March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
There is no one diet for all people with diabetes. There is, however, a "recipe" for eating healthfully that is similar to recommendations for heart health, cancer prevention and weight management.
To successfully manage diabetes, you need to understand how foods and nutrition affect your body. Food portions and food choices are important. Carbohydrates, fat and protein need to be balanced to ensure blood sugar levels stay as stable as possible. (This is particularly important for people with Type 1 diabetes.)
The keys to a healthy eating plan are:
- Eat meals and snacks regularly (at planned times).
- Eat about the same amount of food at each meal or snack.
- Choose healthful foods to support a healthy weight and heart.
Put Together a Plan
You need a registered dietitian nutritionist on your team who will work with you to put together an individualized eating plan that takes into account your food preferences, level of physical activity and lifestyle.
Your RDN will work with you and your physician to strike the right balance between your eating plan and any diabetes medications you take.
Plan Healthy Meals
Good health depends on eating a variety of foods that contain the right amounts of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats, as well as vitamins, minerals, fiber and water. If you have diabetes, a healthy daily eating plan includes:
- Starchy foods including breads, cereals, pasta, rice, other whole grains and starchy vegetables such as beans, corn and peas
- Non-starchy vegetables including carrots, green beans and broccoli
- Lean meat, fish, poultry, low-fat cheese and tofu
- Fat-free or low-fat milk and yogurt
- Healthy fats such as plant-based oils and trans-fat-free spreads
The actual amounts of each food group depend on the number of calories you need, which, in turn, depends on your age, gender, size and activity level. Together with your RDN, you can develop an eating plan that is best for you.
Meal Plan Options: Food Lists and Carbohydrate Counting
Carbohydrates affect your blood sugar more than protein or fat. As your eating plan is designed, portioning out foods high in carbohydrates will help control blood sugar levels.
The food lists for diabetes planning uses food groups, like the ones listed above: starchy foods, vegetables, fruits, meats, dairy and fat. Within each food list are food choices that contain similar amounts of fat, protein and carbohydrates. Because foods are divided this way, you are able to substitute one food choice for another within any one group. For example, bread, cereal, rice and potatoes are all starch choices. Your eating plan will specify a certain number of starch choices that you can have for a meal or snack. You may then select any foods within the starch group that stay within the number of choices planned. For each meal you will likely have food choices from at least three to four food lists.
You may need to keep track of the amount of carbohydrates you eat and drink. Your RDN will determine a specific amount of carbohydrates for each meal or snack to ensure your blood sugar stays in good control. Your job is to learn the number of carbohydrates in each food and drink measured in grams or carb choices, then keep to the planned number at each meal and snack.
Carbohydrate counting gives you wiggle room in terms of making food choices since one carb choice equals 15 grams carbohydrate. However, to ensure you eat healthfully your focus should be on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans and low-fat milk. Sweets should be saved as occasional treats.
If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, seek the expert advice of a registered dietitian nutritionist to help you manage the disease while ensuring you get the nutrients your body needs.