Eating Well with Diabetes

Written by Amy Hess-Fischl, MS, RD, LDN, BC-ADM, CDE

Eating well with type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes means that you can eat the same healthy diet that's good for everyone—a diet that incorporates a variety of nutritious and delicious foods. Healthy foods can help you maintain normal blood glucose levels and manage your diabetes.

There's actually no such thing as a diabetic diet, so thoughts of bland, boring food should be immediately erased from your mind!  When you have diabetes, it's important to eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, non-fat dairy foods, lean meats, beans, and healthy fats (eg, olive oil).

In fact, if you take a look at the USDA’s MyPlate, it emphasizes ½ the plate as fruits and vegetables, which is also encouraged for those with diabetes.  So, it's mportant to understand that regardless of whether someone has diabetes or not, the meal plan recommendations are the same:

To help you create a healthy eating plan that works best for you, work with a registered dietitian (RD or RDN) or a certified diabetes educator (CDE). An RDN and/or CDE can also teach you how to read food labels and count the number of carbohydrates in your food—crucial information for people with diabetes since carbs are the main fuel source that breaks down into sugar which will affect blood glucose levels.

Carbohydrates are essential for our body to work properly, so don't eliminate them from your eating patterns. It may be necessary to limit the amounts consumed at one time. But, keep in mind that if you want to get an education about nutrition, it's best to see a registered dietitian. For Medicare, Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT), is a covered benefit if it is provided by an RDN. Go to eatright.org to find one.

Eating Well with Type 1 Diabetes
When you have type 1 diabetes, it's a balancing act of healthy eating and the insulin you take to achieve blood glucose levels as close to normal as possible. Having type 1 diabetes means that your body can't fully use the carbohydrates you're eating unless you balance it with the right amount of insulin.

Insulin—a hormone produced by your pancreas—binds with glucose and transports it throughout the body. The insulin helps your body, especially your muscles, use glucose efficiently.

Because what you eat and how much insulin you take needs to be in sync to maintain normal blood glucose levels, eating well with type 1 diabetes means you need to plan your meals.

An RDN or CDE can help you kick-start your meal planning.

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Counting carbs also play a significant role in eating well with type 1 diabetes. The carbohydrates we eat, such as bread and pasta, eventually become glucose in our blood. These foods can cause blood glucose levels to soar. You need to manage the carbs you eat to avoid spikes in your blood glucose levels. Balancing the carbs you eat with the correct amount of insulin helps you achieve this.

It's also important to dose your insulin at the right time in order to reduce the spikes after meals. For rapid-acting insulin, it is recommended to take the dose 5 - 15 minutes before the meal. However, you may find that for certain meals and foods, you will need to inject the dose earlier. A CDE or knowledgeable health care provider (HCP) can work with you to individualize your dosing requirements in relation to your meals. 

Counting carbs and testing your blood glucose levels just after your meals will help you determine if you had the right dose of insulin. They can also help you learn how to make adjustments for future meals.

Eating Well with Type 2 Diabetes

With type 2 diabetes, your body produces insulin but doesn't use it properly. To manage your condition, you need to become knowledgeable about incorporating a variety of nutritious foods into your diet and watching how much you eat.

You won't need to take insulin (unless your body isn't producing enough of it), but you may need to take medications to help your body process insulin sufficiently so that it binds with glucose to give your cells energy. Keep in mind, the longer a person has type 2, the more likely the need for taking insulin will be.

While a healthy eating plan for people with type 2 diabetes includes meal planning and counting carbs, portion control is key to eating well when you have type 2 diabetes.

You can work with an RDN or CDE to help you downsize your portions if you need to do that. He or she can teach you what to eat at each meal. For example, at dinner, you should fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables (eg, spinach or broccoli), ¼ of your plate with a lean meat or protein (eg, chicken or fish), and the other ¼ of your plate with a starch food (eg, whole grain pasta, brown rice).

To help you plan delicious and diabetes-friendly meals, we have an entire section of diabetic recipes. Check it out today for ideas on how to cook fresh, flavorful meals.

Healthy Food Choices Matter for Everyone

The bottom line when it comes to eating well with type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes is making smart food choices matter. Becoming aware of how much you eat, what and when you eat and how your body responds may take a little time and experimenting. Working with knowledgeable HCP will make the task feel much less overwhelming and aid you in your diabetes management. 

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