Meal Plans and Diabetes
If you have diabetes, eating healthy meals helps you the same way it helps your best friend or the guy who sits next to you in math class. Good nutrition helps you grow properly, reach and maintain a weight that’s right for your height, and stay healthy. But eating right also helps you keep your blood sugar levels on track — something that’s important for people with diabetes. By eating well, you’ll also help to prevent diabetes problems that can occur later in life, like heart disease.
People who have diabetes don’t need to be on strict diets, but they do need to pay attention to when they eat and what’s on their plates. Crack open the cookbooks and surf to your favorite recipe website because it’s time to plan meals that you love!
Eating right means knowing what’s in the foods you’re eating. It’s easy to guess what some foods contain, but others are more of a mystery. That’s where food labels come in. Food labels list a food’s ingredients, nutritional information, and calories per serving. This nutritional information includes carbohydrates (pronounced: kar-bo-HI-drates, and also known as carbs), sodium, and fats, all of which are important to people with diabetes.
The amount of carbohydrates you eat can help you control your diabetes. People with diabetes need to balance the amount of carbs they eat with their activity levels and insulin. A doctor or dietitian will show you how to do this and will tell you the amount of carbs you should have in your diet. Once you have this information, food labels will make it easy to track and meet your goals.
Food labels list carbohydrates in grams. You can figure out your carb intake in three steps:
- Look on the food label for the serving size.
- Look on the food label for the amount of carbohydrates per serving.
- Calculate how many servings you ate.
For example, a food label might show that the serving size is ½ cup (120 milliliters) and the amount of carbohydrates per serving is 7 grams. If you ate 1 cup (240 milliliters) of that food, you ate 14 grams of carbs (7 grams per serving x 2 servings).
Food labels also list how much sodium (salt) is in foods. Some people with diabetes have hypertension (high blood pressure), and eating too much salt can make it worse. If you have hypertension, you may need to check how much sodium is in the foods you eat so you can stick to the guidelines your doctor gives you. Even if you don’t have hypertension, it’s a good idea to go easy on sodium.
People with diabetes are also at greater risk of developing heart disease, especially if they have high levels of lipids (fats) in their blood. You can ask your doctor or dietitian if you need to limit your intake of saturated fats, cholesterol, and trans fats. Food labels list the amount and types of these fats that a food contains. All of these can contribute to the development of heart disease in people with or without diabetes.
Aside from carbs, sodium, and fats, you might check food labels for the same reasons that everybody else does. Watching the calories you eat — and limiting the amount of high-calorie foods that you eat — can help you maintain a healthy weight. It’s also important to make sure that you get enough vitamins, minerals, and fiber to stay healthy.
A quick-reference guide to food content can make choosing healthy foods a little easier if you’re eating out or in situations where there’s no food label. This guide contains details on the carbohydrate, fat, and sodium content of foods, along with other nutritional information. If you don’t have one, you can get one from your doctor or dietitian.
Just like everyone else, people with diabetes need to aim for each meal to be a good balance of nutrition and taste. Here are some estimates to shoot for over the course of a day:
- About 10% to 20% of the calories you eat should come from protein. Try to select lean meats like chicken or beef.
- Roughly 25% to 30% of calories should come from fat. Try to avoid foods with lots of trans and saturated fats (or eat them only in moderation).
- About 50% to 60% of the calories you eat should come from carbohydrates. Try to eat lots of green and orange vegetables in your daily diet — like carrots and broccoli. And choose vitamin-rich brown rice or sweet potatoes instead of white rice or regular potatoes.
Your diabetes health care team will teach you (and whoever prepares your meals, such as your mom or dad) meal planning guidelines. Your meal plan won’t tell you specific foods to eat, but it may suggest mealtimes, food groups to select from, and the amounts to eat from these food groups.
There’s no sense in having a boring diet you won’t stick to, so your nutrition team will work to build the plan based on the foods that you usually eat. To find out what you like to eat, the team may ask you to keep a food diary or write down what you eat and drink for 3 days to get a good idea of your tastes.
Your meal plan will probably look different from someone else’s because it depends on your needs and health goals. For example, if you need to lose weight, then the team will help you focus on controlling the number of calories and fat grams you eat.
Three Ways to Plan Meals
Some people with diabetes, especially people who’ve just developed it, use a program called the exchange meal plan as a guide for what they eat each day. The exchange meal plan is really useful for people with diabetes who are overweight or who need to pay close attention to the balance of calories and nutrients they eat each day.
For this meal plan, foods are divided into six groups: starch, fruit, milk, fat, vegetable, and meat. The plan sets a serving size (amount) for foods in each group. And each serving has a similar amount of calories, protein, carbohydrate, and fat. This allows a person some flexibility in planning meals because they can exchange, or substitute, choices from a food list. The number of servings from each food group recommended for each meal and snack is based on the total number of calories that the person needs each day.
The other two types of meal plans help make sure that the amount of carbohydrates that a person’s eating matches up with the insulin or other diabetes medicines he or she is taking. Focusing on carbohydrate intake is important because carbs are mainly responsible for the rise in blood sugar that occurs after eating. With the constant carbohydrate meal plan, the person eats a certain amount of carbohydrates in each meal and snack. Then he or she takes insulin or other diabetes medicines at the same times and in the same amounts each day. This plan is easy to follow for people who usually eat and exercise about the same amount from day to day.
Another option is the carbohydrate counting meal plan. Many people with diabetes use carb counting to figure out the amount of carbohydrates in the foods they eat at each meal or snack. They then match their insulin dosage to that carb amount. This plan works best for people who take a dose of insulin (as a shot or with an insulin pump) with each meal. This meal plan works well for people who need more flexibility, because the person takes insulin when actually eating, rather than at a set time each day.
Keeping a written record of what you eat can help you and your diabetes health care team make changes to your diabetes management plan. One helpful tool is a blood glucose record. This record makes it easy to jot down your carbohydrate intake alongside your blood sugar readings and lets you see how well you’re balancing your food and insulin. Then if you need to adjust your insulin dose, this written record can help you understand why and help you decide how much and what time you should have the new dosage.
It can also help to keep a few references handy, such as charts that show portion sizes and lists of how many carbohydrates various foods contain. Your diabetes health care team or a nutritionist can supply this information, and the American Diabetes Association offers it, too.
With your diabetes knowledge and the right tools, you’ll be prepared to eat right for your health.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: August 2013