Healthy eating is the cornerstone of diabetes management and can make all the difference in balancing your blood sugar and preventing the long-term effects of diabetes. And while it sometimes feels overwhelming, it doesn't need to be complicated. Eating with diabetes can still be delicious, exciting and simple (browse our healthy diabetes-friendly recipes to see for yourself!). And while you don't need to totally give up the foods you love, you may need to make some changes to your diet, like adding in more vegetables, switching to whole grains and opting for leaner cuts of meal more often. To make it easier to shift your eating habits, we have plenty of diabetes meal plans to follow along with (or simply use as healthy eating inspiration) and helpful articles to answer your questions about diabetes. But the most effective thing you can do to make sure healthy habits stick is to create an eating and exercise plan that works for you.
Here you'll learn how to create a diabetes meal plan that meets your individual needs for calories and carbohydrates, plus learn helpful tips (like easy portion control shortcuts and easy ways to incorporate exercise) to make it all as simple as can be. And remember, you don't have to do it alone. A diabetes educator or registered dietitian can help you figure it all out.
Don't Miss: 7-Day Diabetes Meal Plan
Everyone needs to eat a certain number of calories to survive. Eat more than you need and you gain weight; eat less (or burn more) than you need and you lose weight. It sounds simple, but how many calories do you really need? Calorie needs depend on gender, age, height, activity level, current weight, and the number of calories your body burns at rest.
First, start by figuring out how many calories you currently eat per day. For a few days, keep track of everything you eat and drink. Look at food labels, ask for the calorie and nutrient counts of restaurant foods, and record the number of calories, carbs and other nutrients of concern, such as saturated fat and sodium. Helpful websites and apps, like MyFitnessPal, make tracking easy. If this feels overwhelming, a registered dietitian or diabetes educator can help you tally it all up. This exercise will help you establish whether or not you're eating more calories than you need, which will then help to determine your calorie and carb goals for meal planning.
If you need to lose weight, the goal will be to follow a lower-calorie diet. If you are currently eating 2,300 calories, it's not realistic to drop down to a 1,200 calorie diet right away but better to start closer to where you are and slowly cut calories over time.
How Are You Spending Your Calories?
One way to think about your caloric intake is to imagine it like a "budget" where you "spend" your calories on food. The important thing is to spend your calories on food choices that will invest in your well being, not on items that will bankrupt your long-term health. In other words, fill your calorie requirements with nutrient-rich foods rather than nutrient-poor foods.
Invest in your health by:
- Substituting whole grains for foods made from refined grains; eating less refined sugar and flour
- Eating more vegetables and fruit; eating fewer french fries and sweetened drinks
- Drinking low-fat milk and eating yogurt; sticking to one serving of cheese
- Eating more lean chicken, fish, and beans; eating less high-fat fried chicken and fast food
- Choosing to use small amounts of fats like canola oil and olive oil rather than butter, stick margarine, shortening, or lard
- Making sweets, alcohol, and salty items occasional foods instead of an everyday occurrence
Creating a Balanced Diet
Try to eat a variety of foods from each food group—whole grains, lean protein, healthy fats, vegetables, fruits and calcium rich dairy (or dairy alternative)—as no single food group can meet all of your vitamin and mineral requirements. Also, there are no special "diabetic" foods you need to buy or a "diabetic diet" you need to follow, although you can include diet foods made with sugar substitutes to help keep blood sugar levels stable. A healthful eating plan that includes all of the major food groups is what's important, so strive for a mix in your day.
Read More: The Best Foods For Diabetes
Tracking and Counting Carbs
Pictured Recipe: Tomato & Smoked Mozzarella Sandwich
While you don't need to follow a "diabetic diet," it will be easier to manage your blood glucose if you eat similar amounts of carbohydrate at your meals from day to day. Carbohydrates, one of the three nutrients that provide calories from food (the other two are protein and fat), have the greatest impact on your blood glucose, particularly after eating. But that doesn't mean you should restrict foods that contain carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the body's main and preferred source of glucose. Your cells need glucose for energy and your body needs the ample energy, vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber that these healthy carbs contain.
