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Published on May 30, 2020

Healthy Eating for Diabetes

woman with grocery bag

Diabetes is a growing problem in the United States. Diabetes is a condition in which sugar levels in the blood are elevated. A related, and often undiagnosed condition called pre-diabetes occurs when blood sugar levels are high but not high enough to reach an official diabetes diagnosis.

Left untreated, high blood sugar, or glucose, levels can cause complications such as tingling of the fingers and toes, blurred vision, heart attack, stroke, kidney disease or even loss of limbs.

The good news is that both diabetes and pre-diabetes are very manageable. With proper diet and exercise, many people live long healthy lives by controlling blood glucose levels.

Finding a meal plan

Kelly Cantrell, RD, a Certified Diabetes Educator®, at EvergreenHealth, says, “A key factor in controlling diabetes is balancing your meals. As long as you focus on portion sizes, most foods can be included in your meal plan.”

Kelly states that healthy eating for diabetes is the same as for the general population: choose a mix of carbohydrates, protein, and fat at each meal.

Carbohydrates include whole grains, fruit, starchy vegetables and milk. People with diabetes must be especially careful about the amount of carbohydrates they eat because they directly raise the blood glucose.

Good carbohydrate management can allow people with diabetes to choose a variety of foods without causing increased blood glucose.

“You must keep your carbs in check, not eat too many at one time, and make sure they’re spaced throughout the day so you don’t spike your blood sugar,” she says.

No particular diet will be the right one for everyone with diabetes.

People who are insulin treated need to make healthy food choices and match their insulin dosage to the amount of carbohydrates they plan to eat, says Kelly. They can include a variety of foods in their diet and keep blood glucose in balance when they learn to use an appropriate pre-meal dose of insulin.

For people with all types of diabetes, Kelly says, it is important to follow a healthy diet and exercise program as well as maintain a healthy weight.

“Lifestyle changes, eating right, and exercising, are the first steps,” says Kelly. “It really is a self-managed disease.”

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends meeting with a Certified Diabetes Educator or registered dietitian (RD) to determine the best plan to manage your diabetes.

Many approaches can be effective – some follow low-carb plans, while others prefer a plant-based diet.

Research has found that plant-based diets are particularly effective, despite being high in carbohydrates, because they are generally high in fiber and low in fat.

Other meal patterns include the Plate Method (similar to the new federal ChooseMyPlate guidelines) or carbohydrate counting.

Carb guidelines vary from person to person, but women should generally get about 30-45 grams of carbs per meal, men about 45-60 grams.

Kelly suggests spacing meals throughout the day, starting with breakfast.

She doesn’t recommend a particular diet but encourages people to choose lean protein sources, complex carbs and whole fruits and vegetables.

It is helpful to avoid highly processed starches and juices.

Complex carbs, like legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, have more fiber and take longer for your body to digest, resulting in a slow and steady release of sugar into the blood.

Simple carbs, like white flour products and sugars, break down quickly and can cause a spike in blood sugar.

An individualized diabetes meal plan can help you determine the approach that’s best for you. EvergreenHealth offers diabetes management programs and classes to help you on this journey.

Making Healthy Food Choices

The American Diabetes Association offers these tips on making healthy food choices for those with diabetes or blood sugar issues and their families:

  • Watch your portion sizes. Eating too much of even healthful foods can lead to weight gain.
  • Make half your plate vegetables and fruits. Eat all colors of the rainbow.
    Eat non-starchy vegetables – spinach, carrots, broccoli, and green beans, for example – at mealtime.
  • Starchy vegetables include sweet potatoes, corn, peas, beets, and winter squashes and should be counted as carbohydrates.
  • Choose whole grain foods over processed grain (“white”) products. Try swapping brown rice or whole wheat spaghetti in your meals.
  • Include beans (such as kidney, garbanzo or pinto beans) and lentils in your meals. While these are considered starchy vegetables, they are high in fiber and protein.
  • Include fish in your meals 2-3 times a week.
  • Choose lean meats such as chicken and turkey with the skin removed or cuts of beef and pork that end in "loin" such as sirloin.
  • Don’t drink your calories or carbs. Choose water and avoid regular soda, fruit punch, sweet tea, and flavored coffee drinks.
  • Choose liquid oils (olive, canola) for cooking instead of solid fats, which can be high in saturated and trans fats. Remember that fats are high in calories, so limit your intake if you’re trying to lose weight.
  • Limit high-calorie snacks and desserts like chips, cookies, cakes and ice cream for the occasional treat

The ADA particularly recommends the following 10 “superfoods” to superpower your eating plan:

  • Beans – kidney, pinto, navy, or black – give you a third of your daily fiber requirement in just a half-cup serving and are high in magnesium and potassium. Though considered a starchy vegetable, the beans in that half-cup serving also provide the protein of an ounce of meat but without the saturated fat.
  • Dark green, leafy vegetables – spinach, collards, kale – are full of vitamins and low in calories and carbs, so you can eat as much as you want.
  • Citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and limes give you fiber and vitamin C.
  • Sweet potatoes are a starchy vegetable but are loaded with vitamin A and fiber. They are digested more slowly than white potatoes, which your body treats like simple carb.
  • Berries are full of antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber -- and sweet enough for dessert!
  • Tomatoes provide essential nutrients such as vitamin C, iron, and vitamin E.
  • Whole grains contain magnesium, chromium, omega 3 fatty acids, and folate, along with fiber.
  • Nuts provide healthy fats and can help you feel less hungry when you eat them as a snack between meals. Nuts contain magnesium and fiber, and some, like walnuts, also contain omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Fish that is high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, is a healthy choice. Remember to choose grilled or baked over breaded and fried.
  • Fat-free dairy products give you calcium to help build strong bones and teeth, and many products are fortified

Resources for Eating Right with Diabetes

  • EvergreenHealth's Diabetes Fundamentals Classes: for information and registration call 425.899.4030 or get more information.
  • American Diabetes Association (ADA) At the ADA’s Center for Information and Community Support, 1-800-DIABETES (342-2383), representatives answer questions and can send diabetes information brochures or the What Can I Eat? The Diabetes Guide to Healthy Food Choices for free.
  • Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine offers information, research and tips on how to prevent and reverse diabetes through plant-based eating.
  • offers various resources for diabetes support
  • offers an app and website for tracking calories and carbohydrates
  • offers an app and website for tracking calories, nutrients and carbohydrates
  • offers and app and website to help manage blood sugar
  • Calorie King is a resource with information on portion sizes and nutrition for thousands of foods, including chain restaurant items.
Expert IconMeet the Expert

Kelly Cantrell, RD

Kelly Cantrell, RD, is a Certified Diabetes Educator®, at EvergreenHealth.

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