Diabetes-Friendly Diets — What Foods to Eat and What to Avoid?
Your doctor tells you that you have diabetes or even metabolic syndrome or prediabetes. The first step is to control it through a healthy diet.
When it comes to diabetes diets, research shows that there is no “one-size-fits-all” meal plan. With such a broad spectrum of people with diabetes and prediabetes, many factors play a role in how you will respond to a certain way of eating, such as your cultural background, food preferences and sensitivities, lifestyle, unique medical history, and socioeconomic background.
There are several food choices and patterns of eating that can help people achieve their individual health goals.
Below we will explore what our diabetes friendly diet looks like, all about carbohydrates, foods to eat and foods to avoid, and tips for creating a balanced, diabetes friendly meal.
All about Carbs: what you should know
Individuals with diabetes do not need to avoid carbohydrates altogether.
Carbohydrates are a source of energy, but also have the greatest impact on your blood sugar. Your body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose molecules, which contribute to the level of glucose in your bloodstream. Your body will use the glucose for energy, or if it is in excess, will store the glucose as fat.
If your blood glucose is not managed, it can remain high and poisonous to all tissues in the body, leading to serious effects such as damage to the nerves, brain, liver, muscles, kidneys, blood vessels, eyes and heart.
The three main types of carbs in food are starches, sugars, and fiber. The goal when choosing carbohydrates for diabetes is to choose nutrient dense, whole foods that are rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals, and are low in added sugars.
Fiber is a good carb for diabetes because it helps to slow the digestion of dietary sugars and fats, which helps with blood sugar levels. It also helps contribute to a feeling of fullness and satiety after a meal, which can help to maintain a healthy body weight. Lastly, it is beneficial for gut health by feeding the good gut bacteria and acting as an inner “broom” to move waste through the digestive tract. Fiber is found in vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains.
Carbohydrate Quality: Simple Versus Complex Carbohydrates
Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Simple and complex carbohydrates act very differently in the body. When choosing carbohydrate foods for diabetes, it is best to opt for complex carbs.
Simple carbohydrates are easily digested and absorbed and can cause a blood sugar spike. A spike in blood sugar often leads to a dip in energy. It can also contribute to worsening of diabetes, weight gain, heart disease and even “ brain fog” and memory loss. You will likely find yourself craving more and more carbs due to a blood glucose level drop about 2-3 hours after eating.
In addition, the nutrient value of these foods is minimal, and they do not contain fiber which helps to keep you full.
Simple carbohydrates include white bread, white pasta, white rice, sugar, sweets, candy, pastries, sweetened beverages, soda, and fruit juices.
Complex carbohydrates are healthy carbs for individuals with diabetes. Complex carbs digest slower and leave you with longer lasting energy. They contain fiber to promote a gradual, natural blood sugar rise instead of a spike then a dip. They are more nutrient dense and often contain more B vitamins, iron, folate, potassium, selenium and magnesium.
Complex carbs leave you feeling more satisfied with less calories.
Complex carbs include vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains such as brown rice, wild rice, quinoa and oats.
It is helpful to note that many complex carb foods, such as fruits, have a mix of carbohydrates including both natural sugar and fiber. Be mindful that the tropical fruits such as pineapple, mango and papaya, as well as dried fruits, tend to have higher amounts of natural sugars.
Simple swaps to boost your complex carb intake:
- Pasta —> zucchini noodles, spaghetti squash, miracle noodles, palmini, lentil pasta, black bean pasta, soybean pasta, chickpea pasta.
- Crackers —> almond flour crackers, nut and seed crackers.
- White rice —> brown rice, wild rice, cauliflower rice.
It is beneficial to calculate the carbs that you receive from a meal as the net carbs.
Net carbohydrates = total carbohydrates – fiber
For example: a serving of red lentil curry is 30 g carb but has 11 g fiber, so the net carb is the total carb (30 g) minus the fiber (11 g) and will give you 19 g net cabs.
Fiber is a form of carbohydrate that is not digested and absorbed by the body. It actually helps to delay the absorption of the carbs from a meal which helps to avoid a blood sugar spike and a dip.
Net carbs are the carbohydrates left over that will be absorbed by the body.
How many Carbs should I be eating?
It is beneficial to keep track of how many carbohydrates you are getting at each meal. The amount of recommended carbs per day on your diabetes diet will vary based on your individual medical history, preferences, exercise and energy needs. In general, those with type 2 diabetes aim for about 30-60 g of total carbs per meal and up to 20 g of carbs at snacks.
LifeChef diabetes meal plan provides whole food and whole grain carbohydrates sources and aims for a maximum of 35 g net carbs at a meal. This approach supports creating a balanced meal with one protein component, 1-2 non-starchy vegetable components and an optional complex carb component. The LifeChef Diabetes Friendly diet supports a lower carbohydrate diet for diabetes with carb intake of about 120-175 g of total carbs for the day or about 90-145 g net carbs per day to promote healthy blood sugar levels. Discuss with your Doctor or Dietitian, the right amount for you.
