Eating to manage diabetes

A diabetes diet is simply eating to help you control blood sugar. What is known as medical nutrition therapy for diabetes means enjoying a variety of foods – and not limiting yourself as much as you might think.

When you have diabetes, a key part of your treatment is a food plan.  Much of the food we eat breaks down to glucose (also known as blood sugar), therefore a food plan is important.

A good food plan for diabetes helps you decide what, when, and how much to eat to help control your blood sugar. The basis for any diabetes food plan is a healthy diet that’s paired with a physical activity plan for optimal impact on your health.

The skinny on carbs
Carbohydrates are important because foods with carbs have the biggest impact on your blood sugar. The total carbs we eat include sugars and starches, both of which break down to a sugar in the blood known as glucose.  Blood glucose is a primary energy source for our bodies so it is needed for our health.  When the body doesn’t use glucose properly, it builds up in the bloodstream, glucose levels get too high, and you develop diabetes.

Carbohydrates are found in healthy plant foods such as grains, vegetables, and fruits.  They’re also found in milk and yogurt, and foods or beverages with added sugar.  Foods with carbohydrate provide energy as well as vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients needed for a healthy diet.

With a diabetes food plan, you should be able to eat foods with carbohydrate at each of three meals, as well as with snacks. The key is how much carbohydrate you eat at one time because too much at one time can raise glucose levels too high.

In order to know how much carbohydrate is right for you, we have several meal planning tools.

  • Plate Method: It’s the simplest of these tools. Think of your plate sectioned into 4 equal sections. Fill two of the sections with the lowest carbohydrate vegetables such as green bean, cabbage, broccoli, salad, etc.  Then in one section, put a starchy food such as whole grain pasta, brown rice, or lima beans.  The last section is for a protein food such as fish, chicken, lean pork or beef.  You may also include fruit, milk or yogurt which would be additional carbohydrate at the meal.
  • Carbohydrate Counting: A dietitian can help you decide the best amount of daily carbohydrate and how to distribute it among your meals and snacks. Your goal weight, lifestyle, food preferences, medications, and activity level are all considered when determining a meal plan with the dietitian. Carbohydrate in foods is counted in grams or “choices”.  One carb choice would be a serving of food or drink that has about 15 grams of carbohydrate.  On average, food plans include 2 to 4 carb choices or about 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate at each meal.
  • Glycemic Index (GI): The glycemic index measures how much a carbohydrate-containing food raises blood sugar when eaten by itself. When using this method for meal planning, the goal is to eat more of the low or medium GI foods because they will raise blood glucose less than higher GI foods.  Fiber and fat in foods tends to raise the glycemic index while processing foods tends to raise glycemic index.

It is important to remember that no one diet or food plan works the same for everyone.  Many people who don’t want to count carbs or refer to lists of foods and their glycemic index numbers may start with the Plate Method Tool. Carbohydrate counting may serve many people in controlling blood sugar, but down the road some may benefit from using glycemic index if their food plan needs some fine-tuning.

Remember, the basis for any diet or food plan for diabetes is a healthy diet.  Unfortunately, having diabetes does increase the risk for problems such as heart disease and therefore, eating a healthy diet is important in many fronts.

Here are some nutritious foods for everyone whether or not you have diabetes:

Fresh fruits and vegetables.  High in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber, these foods are naturally low in sodium and fats.  They add variety, color and flavor to meals and make excellent low calorie snacks.

Whole grains.  The recommendation is to make half of your grain intake whole grains and that means trying to eat at least three servings daily of whole wheat, barley, oats, quinoa, brown rice, or other source for whole grains.

Healthy fats and oils.  These are found in liquid oils, nuts, seeds, avocado, fatty fish.  Solid fats and shortenings which contain more saturated and trans fats tend to be less healthy for us.

Minimally processed foods.  Processing tends to reduce some healthy components of foods such as fiber and vitamin/minerals, while sometimes adding more harmful ingredients such as sodium, or other additives.  Choose more whole, minimally processed foods for a healthier diet.

For more information and supportive help from specially-trained diabetes management dietitians, please call 904.202.2140, or visiting

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