Diabetes and diet: What’s the connection? »

When you have diabetes, your body doesn’t break down food to use as energy the way it should. As of 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately 29 million Americans 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 leads to kidney failure
  • nerve and vessel disease which leads to limb amputation
  • eye disease which leads to blindness

The good news is that weight loss and exercise can have shown enormous potential for preventing, treating, and in some cases reversing type 2 diabetes.

Maintaining a diabetes-friendly diet is more complex than just cutting carbs. Don’t let that scare you, though. It’s easy to follow a diabetes-friendly diet, especially if you get in the habit of meal planning.

Plan ahead

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 scary health complications and also save your wallet because you’ll be skipping that takeout and those impulse purchases at the grocery store.

Not sure where to start? All it takes is a one-day commitment to get on the right path, says Toby Smithson, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and author of “Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition for Dummies.”

Pick one day where you can set aside a couple of hours for meal planning. This could be a weekend day or another non-working 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 like Plan To Eat. Websites and apps like this allow you to save and categorize recipes from any website, blog, cookbook, or meal plan quickly. It also automatically creates a grocery list for you.

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After you’ve done this for several weeks, you will have a great database of recipes you enjoy. It will become easier to make your plan because you will be able to spend less time sourcing recipes. 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 will allow you to freeze excess food and have meals already set aside for upcoming weeks.

What to grab

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.

Fruits and vegetables

Here’s your chance to go crazy! Every fruit and vegetable offers its own set of nutrients and health benefits.

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:

  • broccoli
  • cauliflower
  • green beans
  • eggplant
  • asparagus
  • celery
  • salad greens
  • Brussels sprouts
  • carrots
  • zucchini

You’ll need to count the carbs in your fruits and starchy vegetables just as you would for any other 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 clinical nutrition coordinator at Mount Sinai Diabetes Center recommends 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.

Meat and seafood

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.

Go lean when it comes to other meats. Chicken or turkey breast are good options. Shoot for 3-ounce serving sizes. Aim to fit three servings of lean meat into your meal plan every week.

Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., 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. You may want to consider limiting your red meats overall. They’ve been linked to colon cancer, a condition people with diabetes may have an increased risk for developing.


Daily diabetes tip

  • Want to save your body from scary health complications and also save money by avoiding nightly takeout? Take time once a week to plan your dinners in advance. While it may cost you a few minutes in the short term, you’ll reap rewards before long. Got your own meal ideas? Share them with us!

The legume family includes beans, peanuts, peas, and lentils. Aim for one to two 1/2-cup servings per day. Although these foods are rich in carbohydrates, they are one of the highest fiber sources you can eat, and they provide excellent plant protein. Choose your favorites. You can include any legumes you like in your diet because they are similar enough in nutrients.


Shoot for two 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.

Unsweetened soy, flax, almond, or hemp milk and yogurt made from them can provide protein while minimizing carbohydrate content.

Frozen foods

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 they keep longer than fresh produce and can 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 are not 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 will help you avoid too much temptation.

Frozen fish and shrimp are other good choices. They are quick to cook and keep longer than fresh versions, says Weisenberger. She likes these for pulling together a wholesome meal on a busy day.

Breakfast cereals and snacks

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 will help you find options that are better for you. In general, check the packing for these words:

  • whole grain
  • whole wheat
  • sprouted grain
  • high fiber

Wishnick recommends choosing foods with at least three grams of dietary fiber and less 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.

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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 keep your cravings at bay:

  • corn
  • oats
  • buckwheat
  • quinoa

You might find that baked goods and products made from flour, even whole-wheat flour, will cause your blood sugar to spike. If this is the case for you, look for whole grains that are minimally processed and in their whole food form.

Canned goods

Canned fruits and vegetables are other good choices when fresh isn’t feasible. As with frozen foods, you’ll need to watch out for added sugars and sodium. Choose fruits 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.

Diet as medicine

For people with diabetes, diet is your 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 of whole grains, high-fiber foods, lean proteins, and healthy fats. It’ll help you maintain stable blood sugars. It may even increase your energy levels and help you to maintain or even lose weight.