Diabetic Diets that Work

by Cindy

Diabetic Diets That Work!

If you have diabetes, chances are that you have been repeatedly told that following a careful diabetic diet will work to decrease your elevated blood sugar levels. There are many different diets out there that are marketed to people with diabetes and to people who are interested in losing weight. Many patients want to know what is the easiest ways to lose weight fast? Unfortunately, there really is no easy way to lose weight. The best way to lose weight and improve blood sugars is to understand how foods affect your sugars, exercise portion control, be patient, and learn your daily calorie needs. Click here to use our calculator to learn how to meet your weight loss goals!  

Diets that work take time. Beware of plans that promise how to lose belly fat fast or that require you to buy special foods. Although these diets may work in the short term, many patients quickly put the weight back on after stopping that plan because they have not learned how to change eating habits.

So how can you devise a good diabetic diet and meal plan? Keep reading to learn more about three common diabetic diets that are used by patients to improve nutrition and blood sugar levels. These are proven diets that work for diabetes.  These three diabetic diets are:

Carbohydrate Counting

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Carbohydrate counting is one way that diabetics monitor their sugar intake with a goal of blood sugar reduction. This method targets carbohydrates because these foods have the greatest effect on blood sugar levels, they compromise the majority of our diet and they are our primary energy source. Carbohydrates are foods containing sugars that are broken down into glucose. Although carbohydrates can increase blood sugar readings dramatically, it is not necessary to stop eating them. Recent studies support including a variety of carbohydrates in the diet, as long as the total amount of carbohydrate intake isn’t excessive.

By counting carbohydrate intake, the diabetic patient consumes these foods in moderation. Before starting the carbohydrate diet, it is important to understand that all carbs are not created equal! Carbohydrates can be broken down into starches, sugars and fiber. They are each processed differently by the body.

  • Starch: Starches are complex carbohydrates that are broken down into glucose slowly. These foods come in the form of vegetables and grains. Vegetables that are high in starch include peas, potatoes, dried beans and corn. Grains, such as rice and oats, can be classified as either whole grain or refined grains. Whole grains are more nutritious as they contain all parts of the grain particle. Whole grains are considered healthier and are preferred by dieticians. Refined grains are processed, extracting only the soft, starchy part of the grain.
  • Sugar: Sugars are another carbohydrate that can influence your blood sugar readings dramatically. Natural sugars are present in fruits and dairy. Fresh and frozen fruits without added sugars are an excellent source of fiber and vitamins. Although dairy products contain natural sugars, they provide an excellent source of protein and calcium to diabetic patients. Choose low fat products without added sugars. Sugars are okay in moderation, especially when they are in foods that add other nutrients and fiber to your diet. Beware that added sugars are in many, many food products. Watch nutrition labels very closely for added sugars.
  • Fiber: Fiber is a carbohydrate that is derived from plants and is not able to be digested by humans; therefore it does not count as a carbohydrate because it does not raise blood glucose levels. Diabetic diets that are high in fiber improve digestion, reduce cholesterol, and help you feel full so you do not overeat. There are two types of fiber called soluble and insoluble fiber.  Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water and is found in foods that contain bran and whole grains.  Insoluble fiber helps regulate the intestinal tract.  Soluble fiber dissolves in water and helps slow intestinal absorption of glucose, keeping blood glucose levels lower after meals. Soluble fibers can be found in fruits and vegetables, beans, legumes, and nuts.

Counting carbohydrates can be done by all diabetic patients, especially those using insulin injections to improve sugars. Patients with hyperglycemia can also benefit from using this method for their new pre diabetic diets. Patients should consult with a registered dietician or certified diabetic educator to determine what their daily carbohydrate requirement should be. The patient will then track the amount of carbohydrates that they eat daily by monitoring starch, fruit and dairy intake. The advantage to this meal plan is that it allows flexibility in what the patient can eat but it requires a diabetic patients to read food labels and become educated about carbohydrate contents of foods. Patients should still pay attention to calorie intake and monitor their protein and fat intake.

For Example: A patient that is counting carbohydrates may be told that they can have 30 grams of carbohydrates with each meal. The patient may include a small piece of fruit, 2 tablespoons dried fruit, or ½ cup fruit juice because each one contains approximately 15 grams of carbohydrates. The patient may also include one cup of milk which is equal to approximately 15 grams of carbohydrates. Because meats do not count as a carbohydrate, a meal can contain approximately 2-5 ounces of lean meat.

