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What to eat when you have diabetes

Being conscious of what and how we eat is one of the best ways of managing blood sugars and limiting or reducing diabetes complications.

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

We’re all aware that diabetes is somewhat a dietary-based condition.

While some people with diabetes are taking medications to manage blood sugar, we are all keenly aware that food choices affect our blood sugars regardless of our type of diabetes.

Being conscious of what and how we eat is one of the best ways of managing blood sugars and limiting or reducing diabetes complications.

But managing what you eat and when you can eat it is not as easy as it may seem.

There might be some situations when you don’t feel able to control what you eat, such as when eating out at restaurants or ordering foods to go.

In this article, we’ll cover some vital information for managing a diabetic diet.

This will include the most important things to do and not do and the best foods for people with diabetes.

We’ll also look at the glycemic index and what to do in situations where you feel your diet might be beyond your control.

The dos and don’ts of a diabetic diet

Perhaps the most obvious place to start is by discussing the important things that are entirely within your control.

While it might take a bit of time to adjust to some of these changes, once you get the hang of them you’ll really start to notice the benefit in your everyday health.

Dos for eating with diabetes

Focus on lean protein

Protein is a vital part of everyone’s diet: it helps to build and maintain muscle, and is also broken down into glucose.

However, it’s broken down into energy less efficiently than carbs, so don’t look to protein as a major source of energy.

But what do we mean by lean protein?

Lean protein is low-fat protein. It comes from animal sources including poultry and fish, and some cuts of red meat.

These include loins and rounds, as these are generally the less fatty parts of an animal.

Red meat, such as steak, is usually higher in fat because of where it comes from on the animal.

While you can trim the fat from fattier cuts of meat, but it’ll generally never be as low fat as something that’s already a leaner cut.

Also, look to plant-based proteins for a great source of lean protein that’s also high in fiber and nutrients.

Sources such as soy, beans, and nuts are all high in protein and contain plenty of essential nutrients that you won’t find in meat.

Stock up on vegetables

This might seem obvious, but vegetables are a diabetic diet’s best friend.

Not only are veggies low in calories and fats, they also provide great sources of simple and complex carbohydrates.

What’s more, they’re packed full of nutrients that the body needs to function properly.

Vegetables should make up the greatest portion of your diet anyway, so all you need to do is step up your consumption.

Stick with raw unprocessed vegetables that you cook yourself. Pre-cut vegetables are generally fine, but stay away from anything that looks overly processed.

Raw, frozen veggies in your freezer section are also. a great option. Just be sure they do not have added sugars, sauces, or other ingredients.

The easiest way to cook vegetables is to steam them, and this also retains the greatest amount of nutrients.

However, you can also roast them with some avocado oil and seasoning for extra taste.

Some of the best vegetables for people with diabetes include spinach, broccoli, sweet potato, and cauliflower.

These are all low in carbs, high in protein, and contain essential nutrients like iron and vitamin B.

Be mindful of dairy

Dairy is a difficult subject for people with diabetes.

On the one hand, it’s a source of protein, calcium, and other minerals. On the other hand, dairy is often calorie-rich and high in saturated fats.

In short, you don’t have to completely say no to dairy, you just need to be careful with your consumption.

Switching to plant-based milk and yogurt can be a good way to cut down on overall consumption, and some products are so good you can’t even tell the difference.

Here’s. a video on making plant-based milks at home.

Is the Almond Cow plant-based milk machine worth it?

Of course, limit from full-fat dairy, such as milk, heavy cream and cheese, as this will increase your risk of heart disease in the long term.

Diet Don’ts for people with diabetes

Limit red meat

We’ve covered this briefly already, but it deserves a bit more attention.

Don’t avoid red meat altogether, as it contains some nutrients you can’t find elsewhere, but do limit your consumption.

This fact is true for everyone, not just people with diabetes.

At most, you should have one meal a week based around red meat, and even then the portion shouldn’t be massive.

Red meat has been linked to a number of health conditions, including heart disease and cancer.

These affect everyone, but people with diabetes are more at risk for these conditions.

Stay clear of processed foods

Whatever you do, stay away from processed foods. This can be something of a gray area, as pre-chopped vegetables are technically processed.

Therefore, for a better understanding, you need to learn some key indicators of overly processed food.

The first is to look at the ingredient list. If it’s super long, this is usually a sign of highly processed food.

Take this with a grain of salt, though, because foods can contain a lot of ingredients that are actually all-natural.

Another common suggestion is to look out for ingredients you can’t pronounce or understand. Again, this is a bit iffy, as something like xanthan gum (a stabilizer) is technically natural and on its own isn’t that harmful.

Simply put, look out for foods containing hidden sugar and sodium. These come in forms such as corn syrup, maltose, monosodium glutamate, and more.

Generally speaking, pre-packaged foods with long ingredient lists will be highly processed and so should be avoided.

However, if you’re in doubt, simply look the ingredients up in an online search, or with food apps.

Don’t overdo it with fruit

On the surface, fruit seems to be a good addition to your diet. However, it’s much higher in sugar than vegetables, and serving sizes are much more important.

An apple or orange is good for a dessert, particularly with some low fat yogurt.

Fruit is a good source of carbs and minerals, and is low in calories, but much of it contains simple sugars that can cause spikes.

