When you have diabetes, your body doesn’t break down food to use as energy the way it should. As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over 30 million people in the United States have diabetes. A vast majority of those people have type 2 diabetes.
If not managed effectively, diabetes can cause health complications. Common health complications include:
- kidney disease, which can lead to kidney failure
- nerve and vessel disease, which can lead to limb amputation
- eye disease, which can lead to blindness
The good news is that weight loss and exercise have shown enormous potential for preventing, treating, and in some cases reversing type 2 diabetes, according to the American Association of Diabetes Educators (AADE).
Maintaining a diabetes-friendly diet is more complex than just cutting carbs. Don’t let that deter you, though. It’s easy to follow a diabetes-friendly diet, especially if you get in the habit of meal planning.
Planning your meals ahead of time may cost you more minutes in the short term, but you’ll reap the rewards later. If you’ve already decided what you’re making each night and have your refrigerator stocked, you’re that much closer to a healthy meal.
Getting into a routine of meal planning can save your body from health complications. Because you’ll be skipping that takeout and those impulse purchases at the grocery store, it can also save your wallet.
Not sure where to start?
All it takes is a one-day commitment to get on the right path, says Toby Smithson, MSNW, RDN, LDN, CDE, co-author of Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition for Dummies and a former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- Pick one day where you can set aside a couple of hours for meal planning. This could be a weekend day or another nonworking day. If you have children, look for a day when you don’t have to drive them all over town for various activities.
- To get started, first write a menu for the week. Scour Pinterest or your favorite foodie blogs for ideas. Write down a shopping list as you go. Then hit the grocery store using your list as a guide.
- To shorten this process even further, consider using a meal-planning website such as Plan to Eat. Websites and apps such as this allow you to quickly save and categorize recipes from any website, blog, cookbook, or meal plan. Plan to Eat also automatically creates a grocery list for you.
- After you’ve done this for several weeks, you’ll have a great database of recipes you enjoy. It’ll become easier to make your plan because you’ll be able to spend less time sourcing recipes. And of course, it’s a good idea to add new recipes so you don’t get bored.
- If cooking daily isn’t feasible for you, give yourself a break. Try cooking in bulk when you can. Make double the amount of one meal and eat the leftovers another night or for lunch. You can also look for meals that are easy to freeze. This lets you freeze excess food and have meals already set aside for upcoming weeks.
As you put together your meal plans for the week, use these do’s and don’ts to find the best foods for you that are both tasty and diabetes-friendly.
Try to choose fruits and vegetables in a range of colors. Include them in every meal and snack. Nonstarchy vegetables are the lowest in calories and carbohydrates. Some great nonstarchy vegetables include:
- Brussels sprouts
- green beans
- salad greens, such as arugula, kale, or romaine lettuce
You’ll need to count the carbs in your fruits and starchy vegetables just as you would for any other carbohydrate food group. This doesn’t mean you need to avoid them. Just be sure the amount you’re eating fits into your overall meal plan.
Shelley Wishnick, RD, CDN, CDE, a dietitian and diabetes clinical manager at the medical equipment company Medtronic recommends that people with diabetes stick to one serving of fruit per meal, since even natural sugars can cause blood sugar increases. Grab half a banana, a fruit the size of your fist, or a 1/2 cup of your favorite fruit, chopped up.
When shopping for fruits and vegetables, look for choices that are in season to save some bucks. Shopping for foods that are in season can also be a great way to try new fruits and vegetables.
Choose fatty fish for heart health and brain protection. Seafood that contains omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon or sardines, is a great option because omega-3 fatty acids support a healthy heart. Try to plan at least two servings of fish each week.
Jill Weisenberger, MS, RD, CDE, a dietitian and author of The Overworked Person’s Guide to Better Nutrition, advises against bacon and some sausages. These foods don’t offer a lot of protein and can be high in sodium and fat.
The legume family includes the following foods:
Aim for at least one to two 1/2-cup servings per day. Although these foods are rich in carbohydrates, they’re one of the highest fiber sources you can eat. They also provide excellent plant protein.
This makes them an ideal carbohydrate choice over other starches such as rice, white pasta, and bread. Choose your legume favorites. You can include any legumes you like in your diet because they’re similar enough in nutrients.
Shoot for one to three low-fat servings per day. Some studies suggest that yogurt is good for people with diabetes and may help prevent it for those at risk. Greek yogurt may be a better option than other yogurts because it’s higher in protein and lower in carbs than traditional yogurt.
Cottage cheese is another great low-carb option that’s also high in protein.
Just watch out for added sugars in yogurts. They can hide in flavorings and add-ins, such as granola or cookie bits. Overall, options that are lower in calories, added sugar, and saturated fat are better for those with diabetes.
You can stock up on fruits and veggies here, too! Read the nutrient label to avoid products with lots of additives, sugar, or sodium. These are always handy to keep stocked because frozen produce lasts longer than fresh produce and can be great for saving time when you’re pulling together dinner in a pinch.
When you’re hankering for something sweet, there’s no need to ditch dessert altogether. Restrictive diets aren’t a good long-term solution and can often do more harm than good.
Instead, be smart about what you eat. Stick to single-serving desserts and only stock your freezer with one type at a time. This helps you avoid too much temptation.
Frozen fish and shrimp are other good choices. They’re quick to cook and keep longer than fresh versions, says Weisenberger. She likes these for pulling together a wholesome meal on a busy day.
You’re better off limiting processed foods when you can, but that’s not always feasible. Whether it’s breakfast cereal, crackers, or snack bars, certain keywords can help you find options that are better for you. In general, check the packaging for these words:
- “whole grain”
- “whole wheat”
- “sprouted grain”
- “high fiber”
Wishnick recommends choosing foods with at least three grams of dietary fiber and fewer than eight grams of sugar per serving.
Instead of buying a lot of processed snack foods, consider reaching for some nuts instead. In addition to heart health benefits, some nuts, such as almonds, may even help increase insulin sensitivity. That’s a good thing for people with diabetes.
Too many carbs can cause blood sugar spikes. You’ll want to be extra careful with these choices. Whether you’re looking at bread or pasta, choose whole grains for better health. Read labels for serving sizes and total carbohydrates. It’s easy to overeat these foods.
At least half your grains should be whole, and you should have about two to three servings per day. When figuring out serving size, keep in mind that one serving is a slice of bread or 1/2 cup of cooked oatmeal or other grain.
When choosing whole grains, consider these foods, which take longer to digest and help keep your cravings at bay:
You might find that baked goods and products made from flour, even whole-wheat flour, cause your blood sugar to spike. If this is the case for you, look for whole grains that are minimally processed, naturally higher in fiber, and in their whole food form. Pairing these intact whole grains with healthy fats or protein can also reduce blood sugar rises.
Canned fruits and vegetables are other good choices when fresh isn’t feasible. As with frozen foods, you need to watch out for added sugars and sodium. Choose fruits canned in juice, not syrup, and look for low-sodium vegetables.
Canned beans offer a wealth of protein and fiber, which can help keep you fuller longer.
For people with diabetes, diet is the body’s best natural medicine. Because foods can directly affect your blood sugars, make sure your food has a positive effect on your blood sugar by choosing wisely, says Wishnick.
In simple terms, refined carbs and highly processed or sugary foods often equate to elevated blood sugars. Stick to a balanced diet, focusing on:
- plenty of vegetables and fruits
- whole grains
- high-fiber foods
- lean animal and plant proteins
- healthy fats
It helps you maintain stable blood sugars. It may even increase your energy levels and help you to maintain or even lose weight.