When you have diabetes, it’s important to eat a balanced diet. Here’s an easy guide to do that.
by Tess DiNapoli
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If you’re living with diabetes, it can be challenging to eat a balanced diet. Between recommended restrictions, medications that can make your appetite fluctuate, and a bevy of misinformation online, making informed choices and maintaining a healthy diet isn’t always easy.
This guide is here to help. Below, we’re breaking down a few key ways you can adjust your diet to make sure you’re getting all of the macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals you need to sustain a healthy lifestyle. Whether you’re newly diagnosed or you’ve been living with diabetes for years, this guide offers simple tips to maintain a more nourishing, tasty, and colorful diet.
Cover All of the Food Groups
When it comes to meeting your dietary needs, it’s critical to include all of the food groups in your eating plan. Let’s break down some foods from each group to incorporate as you plan upcoming meals and snacks.
Fruits are naturally high in sugars, so it’s important to eat them in moderation. But, fruits are also packed with the vitamins and nutrients you need to maintain healthy functioning.
Some fruits with relatively low glycemic indices include:
- Citrus fruits
- Fruits in the Prunus family (e.g., peaches and plums)
You can incorporate fruits as side dishes, snacks, and salad ingredients (to name just a few ideas).
You can also opt for the miracle berry, a unique, low-sugar, taste-modifying superfruit that tricks the mind into perceiving sour or tart food, fruit, and drinks as sweet without any added sugar or sweeteners!
Incorporating fresh produce — vegetables included — is one way to maintain a balanced, healthy diet, especially if you’re living with diabetes. Like fruits, vegetables are packed with vitamins and nutrients, and they generally feature low glycemic indices; so, they won’t spike your blood sugar as much as a processed sugar product would.
If you’re not a fan of salads or it’s difficult to get the picky eaters in your family on board with leafy greens, consider two tasty tips for getting more vegetables in your diet:
- Add veggies to fruity smoothies – Throwing in a handful of spinach, cucumber slices, or carrots into a fruit-heavy smoothie will help you get your greens in while mostly masking the taste.
- Hide veggies in tastier dishes – Add finely-chopped spinach to a tomato sauce, mix broccoli stems into your next coleslaw, or blend up red peppers to add to a curry sauce.
Dieticians from the National Institutes of Health recommend that at least half of your daily grains should come from whole grain sources. While you might already be cringing at the thought of whole grains, remember that moderation is key to well-rounded diabetic diets. You can still enjoy white rice or white bread, but you should do your best to throw in tasty whole grain products like:
- Popcorn – Though we often forget about popcorn as a whole grain, it’s an excellent opportunity for whole grain snacking. Plus, you can enhance it with your favorite spices and heart-healthy oils (more on these below).
- Oatmeal – Oatmeal is an excellent meal base, especially at breakfast time. Mix it with fruits, granola, or a dollop of yogurt for a nourishing meal.
- Quinoa – Like rice, quinoa is a highly versatile grain. Throw a cup of cooked quinoa into your next casserole or soup for a whole grain boost.
When it comes to protein, diabetics should opt for:
- Lean meats – White meat chicken without skin, turkey, and lean beef
- Fish – White, flaky varieties like snapper, tilapia, and grouper
- Non-meat proteins – Beans, eggs, nuts, and legumes
- Meat substitutes – Tofu, seitan, and tempeh
Since diabetics can sometimes struggle with cardiovascular issues, choosing lean proteins is an excellent way to round out your diet while protecting your heart health.
Low-fat dairy products are typically preferred for diabetics (for the same reasons dietitians recommend lean meats). These might include:
- Low-fat milk and coffee creamers
- Hard cheeses like parmesan, manchego, and Swiss
- Yogurt (both standard and Greek)
Dairy products offer a few benefits for diabetics:
- They’re typically low in sugar
- They’re packed with vitamins and minerals (like calcium and Vitamin D)
- They’re easy to incorporate into a wide variety of dishes
Choose Foods with Heart-Healthy Fats
We touched on heart-healthy fats above, but let’s explore these in more detail.
Diabetics often also struggle with cardiovascular issues like high cholesterol and high blood pressure; so, they should do their best to limit saturated fats.
Some foods and ingredients rich in unsaturated (heart-healthy) fats include:
- Fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel
- Nuts and seeds
- Oils that are liquid at room temperature (like canola and olive oils)
Popcorn, for instance, could be garnished with a light drizzle of canola oil and a spice blend (like adobo or garlic salt) for a flavorful, nutritious snack.
Limit Select Foods
In an effort to eat a healthy, balanced diet and meet your wellness goals, you should consider eating the following foods in moderation if you’re living with diabetes:
- Fried foods and anything high in saturated fat
- Foods very high in salt
- Foods with processed sugars (like candy, cookies, and ice cream)
- Beverages with added sugars
But moderation is key: while you can have french fries and ice cream occasionally, you should do your best to replace these with healthier alternatives when possible. Let’s explore a few options if you’re craving any of the above:
- Instead of deep-fried foods (like french fries), consider oven-roasted foods crisped with olive or canola oils
- When seasoning food, consider salt alternatives like lite salt or salt-free seasoning blends
- Opt for baked goods or ice cream made with plant-based sugar alternatives like stevia and erythritol
- Choose drinks made from 100% juice, diet sodas, or teas sweetened with sugar alternatives if you’re craving a sweet sip
Center Your Health with a Balanced Diabetes Diet
Variety is key to healthy, balanced diets, especially for people living with diabetes. Though there are some foods diabetics should limit (like processed sugars and saturated fats), there are plenty of delicious, sweet, savory, and satisfying foods that make great additions to any menu.
In combination with medical treatments, nutritious diets can help make diabetes more manageable for people living with the condition. By making more mindful choices about their eating habits, diabetes patients can enjoy improved nutrition and the health benefits of a nourishing diet.