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Diabetic Patient Information: News

Diabetes Diet: Create Your Healthy-Eating Plan

Your diabetes diet is simply a healthy-eating plan that will help you control your blood sugar. Here's help getting started, from meal planning to exchange lists and counting carbohydrates.

By Mayo Clinic staff

Having diabetes doesn't mean that you have to start eating special foods or follow a complicated diabetes diet plan. For most people, a diabetes diet simply translates into eating a variety of foods in moderate amounts and sticking to regular mealtimes.

This means choosing a diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Consistency also is key, because your body responds to excess calories and fat by creating an undesirable rise in blood sugar. Rather than a restrictive diet, a diabetes diet is a healthy-eating plan that's naturally rich in nutrients and low in fat and calories. In fact, it's the best eating plan for everyone.

Planning your meals

Your meal plan is an eating guide that helps you:

  • Establish a routine for eating meals
  • Choose the healthiest foods in the right amounts at each meal

If you stick to your meal plan and watch your serving sizes, you'll eat about the same amount of carbohydrates and calories every day. This helps control your blood sugar and your weight. On the flip side, the more you vary what you eat — especially the amount of carbohydrates — the harder it is to control your blood sugar.

If you're already eating a variety of healthy foods, you may simply need to adjust portion sizes to keep your blood sugar (glucose) under control.

A dietitian can help
Ask your doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian. A visit with a registered dietitian can provide you valuable information on how to change your eating habits and help you meet goals such as:

  • Controlling overeating
  • Making better food choices
  • Losing weight

A dietitian can help tailor your diet based on your health goals, tastes and lifestyle. You may need to follow a more deliberate plan — eating only a recommended number of servings from each food group every day.

Using exchange lists

A dietitian may recommend using the exchange system, which groups foods into categories — such as starches, fruits, meats and meat substitutes, and fats.

One serving in a group is called an "exchange." An exchange has about the same amount of carbohydrates, protein, fat and calories — and the same effect on your blood sugar — as a serving of every other food in the same group. So, for example, you could exchange — or trade — either of the following for one carbohydrate serving:

  • 1 small apple
  • 1/3 cup of cooked pasta

Counting carbohydrates

Carbohydrate counting can also be a helpful meal-planning tool — making sure your timing and amount of carbohydrates are the same each day — especially if you take diabetes medications or insulin. If you eat more or less carbohydrates than usual at a given meal or from day to day, your blood sugar level may fluctuate more.

If you're counting carbohydrates, work with a dietitian to learn how to do it properly. If you're taking insulin, he or she can teach you how to count the amount of carbohydrates in each meal or snack and adjust your insulin dose accordingly.

Glycemic index
Some people who have diabetes use the glycemic index to select foods, especially carbohydrates. Foods with a high glycemic index are associated with greater increases in blood sugar than are foods with a low glycemic index. But low-index foods aren't necessarily healthier. Foods that are high in fat tend to have lower glycemic index values than do some healthier options.

Being consistent and adding variety

Consistent eating habits can help you control your blood sugar level. Every day try to eat about the same amount of food at about the same time. Include a variety of foods to help meet your nutritional goals. A dietitian can help you plan a program that meets these guidelines:

Nutrient Aim for
Carbohydrates 45 to 65% of daily calories
Protein 15 to 20% of daily calories
Fats 20 to 35% of daily calories

Eat healthy carbohydrates
During digestion, sugars (simple carbohydrates) and starches (complex carbohydrates) break down into blood sugar. Focus on the healthiest carbohydrates:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes (beans, peas and lentils)
  • Low-fat dairy products

Choose fiber-rich foods
Dietary fiber includes all parts of plant foods that your body can't digest or absorb. Fiber can decrease the risk of heart disease and help control blood sugar levels. Aim for 25 to 30 grams of fiber each day. Foods high in fiber include:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Legumes (beans, peas and lentils)
  • Whole-wheat flour
  • Wheat bran
  • Nuts

Limit saturated and trans fats
Diabetes increases your risk of heart disease and stroke by accelerating the development of clogged and hardened arteries. That's why heart-healthy eating becomes part of your diabetes diet. Get no more than 7 percent of your daily calories from saturated fat, and try to avoid trans fat completely. The best way to reduce the amount of saturated and trans fats you eat is to:

  • Limit solid fats. Reduce the amount of butter, margarine and shortening you eat.
  • Use low-fat substitutions. For example, top your baked potato with salsa or low-fat yogurt rather than butter. Try sugar-free fruit spread on toast instead of margarine.
  • Choose monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Aim for monounsaturated fats — such as olive oil or canola oil. Polyunsaturated fats, found in nuts and seeds, are a healthier choice as well. But moderation is essential. All fat is high in calories.

Curb dietary cholesterol
When there's too much cholesterol in your blood, you may develop fatty deposits in your blood vessels. Eventually, these deposits make it difficult for enough blood to flow through your arteries. To help keep your cholesterol under control, consume no more than 200 milligrams of cholesterol a day.

To reduce how much cholesterol you eat:

  • Use lean cuts of meat instead of organ meats
  • Choose egg substitutes over egg yolks
  • Opt for skim milk over whole milk products

Eat heart-healthy fish at least twice a week
Fish can be a good alternative to high-fat meats. Cod, tuna and halibut, for example, have less total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than do meat and poultry. Fish such as salmon, mackerel and herring are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which promote heart health by lowering blood fats called triglycerides.

The caveat? Avoid fried fish and fish with high levels of mercury, such as tilefish, swordfish and king mackerel.

Keeping your eyes on the prize

Embracing your healthy-eating plan is the best way to keep your blood sugar under control and prevent diabetes complications. For greater variety, work in your favorite foods and foods you haven't tried before. Get creative within the guidelines of your healthy-eating plan. Look for inspiration from others who are following a plan — and enjoying the benefits.


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