almost half of the newly diagnosed cases occur in adolescents.
  5. Diabetes often goes untreated due to the lack of access to medical care and a lack of awareness about the disease.

Symptoms of Diabetes

How does a person first know that they have diabetes or are at risk?  According to the American Diabetes Association, the symptoms of diabetes include:

  • Frequent urination.
  • Extreme thirst.
  • Constant hunger, even though you are well fed.
  • Extreme fatigue.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Slow healing cuts and bruises.
  • Weight loss despite increased food intake.
  • Tingling, pain, or numbness in the hands and feet.

Diabetes Tests and Treatment

If a person is experiencing diabetes symptoms, they should seek medical care immediately. The physician will draw a small amount of blood to test the glucose levels. A test called an A1C will measure the amount of glucose that has been averaged in your bloodstream for the last three months.  An A1C of 4.5 to 6 percent is considered normal, and would probably not be diagnosed with diabetes. A measurement of 5.7 to 6.4 percent is considered pre-diabetic, and above 7 percent is diabetic.

Treatment for diabetes depends on the patient and the test results. The doctor may prescribe insulin injections to help the body use glucose effectively. The physician may prescribe oral medications which would help the insulin the patient already produces be more effective. Alternatively, the physician may simply recommend changes in diet and exercise. For some people, simple lifestyle changes are sufficient.

What does a diabetic diet plan look like?

A person who is diagnosed with diabetes or pre-diabetes must work to establish healthier eating habits immediately. Diet and exercise are crucial lifestyle changes to make to keep your blood glucose in acceptable ranges, thus protecting your organs from damage. A diabetic diet plan and a pre-diabetic diet plan will look the same. Healthy diet plans are one of the best actions a person can take to manage existing diabetes or to prevent the onset of the disease.

A diabetic diet works to balance these three components:

  • Fats. Healthy fats are necessary components of a healthy diet plan. For a diabetic, fats work to slow the body’s conversion of carbohydrates into glucose. A little fat goes a long way; high-fat foods will have the opposite effect. Fried foods, like French fries or fried chicken, are laden with fat. The body will actually take that extra fat and turn it into glucose in order to deal with it, thus driving up blood sugar levels.
  • Carbohydrates. A diabetic diet plan will work to limit and balance carbohydrates with fats and proteins to slow their absorption into the bloodstream. Carbohydrates are necessary components of a healthy diet because they provide energy for the body. Rather than limit carbohydrates entirely, work to incorporate healthy carbs into your diet plan. Remember to balance them with protein and fats.
  • Protein. This is the body’s building block. Protein from animal and some plant sources is a necessary component of a diet for diabetes. Protein helps your body build muscle, organs, and glands and carries vitamins from your bloodstream to your organs.  Protein doesn’t raise blood sugar, so it’s an important source of nutrients for diabetics.

Generally, a diabetic should look to have between 45-60 grams of carbohydrates in a meal, so controlling portion sizes and choosing healthy carbohydrates is a must.

Foods that contain carbohydrates include:
  • Fruits and fruit juice.
  • Grains such as rice, oatmeal, wheat, barley, and rye.
  • Grain-based products such as crackers, cereals, chips, and pasta.
  • Starchy vegetables like corn, peas, and potatoes.
  • Some salad dressings.
  • Milk and yoghurts.
  • Dried or canned beans like pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans, soybeans, and soy products.
  • Sweets like ice cream, candies, juices, cakes, and doughnuts.

Non-starchy vegetables have some carbohydrates as well, but the amounts are generally low and do not merit counting. Processed foods, especially those with added sugar, often have more carbohydrates than you might expect and bear examining closely.

Good Carb Choices for a Balanced Meal Plan

Carbohydrates that your body digests slowly are excellent choices in a diabetic diet plan. Slowly-digested carbs do not cause rapid spikes in blood glucose levels. They also help you maintain an even blood sugar level. The American Diabetes Association recommends these “Diabetes Superfoods” because of their superior nutritional value and an excellent source of slowly digestible carbs. These recommended foods are high in calcium, potassium, fibre, magnesium and vitamins A, C, and E.

  • Beans are excellent sources of fibre, magnesium, and potassium. They are also an excellent source of low-fat protein.
  • Dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, collards, and kale are low in carbohydrates and low in calories. You can eat these in unlimited amounts.
  • Citrus fruits in their whole, natural form, like grapefruits, oranges, lemons, and limes, are packed with fibre and vitamin C. Do not opt for their juice versions as those often have added sugars and eliminate much of the natural fibre. High-fibre foods also work to slow the digestion of carbs.
  • Sweet potatoes are an excellent alternative to white potatoes. Even though they are considered starchy, they are loaded with vitamin A and fibres for a lower impact on your blood glucose levels.
  • Berries are packed with antioxidants, fibre, and vitamins. Enjoy them in smoothies or as a healthy, sweet dessert after dinner instead of a cake, pie, or ice cream.
  • Tomatoes are packed with vitamin C, iron, and vitamin E, making them a nutritionally sound choice with low-carb values.
  • Omega 3 Fish are a must! Omega 3 fats are healthy fats that our bodies crave. Salmon is a favourite selection from this category. Avoid deep-fried fish as that overload of fats will have a negative effect on blood glucose levels.
  • Whole grains are important sources of fibre. Whole grains, like whole grain wheat, include all of the bran of the wheat kernel. Full of fibre, this type of grain has slowly digestible carbohydrates. Beware of processed bread that has labels like “multi-grain” as they usually are not whole wheat products. Look for labels that guarantee 100% whole wheat grains to get the best nutritional value. Also, choose other forms of whole grains like brown rice instead of white rice to increase fibre intake.
  • Nuts are also excellent sources of protein, magnesium, and healthy fats. A small handful of nuts can take the edge off hunger and make an excellent snack for diabetics.
  • Fat-free milk and yoghurt products provide essential calcium and vitamin D. Beware of added sugars in yoghurt products. Make sure you choose options that have lower carbohydrate levels to minimize the impact on blood glucose levels.

The key to managing diabetes is managing your diet. Diets filled with good proteins, vegetables, and smart carbohydrate choices like those listed here will ensure that you are eating a healthy diet that is well-rounded with variety to keep you within your target blood glucose ranges.

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