You should try to evenly spread your carb intake at each meal instead of eating a large portion all at one time. Aim for 3 meals a day, and an optional 1-2 protein and fiber rich snacks, as needed. For example, you might aim for about 30 g net carbs at 3 meals plus two snacks of 15 g net carbs to equal 120 g net carbs for the day.
It is important to monitor your blood sugar levels in order to find the best portions for you, and to assess how any particular food affects your blood glucose fluctuations. For example, some people notice that white potatoes will spike their blood sugar but quinoa will not.
The Power of Protein
Protein is beneficial for building and repair of all body tissues and organs as well as immune health, mood and satiety. Protein intake is necessary for diabetes because it can help to slow the absorption of carbohydrates at a meal so that you do not get as big of a spike in blood sugar when compared to eating carbs alone. It is important to include protein at each meal to promote satiety, energy and stable blood sugar levels.
Beware that an excess of protein gets converted into carbohydrates by your body for energy production, thus, can impact your blood sugar. Spread protein intake throughout the day to include some at each meal.
Your protein needs will vary based on your individual needs and activity level. In general, aim for about 20-30 g of protein at each meal.
Fats and Blood Glucose
Healthy fats are beneficial for skin health, hormone health, mood and energy. Fats help to slow the absorption of carbohydrates, and when eaten in moderation, do not negatively impact blood sugar.
However, eating too much fat can delay the rise of blood glucose and leave you with higher blood sugar levels for a longer period of time. Aim for about 1-2 T healthy fat at meals such as olive oil, nuts, seeds, ghee, avocado, avocado oil, coconut or full fat dairy, and avoid processed and refined oils and too much saturated fat.
Foods to eat for Diabetes:
Focus on whole foods and nutrient dense food choices.
- Fish/seafood such as salmon, cod, tuna, trout, haddock, mackerel, herring, shrimp, scallops and crab
- Meats such as poultry, beef, pork, lamb and wild game
- Plant proteins such as beans, lentils, edamame and tofu
- olive oil, avocado, butter, ghee, coconut, nuts and seeds
- Full fat dairy such as yogurt, kefir, milk and cheese
- leafy greens (spinach, lettuce, kale, spring mix, Swiss chard, beet greens, etc.), broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, green beans, zucchini, spaghetti squash, mushrooms and others
- Fruits, specifically low glycemic fruits such as berries, cherries, grapefruit, oranges, pears, apples and peaches
- Starchy vegetables: sweet potatoes, winter squash, purple potatoes, corn, beets, parsnips
- Whole grains such as brown rice, wild black rice, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, and oats
- Dark chocolate – 70% or higher
- water, unsweetened coffee and tea, and sparkling water
Foods to avoid with Diabetes:
- Sugar: sweetened beverages, fruit juices, sweets, ice cream, candy, high fructose corn syrup
- Refined grains: white breads, cereals, pasta, bagels, white rice
- Highly processed foods: look for ingredients you recognize!
- Low fat / diet foods: often the fat is replaced with sugar
- Highly processed fats and oils: trans fats, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, vegetable oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, palm oil, soybean oil
The Diabetes Plate Model
The American Diabetes Association introduced the diabetes plate method to help simplify a general healthy style of eating. This comprises of:
- Half your plate full of non-starchy vegetables,
- A quarter of your plate filled with protein,
- A quarter of your plate filled with complex carbohydrates.
- Include a small amount of healthy fats with your meal.
Eating balanced meals helps to provide the body with enough fuel to feel satisfied and energized.
Benefits of LifeChef Diabetes Friendly Diet
The goal of a healthy diabetes friendly diet is to nourish your body while keeping blood sugar levels in check. Benefits will vary from person to person and include:
- Supports healthy blood sugar and insulin levels,
- May reduce the need for medication to help control blood sugar,
- Promotes heart health and brain health,
- Promotes metabolic health and weight management,
- Helps to optimize energy levels.
A Balanced Diabetes Friendly Diet
In general, each complete meal should contain a protein component such as fish, beans, lentils, chicken, beef, eggs, cheese, or pork, 1-2 non-starchy vegetable sides such as spinach, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, asparagus, green beans, mushrooms, spaghetti squash and more, and an optional complex carb side such as sweet potato mash, roasted root vegetables, brown rice, quinoa or wild rice. Healthy fat is important to include in moderation, and is already added to your LifeChef meal components such as olive oil, full fat coconut milk, butter, or full fat cheese. LifeChef meal delivery makes choosing healthy foods for diabetes simple and enjoyable!
Example LifeChef 6 meal bundle Diabetes Diet Plan:
- Herb-roasted salmon with roasted cauliflower and roasted brussels sprouts
- Tuscan chicken skillet with steamed broccoli and green beans
- Fajita shrimp with asparagus and braised kale
- Italian meatballs, steamed spinach and roasted mushrooms
- Braised kale with cod with tomato and capers and roasted brussels sprouts
- Chili con carne with steamed broccoli and roasted mushrooms
How can a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist help to customize your diet?
The diabetes meal plan can be adjusted based on your individual needs, goals and preferences. A Registered Dietitian can help you map out what your ideal components should look like for a more personalized approach to reaching your health goals. Diet is not just calories in and calories out, what foods you eat, micronutrients and macronutrients you consume will all affect your outcomes.