The right diet can keep blood sugar levels in check, while the wrong foods can lead to dangerous complications. Learn tips and tricks for eating with diabetes.
Eating healthily with type 2 diabetes can require extra effort in the best of times. During the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and panic grocery shopping can all affect the food that’s available to you and the amount of exercise you get. These factors in turn can impact the disease, which occurs when your body does not use the insulin effectively, causing your blood glucose (sugar) level to rise too high.
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With type 2 diabetes, it is always important to eat a balanced diet and monitor your carbohydrate intake because that macronutrient (the other two being protein and fat) can have a direct effect on your blood sugar. As for how much: “There is no blanket answer for the amount of carbs to eat, as that amount depends on many factors,” says Amy Gorin, a registered dietitian-nutritionist in Union City, New Jersey.
Factors that can affect how many carbs to aim for each day include your age, weight, level of activity, and whether you’re taking diabetes medication, including insulin. That’s why as COVID-19 measures change your way of living — albeit temporarily — Gorin says you should check in with your healthcare team to see what adjustments you should make in what you eat, how you exercise, and how you take medication.
That being said, with a little flexibility and ingenuity, and an understanding of the basics of eating with diabetes, you can still enjoy healthy meals, even in these challenging times.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) backs up Gorin’s advice that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but notes that on average, people with diabetes should get about 45 percent of their calories from carbohydrates, with the rest coming from lean protein, such as chicken without the skin, fatty fish like salmon, and plant-based protein like tofu; and heart-healthy fats, such as those you get from vegetables, nuts, and fish.
Servings are typically measured in 15-gram (g) portions, with most women needing 3 to 4 carb servings (45 to 60 g) per meal, and most men needing about 4 to 5 carb servings (60 to 75 g). Fifteen grams of carbohydrates equates to a small piece of fruit, such as an apple, a slice of whole-wheat bread, 1/3 cup cooked whole-wheat pasta or brown rice, or ½ cup black beans, says Gorin.
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Kathy Honick, RN, CDCES, a diabetes educator at Mercy Diabetes and Nutrition Center in Washington, Missouri, provides additional details about what you should keep in your pantry and refrigerator:
Honick adds that you’re better off cutting back on or avoiding certain foods when you’re managing diabetes. These are the types of foods that tend to contribute to weight gain or carry a higher glycemic load, meaning that they can lead to a swift blood sugar spike, according to Harvard University. Nutrition is also an important consideration.
If you’re not sure of the nutritional content of a food or drink option, check the USDA’s Food Central database. (Pro tip: When "energy/kcal" is listed on page, it’s simply a more technical term for calories).
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When trying to follow a healthy diet, how you cook your food makes a big difference in the end product.
Eating well is one of the pleasures of life. If you have type 2 diabetes, you don’t have to forgo the enjoyment of food. You just have to adapt and change your eating habits and, maybe, some of the foods you eat.
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Home-cooked meals are preferable to takeout orders, because you have total control over portions and ingredients. However, if you’re craving a break from meal preparation, keep in mind that during the pandemic you must not only manage diabetes but protect yourself from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
“If you order takeout or delivery, be smart about it. Being a person with diabetes means that if you get COVID-19, you have an increased chance of experiencing complications from the virus,” says Gorin, echoing information from the CDC. Take precautions to decrease your risk of contact with others, because even people without symptoms may be infected, according to the CDC. “If you order delivery, see if you can prepay — including the tip — and have the delivery driver leave the food at your door so that you’re limiting contact. If you’re ordering takeout, aim to also prepay and either pick up food via a drive-through, or if you must go into a restaurant, request that the food is left for you at pickup, away from another person.”
She also suggests taking food out of its packaging and transferring it onto a new plate and heating it in the microwave before eating. Cooking food to a safe temperature should kill germs, according to FoodSafety.gov.
Also, order the most diabetes-friendly options you can. The Cleveland Clinic suggests that you prioritize vegetables. Choose whole grains in modest portions over processed ones, whether it’s opting for brown rice over white, or whole-wheat pasta over regular. Opt for proteins that are leaner than red meat, such as skinless poultry and fish, or plant-based sources like beans and tofu. Scale back on dairy and sauces, which can be laden with calories. And avoid fried food, which is full of carbs, fat, and calories. Order steamed, baked, roasted, or grilled fare instead.
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There are few yummier — or healthier — simple pleasures than choosing fresh fare from your garden, a farmers market, or a roadside stand. But if these aren’t options for you, you can enjoy nutritional food that is canned, frozen, or dried.
“Go for a combination of frozen fruits and vegetables, frozen lean protein such as seafood, canned beans, bagged brown rice, canned vegetables, spices, and healthy fats such as olive oil,” says Gorin. Among her favorite selections:
Canned Beans “Beans not only provide protein, they also provide fiber — and this combination of nutrients can help keep you fuller for longer,” Gorin says. “Purchase the no-salt-added variety if you have diabetes, and make sure to drain and rinse them.” According to the USDA, ½ cup of boiled black beans without salt contains about 20.4 g of carbs.
Don’t like black beans? The American Diabetes Association notes that other types, including kidney, pinto, and navy beans, are also rich in vitamins and minerals such as potassium and magnesium.
Frozen Fruit “Frozen fruit is great to have on hand for anything from an oatmeal topping to an ingredient in a wild blueberry–peanut butter smoothie,” says Gorin, suggesting her own recipe. To cut down on the possibility that your smoothie will spike your blood sugar, the London-based nonprofit Diabetes U.K. recommends preparing it with whole fruits rather than juice, and limiting your smoothie portion to 1 small glass, or 5 ounces per day. Increase the size of your smoothie by diluting it with water.
Dried Spices “It’s super easy to get bored when you’re cooking most or all of your meals,” Gorin says. “Spices can quickly jazz things up.” Certain spices, including turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, and ginger, may help lower your blood sugar, though more studies in humans are needed, according to a review published in February 2017 in the journal Food Chemistry. Regardless, sodium-free varieties of spice mixes are a good option to infuse food with new flavor without adding calories and carbs, Gorin explains.
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As you enjoy healthy meals at home, take time to consider what you’ll do once you get up from the table. “Physical activity helps your body be more sensitive to insulin, which helps you manage your diabetes,” says Gorin, supporting findings cited in a review published in March 2017 in BMJ Open Sport — Exercise Medicine. “Right now, with quarantine measures in place, it may be difficult to get traditional forms of exercise. Try to be creative.” You might take a virtual yoga class, or make a workout out of cleaning your home. Check with your doctor before you begin exercise to ensure you are doing the right activities for your health condition.
Additional reporting by Marijke Vroomen-Durning, RN.
For tips and tricks to help you prepare healthy meals, check out Diabetes Daily's article "5 Simple Steps to Meal Prep."
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