Plate Method

The plate method is a simple eating plan that takes the math out of diabetic diets and meal plans. This method may be less intimidating for some patients and it helps patients to exercise portion control.
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  • Step One! First, divide your plate in half with an imaginary line. Fill this half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, green beans and mushrooms. . Almost all vegetables are low in starch with the exception of potatoes, corn, squash and peas. Non-starchy vegetables should make up a large portion of any diabetic diet because these foods are low in calories and fats and contain large amounts of vitamins, minerals and fiber. So divide your plate in half and indulge on fresh or frozen varieties of most vegetables!
  • Step Two! Divide the remaining half of your plate into two quarters. Fill one quarter of the plate with a starchy food, such as whole grain bread, fruit, pasta, rice or a starchy vegetable. As previously discussed, starchy foods are higher in carbohydrates and will have the greatest effect on blood sugar. This method limits your carbohydrate intake to an acceptable level.
  • Step Three! In the remaining quarter add a protein rich food. Protein is an important part of any diet that can be obtained from meat, soy, cheese, beans and legumes. Choose lean cuts of meats, soy products and dried beans for good sources of proteins.
  • Step Four, Add Dairy! Using the plate method, you can also add a serving of low fat milk or yogurt to your meal. If you don’t drink milk you can substitute a piece of fruit or small piece of bread.

Glycemic Index

Following a diet with a low glycemic index may help some patients improve high blood sugars. Glycemic index diabetic diets uses a concept that ranks foods by how much the food increases blood sugar levels as compared to pure sugar. The foods are ranked numbers 1 to 100, with 100 equaling 50-grams of pure glucose. Foods with a higher rank raise blood glucose levels more quickly and to higher levels than foods that are assigned a lower glycemic index.  Foods with are assigned a glycemic index that is higher than 70 are said to have a high glycemic index. Foods with a rank lower than 55 are considered low glycemic index. Everything in between is considered moderate.

Foods with a high glycemic index are typically processed by the body quickly and cause a fast rise in blood sugar levels. For example, milk and almost all vegetables have a low glycemic index. Most fruits are considered to have low glycemic indexes with the exception of melons, pineapples and dried fruits. Meats are not included because they do not raise blood glucose levels.  It is important to understand that this diet compares foods by comparing equal amounts of carbohydrate within the food and NOT by normal portion sizes.  In addition, the glycemic index of a food can be influenced by how the food is prepared.

The American Diabetes Association does not recommend using glycemic index without any other diabetic diets.  This diabetic diet may be more complicated than the plate method and carbohydrate counting as it requires patients to know the assigned glycemic index of foods. In addition, it may also be difficult to regulate calorie and fat intake while using this diet method. It may be more beneficial to use glycemic index information in combination with a method such as the plate method or carbohydrate counting.

Don’t Forget About Fats! 

In recent years, low carbohydrate diets have become more popular than low fat diets. Fats are a good source of energy that is broken down differently than carbohydrates and proteins.  Diets that are high in fats can cause blood sugars to spike long after your meals. While low carbohydrate diets have been shown to improve weight loss, it is still important to limit fat intake and to understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy fats. Unhealthy fats have been linked to heart disease. In addition to monitoring carbohydrate content, diabetics should pay attention to the fat content of food because these patients are at high risk for heart disease.

Unhealthy Fats:

  • Saturated Fats: These fats raise cholesterol, increasing the risk for heart disease by preventing the cells from removing cholesterol from the bloodstream. Patients with diabetes should have less than 7% of their daily calories from saturated fats. To achieve this avoid foods high in saturated fats such as dairy products with full fat content and fatty meats such as hot dogs and bacon. Butter, cream causes, gravies and certain oils are high in saturated fats. Foods containing less than 1 gram of saturated fat are considered low in saturated fats.
  • Trans Fats: Trans fats are another source of fats that increase cholesterol. These types of fats are hydrogenated, meaning that they are liquid fats that are chemically modified to make them solid. These fats contribute to heart disease by raising LDL cholesterol levels and these fats should be avoided by all people. Avoid foods containing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. These oils are often found in chips, crackers, processed snacks, margarine and fast foods.
  • Cholesterol: Cholesterol is a type of lipoprotein that is both produced by the body and ingested from food. Low denisty lipoproteins (LDL) are called “bad” cholesterol because they can accumulate in the blood vessels.  Cholesterol intake should be limited to less than 200mg per day for patients with high LDL levels (>100 mg/dl).  The cholesterol that you eat comes from animal products such as whole milks and cheeses, eggs, fatty meats and liver.

