What You Should Know About a Diet for Diabetes

Cutting back on carbohydrates is only one part of the eating changes necessary for diabetes management.

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Adiagnosis of type 2 diabetes demands a number of changes to everyday life. In addition to medications and more exercise, one of the biggest adjustments you have to make is to your daily diet. But a diet for diabetes isn’t simply one that includes fewer carbohydrates (though that is crucial). You’ll need to look at how you time your meals, how much protein and fiber you’re consuming, and get to know the foods you should be eating and those you should avoid.

“It may be a dramatic shift for some people, so I generally begin with one or two changes at a time,” suggests dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, with Preventive Cardiology at Cleveland Clinic. “For instance, start with focusing on meal timing or portion control or meal options—choosing whole grains, lean meats, and cutting out sweetened beverages.”

Count Your Carbs

Cutting out soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks is actually one of the single most important steps you can take to establish a healthy diet for diabetes. Zumpano adds that you’ll also need to cut back on certain condiments and other sweet additives, such as table sugar, agave nectar, syrup, honey, jams and jellies. Then, of course, you’ll also need to watch your intake of “full sugar” desserts and treats, such as cakes, pies, frosted cookies, donuts, and ice cream.

But it’s important to remember that you still need carbs for energy and good health.

“The goal is that a majority of your carbs are high in fiber,” Zumpano says. “That includes beans, lentils, brown rice, oats, whole-grain bread and pasta, fresh fruits, and vegetables with skin.” She recommends choosing carb foods that have at least three grams of fiber or more per serving. Reading labels and learning about the nutritional content of your food will be essential. You may be surprised how many carbs are in a wide range of foods.

“Most people only consider bread and bread products, rice and pasta when they are counting carbs,” Zumpano says. “All starches, including dried beans, lentils, corn, peas, oats, grains, snack foods (crackers, popcorn, etc.), are carbohydrates. Fruit, yogurt, milk and milk alternatives are also carbohydrates.”

So What Can You Eat?

Many people who get a type 2 diabetes diagnosis think they can’t eat any carbs, including the natural sugar in a piece of fruit, says dietitian Katherine Patton, RD, with Preventive Cardiology at Cleveland Clinic. “Fruit is not bad,” she explains. “You just have to be cautious of portion size. Choose an apple the size of a tennis ball, not a softball. Choose a small banana rather than the jumbo one-foot banana.”

You’ll also want to make sure you get enough protein. But be smart about it.

“Some people with type 2 diabetes try to do the Atkins diet and eat lots of high-fat protein sources, such as bacon, steak, and cheese,” Patton says. “But these patients are at increased risk of heart disease. Therefore, they should be choosing lean protein sources most often.”

You’ll have an easier time making healthy food choices if you plan meals ahead of time rather than decide what to eat at the last minute.

“Choose balanced meals and snacks,” Patton recommends. “Ensure all meals contain carbohydrate, protein, and fat. Also, try to follow the plate method at lunch and dinner: plate protein, plate whole grain starch, plate non-starchy vegetables, and possibly a fruit and/or milk product, depending on how much starch you ate. For snacks I recommend not eating carbohydrate alone. For example, do not eat fruit or pretzels by themselves. Always pair with protein—nuts, nut butter, cheese, or hummus, or eat just a protein or fat source as a snack instead of fruit or starch.”

Meal Planning

But another key part of meal planning is meal timing. “Do not skip meals, and do not go more than five hours without a meal or a snack,” Zumpano says. “You should eat within two hours of waking up in the morning, and then eat every four to five hours after that. Avoid eating within two hours of going to bed.”

Patton adds that while it’s common to wake up and not be hungry, skipping breakfast or any meal for that matter is especially risky if you have type 2 diabetes.

“Your body needs consistent blood sugar levels,” she says. “People with type 2 diabetes can continue to eat foods from all food groups. But the key is choosing the right sources and the right amounts consistently throughout the day. And even the ‘wrong’ types, like desserts and sweets, can be okay in moderation.”

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