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What Food Can Diabetics Eat?

Reviewed on 11/5/2020

What Is Diabetes?

A variety of eating plans such as low fat, Mediterranean diet, whole food plant-based, and vegetarian/vegan are acceptable for patients with diabetes. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist before starting any diet that involves extreme restriction.
A variety of eating plans such as low fat, Mediterranean diet, whole food plant-based, and vegetarian/vegan are acceptable for patients with diabetes. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist before starting any diet that involves extreme restriction.

Diabetes is a metabolic disorder that occurs when the body doesn’t make enough insulin or doesn’t use insulin properly causing blood sugar (glucose) levels to rise (hyperglycemia). Glucose is the body’s main source of energy, and the pancreas produces a hormone called insulin that helps convert glucose from the food you eat into energy your body uses. 

Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes in which the body doesn’t use insulin well. It differs from type 1 diabetes (formerly called juvenile diabetes), a condition in which little to no insulin is produced by the pancreas.

What Food Can People with Diabetes Eat?

Diet is a part of diabetes treatment. People with diabetes need to ensure they eat the right foods in the right amounts at the right times to keep blood sugar at normal levels. A proper diet can also help people with diabetes treat obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, conditions that can also affect people with diabetes.

People with diabetes do not need to eat special foods but they do need to focus on consumption of healthy foods and not overeating. 

A variety of eating plans such as low fat, Mediterranean diet, whole food plant based, and vegetarian/vegan are acceptable for patients with diabetes. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist before starting any diet that involves extreme restriction (such as a very low carbohydrate or "keto" diet) because for some patients, such restrictive diets may not be recommended.

American Diabetes Association (ADA) nutritional guidelines are similar to healthy eating recommendations for the general population and include: 

  • Carbohydrates 
    • Monitoring carbohydrate intake is important because carbohydrate intake directly determines blood sugar levels after meals, and insulin adjustment for carbohydrate intake is an important factor in managing blood sugar levels
    • From fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and low-fat milk 
    • Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages (including fruit juice)
    • Meals with low glycemic index and glycemic load may provide a small additional benefit for glycemic control
  • Fats
    • Avoid saturated fat and trans-fat (such as found in red meats, cheese, ice cream, butter, margarine, and shortening), which contribute to coronary heart disease
    • People with diabetes are at increased risk for heart disease and stroke
    • Keep trans-fat consumption as low as possible
    • Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (such as found in fish, olive oil, nuts) are somewhat heart protective
  • Protein
    • The usual daily intake of protein is 15 to 20 percent of total caloric intake
    • Eat lean meats, fish, eggs, beans, peas, soy products, and nuts and seeds instead of red meat
  • Fiber
    • A high fiber diet (25 to 30 grams per day) may help to control blood sugar levels and glycated hemoglobin (A1C)
  • Sodium
    • A low sodium diet (less than 2,300 mg per day) is recommended and can help manage blood pressure
  • Artificial sweeteners
    • Have no effect on blood sugar levels and may be consumed in moderation
    • Increasing water intake is recommended over artificially sweetened beverages
  • Sugars
    • Sugars should be consumed in moderation 
    • For patients who take insulin, calculate the dose of insulin based upon the number of carbohydrates, which includes the sugar content
  • “Sugar-free” or “fat-free” products
    • These products are not necessarily low in calories or carbohydrates
    • Read nutrition labels carefully and compare to similar products that are not sugar- or fat-free to determine which has the best balance of serving size and number of calories, carbohydrates, fat, and fiber
  • “Free” foods
    • Any food with less than 20 calories and 5 grams of carbohydrate may be considered a “free food,” meaning there are not enough calories or carbohydrates to affect weight or insulin requirements

The recommended calorie intake needed to maintain weight depends upon a person’s age, sex, height, weight, and activity level. In general:

  • Men, active women: 15 calories/pound
  • Most women, sedentary men, and adults over 55 years: 13 cal/lb
  • Sedentary women, obese adults: 10 cal/lb
  • Pregnant, lactating women: 15 to 17 cal/lb

To safely lose 1 to 2 pounds per week, subtract 500 to 1,000 calories from the total number of calories needed to maintain weight. Do not go under 1,200 calories per day except under medical advice or supervision. 

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Diabetes: What Raises and Lowers Your Blood Sugar Level? See Slideshow

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Reviewed on 11/5/2020
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