Creating a good diabetes diet starts with being able to tell good advice from bad advice. This guide with some of the top diabetes myths and facts can help.
Building a good diabetes diet can be tough. Not only can the new food restrictions be difficult to cope with emotionally, but the often-conflicting advice you might find online about what food is good for diabetes and bad for diabetes can complicate matters even more.
That confusion ends now. We turned to registered dietitians across the country to collect the very best and worst advice out there. This way, you’ll know exactly what constitutes the best diet for type 2 diabetes.
RELATED: The Best and Worst Foods for Type 2 Diabetes
Though you should think of this as your guide for creating a type 2 diabetes diet, if you still have any questions or concerns about what you should be eating to best manage your blood sugar, you can always connect with a registered dietitian who’s a certified diabetes educator. You can find such a person at EatRight.org.
“Talk to a registered dietitian to create a personalized nutrition care plan to help manage your blood sugar throughout the day, prevent further health complications, and feel your best,” says Samina Qureshi, RDN, who is in private practice in Houston.
Now, the truth about what you really should be eating for diabetes — and more.
When it comes to managing diabetes, eating your vegetables is key. “By making half your plate vegetables, you are naturally consuming more dietary fiber,” says Emily Kyle, RDN, who is in private practice in Rochester, New York. “We know fiber is good for regulating blood sugar and keeping us fuller for longer.”
RELATED: 8 Low-Carb Veggies to Add to Your Diabetes Diet
When you have diabetes, regularly checking your blood sugar is super important for disease management, especially when introducing new foods to your diet.
But you should check your blood sugar several times a day — not just once, notes Toby Smithson, RDN, CDE, owner of Diabetes EveryDay who is based in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. “Checking your blood sugar once per day only gives you a snapshot of what your blood sugar is at that one moment,” she says. Instead, you’ll want to see how your levels are affected by factors like food, exercise, and even stress.
Test your levels before eating or exercising and again two hours later. “This gives a clearer picture of how your blood sugar is trending,” says Smithson.
Patients have told Qureshi that they think skipping breakfast will help them better manage their blood sugar levels. “This advice couldn't be further from the truth,” she says.
In fact, in a study published in October 2015 in the journal Diabetes Care, breakfast skippers with type 2 diabetes had higher blood glucose levels after lunch and dinner.
“Instead of skipping meals, aim to eat balanced meals every three to five hours, have [healthy] snacks handy, and monitor your blood sugar levels regularly,” says Qureshi. Keeping those snacks nearby can help you avoid resorting to fast food or junk food when hunger strikes.
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“Meetings can go longer than expected and dinner plans can get cancelled, so I encourage my clients to have a nutritious high-protein snack available to prevent unwanted stops at the vending machine or drive-thru,” says Lori Zanini, RD, CDE, creator of For the Love of Diabetes who is based in Manhattan Beach, California. “Be sure not to go more than five hours during the day without eating anything, to help keep blood sugar and hunger levels stable,” says Zanini, who says her go-to snack is nuts, which are full of plant protein and fiber to help keep you feel fuller for longer.
“Food diaries are very effective for helping us become more aware of what we’re eating, but some forms have become overwhelming and difficult to figure out,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, author of Read It Before You Eat It who is based in Woodmere, New York.
“Although it may seem old-fashioned, try taking a piece of paper and charting every morsel of food you eat in a day. Writing down your daily intake, even if it’s just for a few days, will help make you more mindful and help you recognize patterns that you may not have been aware of, such as eating every hour.”
If food journaling seems overwhelming, try pre-logging your meals instead: Set aside a few minutes each evening to jot down what you’re going to eat tomorrow. This will help you avoid veering off plan.
“Fat gets a bad reputation because it has more calories per gram than carbohydrates and protein,” says Natalie Rizzo, RD, who is in private practice in New York City. “But people with diabetes don’t need to avoid fat.”
In fact, the American Diabetes Association notes that the type of fat you eat is more important than the total amount you consume — and you should aim for healthy fat sources, such as avocados, nuts, fish, and olive oil.
“I recommend adding avocados to your diet because they have a low glycemic load, so they are not likely to spike your blood sugar,” says Rizzo.
Plus, a study published in November 2013 in Nutrition Journal suggests adding half an avocado at lunch did not result in an increase in blood sugar levels beyond what was observed following a standard lunch — and doing so increased participants’ feelings of fullness by 40 percent for three hours following lunch.
RELATED: 20 Delicious Ways to Eat Heart-Healthy Fats
“I cringe when I hear my clients with diabetes say they heard they should eliminate carbs from their diet,” says Elizabeth Shaw, RDN, who is in private practice in San Diego. “Please don't do that! High-quality carbohydrates, like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, are great additions to the diet of someone with diabetes.”
But remember this: Not all carbs are created equal. So focus on those slowly digested complex carbs packed full of resistant starch and fiber for the best blood glucose control, and limit simple sugars, says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet who is based in in Franklin, New Jersey. “The more you fill your plate with slow-digested carbs, the less fluctuations in blood glucose levels you will experience,” she says.
“In the world of exercise, carbohydrates are an essential part of fuel for training and competition,” says Amy Goodson, RD, a sports dietitian in Dallas. “In reality, not getting enough carbohydrates in an athlete's diet can result in fatigue.”
And of course, doing so could cause low blood sugar issues for someone with diabetes. “Whether you are training for a 5K or a marathon, including quality carbohydrates with protein at each meal and snack will help stabilize your blood sugar throughout the day,” says Goodson.
RELATED: 6 Common Exercise Mistakes People With Diabetes Make — and How to Avoid Them
A paleo diet focuses on foods such as meat, seafood, eggs, nuts, seeds, fruits, veggies, and oil. While those are all healthy choices in moderation, the diet shuns cereal grains, legumes, dairy, and potatoes — all picks that can be part of a healthy diet for someone with diabetes. “People with diabetes are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, so eating complex carbohydrates in the form of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and lentils is critical for controlling LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol,” says Ginger Hultin, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in Seattle.
“There is really good evidence that people with type 2 diabetes should eat a plant-based diet, not one full of meat and saturated fat sources,” she says. “The inclusion of whole-grain cereals and legumes has been associated with improved glycemic control in both people with diabetes and people who are insulin resistant.”
The benefits of following a plant-based diet range from a lower risk of obesity, research shows, to a reduced risk of heart disease — a major possible complication of diabetes — studies indicate.
RELATED: Is the Mediterranean Diet Best for Diabetes?
“When counting carbohydrate exchanges, it can be tempting to reach for food products with sugar-free labels,” says Angie Asche, RD, a sports dietitian in Lincoln, Nebraska.
But wait a second: Look at a food’s nutrition facts label before you buy. “Many sugar-free foods have just as many calories, carbohydrates, and possibly more fat than their non-sugar-free counterparts,” says Asche. “And the types of foods that typically come in sugar-free versions are generally not the healthiest options to begin with.” These include hard candies, packaged chocolates, and ice cream.
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