It isn’t difficult to determine whether a food is diabetic-friendly or not. The most important thing to understand is how to evaluate if it is fit for your diet. Does the food contain a high amount of carbs? High sugar content? How do they react with blood sugar levels and blood cholesterol levels? A diabetes-friendly diet doesn’t necessarily mean that you eat foods low in calories. Rather, it usually means the foods that won’t spike glucose levels in your blood.
You may already know this, but carbohydrates are the main cause of rising blood sugar levels. When you consume a meal containing carbs, the body breaks down into simple sugars (glucose), which are then absorbed by the bloodstream. In response to this rise in blood glucose, your pancreas produces insulin that helps cells use glucose for energy or store it for later use. Excess glucose will be stored as fat if there is too much glucose in the bloodstream.
The key to a healthy eating plan for people with type 2 diabetes is focusing on foods that will help stabilize blood sugar levels. These foods include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and lentils, lean protein, and healthy fats. Here are some tips to help you choose the right foods:
1. Look for the Total Number of Carbs
The total number of carbohydrates in food is its total carbohydrate count, including fiber and sugar alcohols. Fiber does not raise your blood glucose level; it slows down the digestion of carbohydrates and helps control your appetite. Sugar alcohols also do not raise your blood glucose level, but they can have a laxative effect or cause gas and bloating when eaten in large amounts.
2. Avoid or Limit Simple Carbs
When choosing carbohydrates, look for those with a low glycemic index (low GI) because they are digested more slowly and don’t cause blood sugar spikes. These include barley, buckwheat, bulgur wheat, couscous, quinoa, sweet potatoes, and brown rice.
3. Choose Low-Fat Foods
It’s best to limit or avoid saturated fat from red meat and full-fat dairy products because they can raise cholesterol levels. Replace this with unsaturated fats from fish and vegetable oils such as olive oil and nuts. Also, choose low-fat dairy products or plant-based alternatives.
4. Choose High-Fibre, Low-Glycemic Foods
The glycemic index (GI) measures how quickly a food will raise your blood sugar. Foods with a high GI can cause blood sugar spikes after meals. Those with a low GI may help you manage your blood sugar and prevent energy crashes.
Diets that focus on foods with a low GI tend to be more successful at promoting weight loss and maintaining weight loss than other diets. The American Diabetes Association recommends choosing high-fiber carbs with a low glycemic index — such as vegetables, whole grains, beans and lentils, nuts, and seeds.
Vegetables are an essential part of any diet. They’re nutrient-dense and naturally low in calories yet filling. Choose non-starchy vegetables for most meals — such as broccoli, peppers, cauliflower, carrots, and tomatoes — because they’re packed with nutrients but lower in carbohydrates than starchy vegetables like potatoes.
5. Check the Serving Size
The serving size on a food label may not match your meal plan’s serving size. For example, if your meal plan gives you about 2/3 cups of grains at each meal, the food label shows a serving size as 1/2 cup. You’ll need to double the amount of food when you measure it out or use a nutrition facts calculator to determine the correct number of calories and grams of other nutrients for the portion you’re eating.
6. Beware of Food Labels
Just because a label says, “sugar-free” or “fat-free” doesn’t mean it’s always good for you. Sugar-free candy, cookies, and other sweets can have a lot of calories. And fat-free foods might have more carbohydrates than equivalent full-fat versions. Read food labels carefully to make sure you know what you’re buying.
7. Be Careful With Restaurant Meals
There’s no reason to avoid eating out if you have diabetes, but choosing your meals wisely is important. If a restaurant offers a low-carb meal (such as grilled chicken and steamed vegetables), that can be a good choice. But if the restaurant allows you to order from the regular menu, here are some tips for choosing a healthy meal:
- Try to avoid fried foods or anything cooked in butter or oil. Instead, ask that your food be grilled or baked.
- Ask for sauces on the side to control how much gets on your food. Sauces can be higher in sugar and fat than you might expect.
- Ask for the salad dressing on the side, too. That way, you can control how much of it you eat. You may also want to ask for olive oil and vinegar instead of a creamy dressing.
8. Don’t Go Overboard With Fruit and Fruit Juices
Fruits are loaded with vitamins and minerals, but they also contain carbs that can raise your blood sugar levels. Some fruits are sweeter than others, so it’s important to eat only what you need to get your daily recommended intake of vitamin C (75–90 mg a day for women; 90 mg for men) and fiber (25 grams a day for women; 38 grams a day for men). Try these diabetic diet-friendly fruit options:
- Berries: half cup of blackberries or raspberries or one cup of strawberries
- Melon: half cup of cubed cantaloupe or honeydew melon
- Grapefruit: half grapefruit or one cup of red or white grapefruit juice
- Orange: one orange or half cup of orange juice (often fortified with calcium)
9. Avoid Foods That Are High in Saturated Fat and Cholesterol
Eat fewer red meats and more lean meats, poultry, and fish. Trim extra fat off meat before cooking. Cook meat without added saturated fat by broiling, baking, roasting, or poaching it. Substitute beans for meat in recipes such as soups and salads.
Choose low-fat dairy products instead of whole milk or full-fat cheese. Fat-free or low-fat milk is a good substitute for whole milk in coffee or cereal.
Cut back on desserts made with solid fats such as butter and lard or full-fat cream cheese. Choose natural sweeteners such as agave nectar or honey instead of white sugar when possible. Try making desserts using fruit purees with only a small amount of natural sweetener added.
While there are many elements that can help in the battle against diabetes, including your own diet and workout routine, choosing what foods to eat is perhaps one of the most significant. So it’s encouraging to see that the food industry is making positive strides toward creating more diabetes-friendly products. It’s up to us to continue this trend by educating ourselves about our food and being selective in choosing our meals and snacks.