Eating Well - Adopting a diabetes-friendly diet

Written by Laurie Syring, RD/LD. Posted in Health and Beauty

The month of November has been designated National Diabetes Month, a topic close to my heart as my dad had type 1 diabetes and now my son has type 1 as well. Although type 2 diabetes is much more prevalent and more of a lifestyle-related disease, it is still an impairment of the pancreas that prevents it from secreting adequate amounts of insulin into the bloodstream where it helps the sugar from food enter the cells where it is used for energy.

How prevalent is diabetes? The numbers are staggering! One in ten Americans has diabetes, and another 84 million are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. So, this month’s column is dedicated to raising awareness of this illness, promoting healthy living, and reducing the risk factors for developing diabetes.

In terms of risk factors for type 2 diabetes, one of the biggest is obesity. Fortunately, this major factor is modifiable—it can be controlled and improved through proper diet and physical exercise. For most people with type 2 diabetes, weight loss can also make it easier to control blood glucose and offers a host of other health benefits.

Today we’re going to focus on a “diabetic diet.” Although the American Diabetes Association doesn’t prescribe one particular diet, they do recommend choosing an eating plan that is healthy and well balanced with carbohydrates. The right diet for a diabetic is one that focuses on three key elements—eating moderate amounts of food, making healthy food choices, and establishing routine mealtimes.

A diabetic diet is a healthy diet, rich in nutrients and low in fat and calories. The main foods are fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. As regular readers of this column know, this healthy way of eating isn’t just good for people who have diabetes or want to lower their risk of developing the disease, but for the whole family as well.

Right about now, many of you are probably thinking, “What about carbs?” Carbohydrates (sugars, starches, and fiber in food) raise blood sugar levels faster than protein and fats do. In fact, they have the biggest effect on blood sugar. Nonetheless, your body needs them. Eating carbohydrates in a meal along with fats and protein actually curbs the rise in blood sugar after a meal. So, the goal isn’t to exclude carbs. Rather, it’s to aim for a variety and consistent intake of carbohydrates.

What does this look like in practice? For breakfast you might choose a high-fiber carbohydrate along with lean protein and “good” fat, e.g. whole-grain toast and an egg-white omelet with spinach, broccoli, and tomatoes made in a little olive oil.

For lunch, follow the same concept of combining high-fiber carb with lean protein and healthy fat, such as a turkey wrap made with a whole-grain, low-carb tortilla, roasted turkey meat, part skim cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes.

Likewise for dinner, you could choose quinoa, grilled or baked fish, and a sensible amount of olive oil, olives, or avocado with the fish.

For a healthy snack, choose fresh vegetables and hummus, a packet of tuna with six whole-grain crackers, an apple with peanut butter, or popcorn.

Are you seeing the pattern here? Make healthy choices at routine(ish) times.

Contrary to popular misconception, eating healthy and balanced meals when you have diabetes and are trying to work on your weight doesn’t mean you can’t eat foods that taste delicious. I always tell my patients, “The proof is in the pudding,” so to speak. By checking your blood sugar one to two hours after a meal, you can find out if what you’re eating is just right or too much. Tracking your blood sugar from meal to meal will reveal which foods and combinations of foods work best for you. Of course, if you have diabetes, you should be consulting with your doctor and a dietitian to help with your eating plans and medications.

So, what I hope you’ll take away from this article is that you can help keep your blood glucose level in a safe range by making healthy food choices and tracking your eating habits.

Guidance is available out there if you need it. Though the American Diabetes Association doesn’t promote any one diet, they do promote the MyPlate method (, which recommends filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables, a quarter with lean protein, and the other quarter with whole grain. Other diets, including Carbohydrate Gram Counting and the Mediterranean diet, have also been found helpful in controlling blood glucose.

Whatever diet you choose, choose what will work for you. Find healthy substitutions for your favorite foods, learn to enjoy the taste of eating right (well?), and, of course, get a 30-minute dose of exercise every day.

Laurie Syring, RD/LD, is Clinical Nutrition Manager at ProMedica Flower Hospital.