Carbs can be found in many foods, including:
- Grains: such as bread, pasta, rice, popcorn, oatmeal, cornmeal, and cereal
- Starchy vegetables: such as potatoes, yams, acorn squash, carrots, and corn
- Non-starchy vegetables: such as spinach, salad greens, and green beans (a small amount)
- Beans and legumes: such as navy beans, kidney beans, black beans, and black-eyed peas
- Fruit: such as apples, grapes, strawberries, bananas, and oranges
- Dairy products: such as milk and yogurt and including dairy alternatives, like soy milk and sweetened coconut, rice and almond milks.
- Sweets: such as cookies, cakes, pies, ice cream, candy, and chocolate
- Sugary foods: such as regular soda, fruit drinks, hard candy, and syrups
There are no (or very few) carbs in these foods:
- Animal protein: such as fish, chicken, beef, pork, cheese, and cottage cheese
- Fats: such as oils, margarine, and bacon
How Many Carbs to Eat a Day
Pictured Recipe: Chicken Pesto Pasta with Asparagus
The second-most-asked question after "What do I eat with diabetes?" is "How many grams of carbohydrate should I eat a day?" As with the number of calories you need, the amount of carbohydrate you need depends on gender, weight, age, activity level, weight goals, and lipid levels. However, the American Diabetes Association offers a rough estimate you can use as a starting point. Talk to a registered dietitian for a personalized carb amount.
Here are how many carbs you need...
To lose weight:
- Women: 2-3 carb servings per meal (30-45 grams of carbohydrates)
- Men: 3-4 carb servings per meal (45-60 grams of carbohydrates)
To maintain weight:
- Women: 3-4 carb servings per meal (45-60 grams of carbohydrates)
- Men: 4-5 carb servings per meal (60-75 grams of carbohydrates)
For active people:
- Women: 4-5 carb servings per meal (60-75 grams of carbohydrates)
- Men: 4-6 carb servings per meal (60-90 grams of carbohydrates)
Note: one carb serving is 15 g of carbohydrates. So, if you eat a bag of potato chips with 30 g of carbohydrates, that is two carb servings.
It's important to watch portion sizes when you eat to help you lose or control weight. Because portion sizes vary depending on where you're eating and even the dishware you use, it can be tricky to know exactly how much you're eating at any given time. One thing that can help is to have a visual reference.
Some people use a food scale, measuring cups and spoons, and even their hands to gauge portion sizes. One method that helps with eyeballing portions as well as meal planning is the plate method. It's relatively easy to use; all you need is a plate that's 9 inches across. Then follow these simple guidelines. Don't miss our Diabetes-Friendly Easy Plate Method Dinners!
Non-starchy vegetables take up 1/2 of the plate.
Non-starchy vegetables include:
- salad greens
- sweet peppers
Lean protein takes up 1/4 of the plate.
Items with protein include:
- chicken breast
- salmon fillet
- ground beef
Grains or starchy vegetables take up 1/4 of the plate.
Grains and starchy vegetables include:
A medium-size piece of fresh fruit (about the size of a baseball) or 1/2 cup of canned or packaged fruit in its own juice can also be included.
Non-caloric beverages, such as water or unsweetened iced tea, and even ones made with sugar substitutes are good choices for low-carb drinks.
When to Eat
As a person with diabetes, you may find it easier to control your blood sugar levels if you eat on a regular schedule. To keep glucose and weight under control, it’s best to not skip meals. Try to eat every 4-5 hours. For breakfast, try to eat within 1-2 hours after getting up.
The Emotional Side of Eating
Pictured Recipe: Slab Chicken Pot Pie
It can be a challenge to eat healthfully at every meal, every day. Try your best to make healthy choices where and when you can. Take heart in knowing that no one is perfect—everyone has an off day now and again. It's important to keep trying and not be too hard on yourself. Having a positive attitude can help keep you motivated and feeling well.
One thing that can be extra helpful in keeping you on track is to make your own meals. Try not to dine out more than three times a week. Making your own meals increases your awareness of the foods you eat, is more practical to control portion sizes, and is easier to cook with healthful ingredients. Plus, it costs less!
Last But Not Least: Eat What You Love!
Food—sugar, carbs, fiber, protein—is not your enemy. With the help of a wide variety of tasty, carb-friendly recipes and quick tips to help you eat more healthfully, you can take control of your diabetes with every bite.