Fruit is incredibly valuable to your diet, just make sure to weigh and measurement.

What about alcohol in a diabetes diet?

Realistically, alcohol could be included in the list above, but it deserves its own attention.

Alcohol is something of a minefield for people with diabetes, and here’s why:

  • Alcohol is sometimes high in sugar, surprisingly high.
  • It stimulates your appetite.
  • Alcohol raises blood pressure and can interfere with some medications, causing low blood sugar.
  • It impacts your willpower, making it more difficult to make appropriate food choices.

This isn’t to say people with diabetes should avoid alcohol altogether. However, you should limit yourself to a maximum of two drinks a day, and consume them with food. A drink can be a 5 ounce glass of wine or bottle/ or 12 ounce beer.

Also, avoid obviously sweet drinks like pre-mixed cocktails and sweet wines, which will raise your blood sugars.

What is glycemic index and why should you pay attention to it?

When learning about what to eat with diabetes, you might have come across the term glycemic index. But what does it mean and why is it important?

Glycemic index (GI) is a system that rates a food’s carb content. It refers to the speed at which a food affects your blood sugar levels when eaten on its own.

Foods that are high GI contain simple or processed carbs that are broken down quickly and can cause blood sugar spikes. These include:

  • Potatoes
  • Sugary drinks
  • Sweet food
  • White bread
  • White rice

Foods that are low GI generally contain complex carbs that are broken down slowly, leading to a slow rise in blood sugar levels. These include:

  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Wholegrain foods
  • Beans
  • Lentils

The importance of GI is perhaps already obvious: high GI foods are more likely to cause spikes and crashes in your blood sugar levels, which you want. to avoid.

Keeping your blood sugars in range reduces risk for overall diabetes complications.

However, you shouldn’t pay attention to glycemic index ratings alone.

This is because cooking can impact a food’s GI, as can its inclusion in a larger meal plan.

Also, the inclusion of fat can lower a food’s GI, which on the surface sounds like a good thing. But when you consider that chocolate has a low GI, the limitations become obvious.

Glycemic index is clearly important for people with diabetes. However, using it on its own could lead to an imbalanced diet and gaps in your nutrition.

Educate yourself on the index and where common foods fall, but use this information as part of your greater plan.

It should only be one of a number of resources you use for a healthy and balanced diet.

The best foods for people with diabetes

We’ve already touched upon a number of the best foods for diabetes, but here’s a more comprehensive list of the most important ones to include in your diet:

Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list. In fact, you should use it as a starting point to direct you towards the best foods for managing diabetes.

Using this list and the tips above, and talking with a nutritionist or dietitian should give you plenty of help putting together a clear diet plan.

How to manage your diet in restaurants

Eating out or ordering to go present their own challenges when trying to manage a diabetic diet.

However, you shouldn’t avoid them completely – you still want options when you’re eating socially with friends and family.

Instead, you just need to be careful with what you order and know what kinds of food are best and worst for your condition.

Realistically, you can use the information above as a starting point, but here are some more specific tips:

Look out for hidden dangers

Some types of cuisine are better starting places than others.

Food with a lot of fat and salt may taste good, but should typically be limied in your diet.

Know before you go a do a little bit of research about the menu for the restaurant you’re choosing.

Ask for a modified version

Gone are the days when people with dietary requirements had to make do with a salad.

Many restaurants have procedures in place to accommodate dietary requirements, so it’s always worth asking. For example, they might be able to steam rice rather than fry it, grill meat rather than fry it, or offer a reduced portion.

If you’re truly in doubt about what to do, choosing vegetarian or vegan dishes is always a good starting point.

Be consistent with your meal times

Hopefully, this is something you do anyway, but be consistent with when you eat.

Book tables at your usual meal times to help you maintain your medication routine. The same goes for ordering take out: many places let you book a delivery or collection time, so take advantage of that.

Don’t be afraid to plan ahead

If you’re eating out with friends and think you might feel rushed picking a meal, look the menu up in advance.

This will give you time to check it over properly and pick the meal that best suits your diet.

Also, don’t be afraid to call a restaurant and see if they’ll make modifications for you.

Almost all chefs are happy to do this, but the more notice they’re given, the better.

Some final thoughts about cooking and eating with diabetes

Putting together a healthy and balanced diet for diabetes can take some work.

It requires planning and quite a bit of food prep, which can be big barriers if they’re not things you’re used to.

However, putting in the extra effort will do wonders for your overall health and will make it much easier to manage diabetes. What’s more, once you’re in a good routine of cooking and prepping food, you won’t even notice it.

Tips and recipes for managing blood sugar with diet

About Mila

Hi! I'm Mila.

I’m earning my Master’s degree in Applied nutrition.

I’m a journalist and Integrative Nutrition Health Coach living with  LADA (Latent Autoimmune Diabetes in Adults, a slow-progressing form of autoimmune Type 1 diabetes) I love food, travel, and my kitchen, and teaching you about diabetes self-management.

I’m here to help you live your best life possible diabetes by showing you how to create simple, blood-sugar friendly and delicious meals and tips on diabetes self-care.

Be sure to download my FREE Diabetes Community App Glucose Guide, or reach out for FREE 1:1 diabetes health and habit coaching.

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