Planning Your Plate: A Diabetes Diet Guide

Diabetes and blood sugar control depend on a nutritious and diet

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

There are quite a few misunderstandings about diabetes. One major myth is that there is a specific "diabetes diet" that does not let patients eat certain items like sugar. In reality, eating right for your diabetes is more like eating healthy in general.

The real diabetes diet is known in the medical world as medical nutrition therapy (MNT). Instead of keeping diabetes patients away from certain foods, MNT gets patients to stick to regular meal times while eating foods that are naturally full of nutrients, low in fat, and low in calories. Patients are often encouraged to eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Why do diabetes patients need a healthy eating plan?

People with diabetes can no longer make or properly use insulin, a natural hormone that manages blood sugar. Without insulin, patients are at risk of high blood sugar levels, which can lead to problems in the kidneys, nerves, eyes, and feet.

After you eat, your body breaks down food and turns it into glucose, or sugar. This sugar then enters the bloodstream. At the same time, an organ called the pancreas makes insulin. Insulin's job is to move the sugar from the bloodstream into muscle, fat, and liver cells, where it is used as fuel.

If you have diabetes, eating a nutritious diet - in combination with insulin medications and other treatments - gives you the power to better control your blood sugar as well as other important aspects of your health, including blood pressure, cholesterol numbers, and weight.

Obesity is the main cause of diabetes around the world. Losing weight makes it easier to control blood sugar and provides many other health benefits. A nutritious, well-organized, and regular diet is crucial to cutting pounds, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol, and managing your diabetes in general.

How do you eat healthy for your diabetes?

First of all, you should see a dietitian. Your doctor will likely recommend one for you. The dietitian will guide you through dietary changes that enable you to manage your blood sugar and keep your weight under control.

One great way to avoid diabetes-related problems like heart disease and stroke is through eating healthy. Your diet will include a wide range of foods including:

  • vegetables
  • whole grains
  • fruits
  • non-fat dairy products
  • beans
  • lean meats
  • poultry
  • fish

The important thing about this diet is that there is not one magical food that will help control your diabetes. Rather, you need a variety of foods to get the nutrients you need. While making sure that your foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, also pay attention to how much you are eating. Portion size is an important part of a healthy diet.

Good Foods

Your diabetes diet, or MNT, is all about the quality of the food. If you have diabetes, some of your best food choices will include healthy carbohydrates, fiber-rich foods, heart-healthy fish, and "good" fats.

After eating, sugars (simple carbohydrates) and starches (complex carbohydrates) are broken down into blood sugar. The healthiest carbohydrates for people with diabetes include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, peas, lentils, and low-fat dairy products.

"It is extremely important for diabetics to stay away from sugar and all simple carbohydrates," says Mark Bans, D.C., of Bans Health & Wellness ( "Complex carbohydrates can be healthy for the body, but carb counting can help to keep the amount of those carbs under control. Some say you should stick below 120g of carbs per day, some advocate staying below 60g of carbs per day. One might think this is extreme, but given the amount of carbs that the typical person eats in a day, and the fact that carbs readily break down to sugar in the blood, it's a great way to keep blood sugar from spiking, assist in decreasing insulin resistance, and will also help one to lose weight."

Bans goes on to explain, "Everyone wants to say, 'as long as it's in moderation it's ok,' but to a diabetic or someone who is insulin resistant, saying that sugar or simple carbs or an excess of carbs is ok is like saying to a recovering alcoholic, 'it's ok, it's only a shot glass of whiskey.' Once someone's body is out of balance with a substance, moderation doesn't quite work so well and unfortunately, it's not just diabetics we are talking about here. It's most of our society, as we are completely out of balance with our sugar, processed food, fast food, and excess carbohydrate intake."

Dietary fibers are all the parts of plant foods that your body cannot break down or absorb. Fibers not only help control blood sugar levels, but also lower your risk of heart disease. Fiber-rich foods include vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, peas, lentils, whole-wheat flour, and wheat bran.

Even though all fats are high in calories, eating some fats in low quantities can lower your cholesterol levels. These so-called "good" fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) are found in foods such as avocados, almonds, pecans, walnuts, olives, canola oil, olive oil, and peanut oil.

Not-So-Good Foods

Because diabetes raises the risk for heart disease and stroke, it is a good idea to avoid the foods that add to that risk.

You do not want to eat foods with lots of saturated fat. Such foods include high-fat dairy products and meats like beef, hot dogs, sausage, and bacon. No more than seven percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fat.

You should totally avoid trans fats, which are found in processed snacks, baked items, and margarines.

High cholesterol adds to your risk of diabetes-related complications. As such, you should try to eat less than 200 milligrams of cholesterol per day. Cholesterol is found in high-fat dairy products, high-fat animal proteins (certain meats), egg yolks, shellfish, liver, and other organ meats.

Creating and Organizing Your Meal Plan

Now that you know what you should and shouldn't eat, you have to figure out what combinations of foods will make it easiest for you to keep your blood sugar levels in a normal range. There are three main methods for creating a diabetes diet. With the help of your dietitian, you will find which method works best for you. You might even find that a combination of methods is best way to take control of your diabetes.

The first method involves counting carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the things you eat that eventually break down into blood sugar. For this reason, they have the biggest effect on your blood sugar levels. It is important that you eat the same amount of carbohydrates each day at the same time every day. This is especially important if you take diabetes medications or insulin.

Your dietitian can show you how to measure food portions, read food labels correctly, and pay attention to carbohydrate content.

A second diet-planning method is called the exchange system. This system puts foods together in groups like carbohydrates, meats, meat substitutes, and fats.

One serving within a category is called an "exchange." One exchange has about the same amount of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and calories as every other food in that same group. For example, you could eat one small apple instead of 1/3 cup of cooked pasta to get one carbohydrate serving.

The last method for planning your diet uses the glycemic index. This index helps you choose foods, especially carbohydrates. If a food has a high glycemic index, it may increase your blood sugar more than a food with a low glycemic index. Having said that, foods with a low index are not necessarily healthy either. A food could still be high in fat while also having a low glycemic index.

Even though it seems like eating right for your diabetes is a daunting task, it really comes down to keeping track of what you eat and when you eat. You can keep your blood sugar under control and manage your diabetes if you work with your dietitian to create an organized, healthy meal plan. Plus, your diabetes diet is also a healthy choice for the whole family! 

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
August 11, 2011
Last Updated:
August 16, 2011