Type 1 Diabetes Diet

Written by Brian Krans | Published on September 13, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is a Type 1 Diabetes Diet?

Type 1 diabetes is a chronic condition in which the body cannot adequately digest sugars. This happens because the pancreas no longer produces the necessary insulin for this process.

Insulin is a hormone that helps regulate metabolism of carbohydrates and fats. Insulin also helps move glucose (blood sugar) into cells, where it can be stored and used for energy.

Without enough insulin, this process is disrupted and glucose builds up in the bloodstream. As a result, people with type 1 diabetes have to manage their blood sugar levels very closely. Excessively high or low blood sugar can lead to serious health complications.

In addition to other therapies, maintaining a healthy, restricted diet is crucial for managing type 1 diabetes. A type 1 diabetes diet is designed to provide maximum nutrition, while limiting sugar, carbohydrates, and sodium. However, there is no single universal diabetes diet. The process involves being mindful of how you eat and how your body will react to it.

Why a Type 1 Diabetes Diet Is Followed

People with type 1 diabetes need to monitor their blood sugar levels. Without proper diet, exercise, and insulin therapy, a person with type 1 diabetes could suffer adverse health effects. Health complications associated with this type of diabetes include:

  • vision problems
  • high blood pressure, which increases risk for heart attack, stroke, and poor circulation
  • kidney damage
  • nerve damage
  • skin sores and infections, which can cause pain and may lead to tissue death

Following proper dietary guidelines can help mitigate the difficulties of type 1 diabetes, keep your health free from complications, and make your life better overall.

How to Prepare for a Type 1 Diabetes Diet

There is no standard diet for diabetes. A nutritionist or dietitian can help you come up with meal plans, and create a diet that works for you in the long term.

Planning your meals ahead of time—including grocery shopping so you have healthy food in the house—cuts down on the amount of “emergency eating” you may do. Pay close attention to food labels to monitor your carbohydrate intake.

It’s easy to reach for fast food and other processed foods when you’re short on time and money. However, these foods offer minimal nutrients and are high in fat, sugar, and salt. Having a well-stocked kitchen or carrying healthy snacks with you can cut down on unnecessary sugar, carbohydrates, sodium, and fat that can spike blood sugar. An important aspect of any diabetic diet is consistency. To maintain blood sugar levels, don’t skip meals, and try to eat around the same time each day.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the recommended range for daytime blood sugar is between 80 and 120 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter of blood). Bedtime levels should be between 100 and 140 mg/dL (Mayo Clinic, 2012).

How to Start a Type 1 Diabetes Diet

The secret to a type 1 diabetes diet is focusing on nutritious foods that are high in vitamins and minerals, while cutting down on those that are high in fat, sugar, or empty carbohydrates. Actually, it’s a good diet for anyone, diabetic or not.

Fruits

Fruits are natural sources of sugar and should be counted as carbohydrates if you’re using a diet plan. The best ways to eat them are fresh or frozen. Citrus fruits, like oranges and grapefruit, are best.

Vegetables

Starch is a form of sugar that naturally occurs in many common vegetables, such as potatoes, corn, and peas. These vegetables aren’t bad, per se. However, they contain more carbohydrates than other vegetables and should be used sparingly.

Focus instead on vegetables that have few carbohydrates but are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals. These include:

  • most green leafy vegetables
  • asparagus
  • beets
  • carrots
  • celery
  • cucumber
  • onions
  • peppers
  • sprouts
  • tomatoes

Always choose fresh or frozen vegetables without added salt or sauces.

Whole Grains

Your body will convert whole grains into sugar, but at least they’ll be packing nutrition and extra fiber. Brown rice, bran cereal, and whole grain breads are great sources of whole grains.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates turn to sugar in your blood. This raises your glucose level about an hour after you eat. There are three types of carbohydrates: starches, sugars, and fiber. Carbohydrates can come in the form of beans, starchy vegetables, fruit juices, pasta, or bread.

The University of Michigan Health System recommends testing your blood sugars before eating, and then again two hours later to determine if the amount of carbohydrates you’re eating is working for you and your diet (UMHS, 2012).

Proteins

Proteins are extremely important in maintaining muscle and repairing wounds. Besides meat, proteins are found in beans and eggs.

Proteins won’t raise your blood sugar. However, processed or fatty meats also contain fat, sodium, and cholesterol. While these substances have no effect on diabetes, too much of them can have other adverse health effects.

When to Eat

Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. A healthy breakfast can get your blood sugar back up after a nights rest.

Exercise and physical activity lowers blood sugar, so if you’re going to do intense exercise, you’ll want to measure your blood sugar before and after you exercise. This well let you know how much you’ll have to eat to maintain a healthy level.

Eating smaller meals and progressively snacking throughout the day can make your blood sugar easier to monitor and prevent levels from peaking. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other foods travel easily and are great to have on hand when you need them.

Eating big meals filled can spike your blood sugar. While it’s not a good idea, you still have to live your life. In times like the holidays, big, delicious meals are not only inevitable, they’re tradition. Be sure to keep an eye on your blood sugar and use your insulin accordingly.

The American Diabetes Association has a full listing of common foods and drinks and how they will affect your diabetes diet (ADA, 2012).

Long-Term Outlook for a Type 1 Diabetes Diet

Getting accustomed to type 1 diabetes can be challenging, but with a little practice, it is an entirely manageable condition.

Living with diabetes means you have to be more mindful of your food intake and understand how it will affect your body.

Your doctor, dietician, and nutritionist can help you form a meal plan or at least provide you with complete instructions to create a diabetic diet.

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