Maintaining a healthy diet is important for type 1 diabetes management. A type 1 diabetes diet is designed to provide maximum nutrition, while also monitoring intake of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. However, there’s no single universal diabetes diet. It involves being mindful of how you eat and how your body will respond to certain foods.
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 experience health complications.
Complications associated with type 1 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 and help you avoid health complications. It can also improve your overall quality of life.
Just like there’s no standard treatment for type 1 diabetes, there’s 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.
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. Planning your meals ahead of time and grocery shopping regularly can help cut down on any “emergency eating.”
A well-stocked kitchen of healthy food can also 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, try to eat around the same time each day, and pay attention to food labels. It’s also important to work with your healthcare provider to calculate your correct dosing of insulin for your carbohydrate intake.
There are two types of insulin coverage:
- bolus, which is prescribed as an insulin-to-carbohydrate ratio and represents how many grams of carbohydrates are covered by 1 unit of insulin
- basal, which is a background insulin dose that replaces insulin overnight, when you are fasting, or in between meals
Finding your correct carbohydrate-to-insulin balance will be crucial for deterring high or low blood sugar. In addition, it will be important to monitor activity level and its impact on your blood sugar and medications as well.
According to the American Diabetes Association, regular physical activity is important for overall health and wellness regardless of the type of diabetes you have. To learn how different types of activity will affect you, it’s important to check blood sugar before, during, and after exercise.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the recommended range for daytime blood sugar is between 70 and 130 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) of blood. Two hours after eating, your blood sugar shouldn’t be higher than 180 mg/dL.
Starting the diet
It’s important to include nutritious foods that are high in vitamins and minerals. For general health recommendations, choosing healthy fats, proteins, and nutrient-dense carbohydrates is optimal.
If you’re having trouble managing type 1 diabetes, work with your doctor or dietitian to help manage your medications and timing of eating, and discuss the portions of carbs per meal that would be appropriate based on your needs.
You’ll also need to take exercise into account and determine the carbohydrate need for your activity level.
Here are some basic recommendations:
There are three types of carbohydrates: starches, sugars, and fiber. They can come in the form of beans, starchy vegetables, fruit juices, pasta, or bread. Carbohydrates turn into sugar in your digestive tract and are then absorbed into your blood stream. This raises your glucose level.
It’s important to manage carbohydrate intake if you have type 1 diabetes. Some carbohydrates will act faster on blood sugar than others. If you’re experiencing low blood sugar levels, choosing a fast-acting carb that will be easily digested and absorbed into the blood stream will be best.
Typically, starting with about 15 grams of carbs should be adequate. Then recheck blood sugar, and have another 15 grams if your reading is still low.
Examples of fast-acting carbohydrates that have 15 grams of carbs include:
- 1/4 cup fruit juice
- 1 small fresh fruit (4 ounces)
- 4 to 6 crackers
- 2 tablespoons of raisins
- 1 tablespoon of honey
Fruits are natural sources of sugar and should be counted as carbohydrates if you’re using a diet plan. You can choose fresh or frozen. It’s important to understand how many carbohydrates are in certain portions of fruit. This will help you manage your blood sugar and insulin levels.
Examples of fruit portions that contain 15 grams of carbohydrates include:
- 1/2 cup of canned fruit
- 1/4 cup of dried fruit
- 1 small fresh fruit
- 3 ounces of grapes
- 1 cup of melon or berries
- 1/2 cup of fruit juice
Keep in mind you don’t have to limit yourself to only 15 grams per meal or snack. But it is important to know how many carbs are in certain servings based on your insulin needs and overall blood sugar management plan.
Starch is a form of sugar that naturally occurs in many common vegetables, such as potatoes, corn, and peas. Starchy vegetables contain more carbohydrates than other vegetables and should be eaten in moderation and accounted for when calculating your carbohydrate intake.
Non-starchy vegetables have a lower impact on your blood sugar and are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals. You can eat up to three cups of these types of veggies per meal without having a major impact on your blood sugar. Count more than three cups as about 15 grams of carbs, and anything below that would be considered “free.” These include:
- green leafy vegetables
Always choose fresh or frozen vegetables without added salt or sauces.
Portions of starchy vegetables that have 15 grams of carbs include:
- 3 ounces of a baked potato
- 1/2 cup of corn
- 1/2 cup of sweet potatoes or boiled potatoes
- 1/2 cup of peas
- 1/2 cup of winter squash
Whole grains are a nutritious and fibrous starch. It’s recommended that at least 50 percent of grains eaten should be whole. Brown rice, bran cereal, and whole-grain breads are great sources. Read labels and be mindful of total intake in one sitting to ensure your blood sugar is regulated with your medication.
Proteins and fats
Proteins are extremely important in maintaining muscle and repairing wounds, while healthy fats are necessary for optimal brain and heart functioning.
Besides in meat, proteins are found in beans and eggs. Examples of healthy fats include avocado, nuts, and seeds.
Although proteins and fats won’t directly raise your blood sugar, experts recommend that you limit your intake of processed or fatty meats, which contain higher levels of saturated fat and sodium. While these substances have no direct effect on blood sugar, eating too much of them can have harmful health effects and lead to complications with managing diabetes.
When to eat
Knowing when to eat is just as important as knowing what to eat.
Eating smaller meals and progressively snacking throughout the day can make your blood sugar easier to monitor and prevent levels from peaking.
Your doctor and a registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator can help you calculate your exact insulin needs to support your carbohydrate intake and avoid blood sugar highs and lows.
Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other foods travel easily and are great to have on hand when you need them. A healthy breakfast can get your blood sugar back up after a night’s rest.
Exercise and physical activity lowers blood sugar. If you’re going to do intense exercise, you’ll want to measure your blood sugar before and after you exercise. This will let you know how much you’ll have to eat to maintain a healthy level.
The American Diabetes Association has a full listing of common foods and drinks and how they will affect your diabetes diet.
Living with diabetes means you have to be more mindful of your diet and how it affects your body. Your doctor, dietician, and nutritionist can help you form a meal plan that works for you.