Healthy Fats:

  • Monosaturated and Polysaturated Fats: Diabetic patients should look for foods containing monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Foods such as nuts, olive or canola oils, peanut butter and avocado contain monounsaturated which have been shown to improve high density lipoproteins (HDL).  HDL helps remove cholesterol from the bloodstream and transports it to the liver.  Certain types of oils, such as corn, soybean and sunflower oils, contain polyunsaturated fats.  Polyunsaturated fats are called “heart healthy” fats and should be substituted for saturated fats whenever possible. 
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: According to the American Diabetes Association, Omega-3 fatty acids should be consumed 2-3 times per week to help reduce the risk of developing heart disease and can improve cholesterol naturally by reducing your triglyceride levels.  Fish are an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids. They can also be found in tofu, walnuts, flaxseed and canola oil.  Omega-3 fatty acids are also available in supplements. Always consult your physician before starting any supplement because they can affect certain medications.


Wrapping it all up!

Salmon with garlic scape spaghettini
Creative Commons License photo credit: paige_eliz
  Fancy diabetic diets and meal plans really aren’t necessary for weight loss and improved blood sugars. Patients who lose 7% of their body weight will likely see an improvement in blood sugar levels. By reducing calorie and fat intake and increasing dietary fiber intake to 25-30 grams per day, patients with diabetes and those that are at risk for developing diabetes (pre-diabetes) can improve their sugars. Take small steps to improve your blood sugars and lose weight.

  1. Eat the rainbow! Choose fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors. Non-starchy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli are low in calories and high in nutrients and fiber.
  2. Replace refined grains with whole grain products.
  3. Replace white potatoes with sweet potatoes
  4. Include dried beans with your meals.
  5. Add fish to your menu 2-3 times/week
  6. Trim the Fat! Try lean cuts of meats and skinless poultry and replace full fat products with fat-free dairy.
  7. Drink more water! Cut down on soda and fruit juice intake
  8. Cook with healthier oils like olive and canola oils.
  9. Save sweet snacks and junk food for special occasions
  10. Pay attention to portion size! Eating too much of any food can lead to weight gain.
  11. Increase your fiber intake to the recommended 25 to 30 grams per day.
  12. Limit alcohol intake to one glass per day for women, two glasses per day for men. (Always ask your physician first, especially if you have liver disease or are taking medications!)
  13. Check out diabetic “super foods!” These foods provide important nutrients and fiber that are lacking in many American diets. Many of these foods also have a low glycemic index. Diabetic “super foods” include:
    • Beans: Beans are high in fiber, magnesium and protein.
    • Dark Green Leafy Vegetables: Eat lots of these low calorie, low carbohydrate foods such as spinach and kale.
    • Citrus Fruits: Get your fill of fiber and vitamin C with oranges, lemons and grapefruit
    • Sweet Potatoes: Choose this lower glycemic index alternative to white potatoes.
    • Berries: A sweet, tasty treat that is full of fiber, vitamins and antioxidants.
    • Tomatoes: Another sweet treat and excellent source of iron and vitamins C and E.
    • Fish: This food is a powerhouse for cholesterol improving Omega-3 fatty acids.
    • Whole Grain Foods: These foods contain extra nutrients, folate and omega-3 fatty acids.
    • Nuts: Nuts contain good fats, fiber and magnesium. Walnuts are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids.
    • Fat-Free Dairy: These products contain osteoporosis fighting vitamin D and calcium.
  14. Always read the label, it has important information! Know the serving size, calories and total carbohydrate per serving. This information will help tremendously in improving your weight and sugars.

Good nutrition and proper dieting starts with knowledge! These diabetic diets provide the patient with tools to change eating habits for a lifetime leading to sustained weight loss and better long term sugar control. Ask to meet with a registered dietician or certified diabetic educator to discuss your weight loss goals and nutritional needs. Remember to never start any diet or exercise program without first consulting your physician.

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