Dr. Danielle Weiss is the founder of the Center for Hormonal Health and Well-Being, a personalized, proactive, patient-centered medical practice with a unique focus on integrative endocrinology. She enjoys giving lectures and writing articles for both the lay public and medical audiences.
Following a healthy meal plan is an essential part of managing diabetes. Because food and lifestyle changes can have such a positive effect on your blood sugar control, it's important to craft a meal plan that's attainable and sustainable for your needs.
However, there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach. Each meal plan will be different for each person, depending on your age, sex, activity level, medications, and other factors. Read up on best practices below, but seek out a nutritionist or dietitian who can help you cater a meal plan to your specific requirements.
Going into the week ahead armed with a meal plan can take a lot of the guesswork out of what you'll eat each day, which in turn makes it easy to stay on top of your blood sugar control. Meal planning doesn't have to be exclusive to home-cooked meals – rather, it can incorporate both prep work at home and pinpointing which meals you'll eat out.
Selecting your food in advance helps you get an accurate count of approximate calories (if you're tracking), stay on top of portions, and make sure your blood sugar can stay as balanced as possible. It'll also help you make healthier decisions now than when you're in the throes of hunger.
To make meal planning a little easier, create a chart and follow these simple steps.
Here's a breakdown of the foods you'll want to prioritize in your meal plan.
Aim for 45 to 60 grams of carbs per meal, and around 15 grams per snack. Remember that your personal needs may be slightly different. Be sure to work under the guidance of a healthcare professional if you're interested in cutting back on carbs even more.
Examples of carbohydrate foods:
A well-balanced diet should contain approximately 20% to 35% of calories from fat. That looks like 15 to 25 grams of fat per meal, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
Examples of fat-based foods:
Protein needs are highly variable depending on the person, but on average, adults should look for 45 to 60 grams per day. That breaks down to 15 to 20 grams per meal.
Examples of protein-rich foods:
Fiber is an important nutrient to account for when planning your diabetes-friendly meals, as it helps slow the rise of blood glucose levels thanks to its complex structure that takes longer to digest.
Fiber-rich foods include vegetables, beans, lentils, starches like sweet potatoes and squash, fruit like apples and berries, whole grains like brown rice, oats, and buckwheat, to name a few. Adults with diabetes should aim for 35 grams of fiber per day.
These plant foods are powerhouses of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and potent compounds called phytochemicals that may help reduce chronic disease. Look for leafy greens like kale, spinach, arugula, romaine, and choose from a veritable rainbow of veggies like tomatoes, peppers, onions, eggplant, zucchini, etc.
Pack your plate full of these good-for-you foods: seek out plant-based recipes and products, and incorporate them into everything from breakfast (spinach omelets) to dessert (zucchini-chocolate cupcakes). Aim for five to 10 servings per day.
Because certain foods may raise your blood sugar level more than others, there are a few food groups that should be enjoyed in moderation—but they still have a place in a diabetes-based diet.
When following a diabetes-based meal plan, dairy can be a good source of protein and fat, but it also contains some carbohydrates. Plan meals around high-quality, grass-fed butter, milk, cheese, and yogurt (look for full-fat, plain varieties with no added sugar). For example, if you love fruit-based yogurts, try adding your own frozen fruit to plain, full-fat yogurt. That way, you can control the sugar content but still enjoy a sweet treat. Aim for one to two servings per day, depending on your carbohydrate requirements.
Potatoes, yams, squash, and corn are considered starchy vegetables and should take up a smaller portion of your plate. While they have great nutrient density, they contain more carbohydrates than non-starchy vegetables, and should be eaten in smaller amounts if you have diabetes, as they may raise your blood sugar. Aim for just one or two servings per day.
Fructose, the sugar found in fruit, can be metabolized quickly by the liver and may cause a spike in blood sugar. But avoiding it all together means you'll miss out on some good fiber, vitamins like vitamin C and A, and minerals like potassium and magnesium.
The key to keeping fruit in a diabetes-friendly diet is to eat whole, fresh or frozen fruit, and eat it with a protein or fat (like cheese, nut butter, or avocado—try it with grapefruit!) to help slow down the sugar absorption. Berries and citrus fruits are a great choice, as they have lots of fiber and are slightly lower on the glycemic index (a ranking of how certain foods will raise blood sugar). Aim for just one or two servings per day, and ask your health team for more guidance on incorporating fruit.
Even small amounts of sugar-laden snacks and desserts may quickly cause a spike in blood glucose levels, as the sugar in these foods is more readily available to be absorbed quickly by the body. For that reason, cookies, cakes, candy, and sugary drinks should be very limited in a diabetes-friendly diet.
If you have a celebration coming up where you know you'll be partaking in a bit of cake, for example, be sure to plan around these instances by limiting your carb intake in other areas (such as skipping fruit at breakfast).
Beer, wine, and liquor shouldn't have a major place in any diabetes-friendly diet, especially if you're taking any type of blood sugar management medication. Alcohol can cause low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), so it's best to limit your intake and be sure to talk to your physician before you drink.
If you'd like a form of meal planning that's a little less structured, you may prefer to start out with the Plate Method. It's a simple formula that doesn't require counting carbohydrates or grams of protein, but it does require that you learn which foods belong in which category. Here's how it works.
Using a standard dinner plate:
Incorporate one or two servings of fats with each meal (one serving is equal to one teaspoon of liquid fat, like olive oil, or one tablespoon of solid fat, like sesame seeds), and you may be able to incorporate one or two servings of fruit per day (one serving is equal to 1/2 cup or 1 piece of whole, fresh fruit). depending on your personal blood sugar management.
Meal planning is a great way to help yourself stay on top of your blood sugar control. Ask your physician, find a certified diabetes educator, or seek out a nutritionist for resources they may have to help you with meal planning. You can also look online for meal planning templates, charts, diabetes-friendly recipe ideas, and shopping lists to make things more streamlined.
Evert AB, Dennison M, Gardner CD, et al. Nutrition Therapy for Adults With Diabetes or Prediabetes: A Consensus Report. Diabetes Care. 2019;42(5):731-754. doi:10.2337/dci19-0014.
National Academy of Sciences. Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids.
Evert AB, Dennison M, Gardner CD, et al. Nutrition Therapy for Adults With Diabetes or Prediabetes: A Consensus Report. Diabetes Care. 2019;42(5):731-754. doi:10.2337/dci19-0014.
USDA. Dietary Guidelines for America 2015–2020 (Fifth Edition)
USDA. Dietary Guidelines for America 2015–2020 (Fifth Edition)
Diabetes Teaching Center at the University of California, San Francisco. Diabetes & Alcohol.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes Meal Planning.

By Stacey Hugues
Stacey Hugues, RD is a registered dietitian and nutrition coach who works as a neonatal dietitian at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

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