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How to Eat Well When You Have Diabetes

People living with diabetes often have a lot of questions about food. What foods are OK? Which ones should I avoid? Does having diabetes mean I can't ever have treats or eat at a restaurant?

Fortunately, eating well when you have diabetes is a lot like eating well when you don't have diabetes. In fact, health care professionals no longer recommend the strict "diabetic diet" that you may have heard about years ago.

Research shows that there are lots of ways to maintain a healthy diet while enjoying each and every meal. By learning what your body needs and how to keep your blood sugar levels under control, you can help prevent the complications of diabetes without feeling deprived at the dinner table.

What you eat affects the amount of glucose (sugar) in your blood. When you have diabetes, your body either doesn't make enough of the hormone (insulin) that helps keep blood sugar in check or can't use it as well as it should. Because of this, your body can wind up with too much glucose, which leads to health problems.

One of the most common health problems people with diabetes face is heart disease. Adults with diabetes are nearly twice as likely to die from heart disease or stroke as people without diabetes. Today, managing diabetes is just as much about managing your risk of developing heart troubles—or preventing problems if you already have heart disease.

Proper nutrition and healthy eating can help. Think of your food as a central part of your routine to keep your body running well, just like any medications you take. The pillars of diabetes care include:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Watching your blood sugar levels
  • Taking your medications (if needed)

Q: What happens when you overeat or fuel your body with too much fat or added sugar?

A: Excess calories, fat and sugar cause dangerous spikes in blood sugar. Over time, complications develop including heart disease, blindness, kidney failure and nerve problems.

Gone are the days of the one-size-fits-all, very restrictive "diabetes diet," which focused on avoiding sugars altogether. Today, health care professionals recommend finding a healthy eating plan that fits your life.

An eating plan helps to define the total calories you should consume and the amounts of different types of food—carbohydrates, protein, fats and so on—to include in your daily diet.

So how many carbohydrates should I eat? It depends on many factors, including:

  • What recent blood work reveals about your blood sugar level
  • Your weight, age and sex
  • How much you exercise
  • If you take insulin or other medications

A dietitian or certified diabetic educator can determine what is best for you. Consider asking your health care professional for a referral to a dietitian or diabetes educator. Your health care team will recommend an eating plan for you based on:

  • Your body weight
  • How much you exercise
  • The medications you take
  • Your age
  • Your other health conditions

Eating well doesn't have to become a source of stress. Your health care team can help you make your eating plan a natural part of your everyday routine. Also, because your care should focus on your needs, make sure to tell your health care professionals if you are worried about how to eat and feel supported, especially around social events such as family holidays or weddings.

The calories you take in matter—but so do the calories you burn. Exercise is an essential part of managing diabetes and ties into good nutrition and healthy eating.

Losing weight, which involves both limiting calories and getting more physical activity, can make it much easier for you to control your blood sugar. Research shows that losing just 5% of your body weight improves blood sugar and your body's use of insulin, lowers your risk of heart disease and reduces joint pain.

For people with pre-diabetes (blood sugar numbers that are higher than normal, but not diabetes yet), staying active and trimming extra pounds can be enough to keep diabetes at bay.

Changing your eating habits can feel overwhelming, especially when you first find out you have diabetes. Don't hesitate to ask questions. It can take some time to understand exactly what it means to "eat healthy." Take advantage of resources such as a dietitian or nutritionist, diabetes self-management education programs at your local hospital, and online resources.

If sticking with an eating plan is especially hard for you, talk to your health care professional. For many people, food is a source of emotional comfort; it's also often a focus of many social events. There are special techniques you can use to change your eating habits if you have a history of stress or binge eating.

These questions can help you kick-start a conversation about the best food choices to manage your diabetes, your weight and your heart health.

  • How many grams of carbohydrates should I consume at each meal, and how should I balance my carbs and my insulin?
  • How many calories should I consume each day?
  • What's the ideal balance of carbs, proteins, and other types of food for me to eat?
  • What are the key types of food I should limit as much as possible?
  • How much exercise should I be getting?
  • Should I see a dietitian or nutritionist?
  • Are there programs or resources available that can help me establish healthy habits?
  • What are examples of healthy fats? What about salt?

In addition to resources available at CardioSmart.org, the following resources may help:

  • What Can I Eat? (a guide by the American Diabetes Association)
  • Nutritional Recommendations for Individuals with Diabetes (a detailed summary of recommendations)
  • Diabetes Diet: Create Your Healthy-Eating Plan (a resource from Mayo Clinic)
  • Diabetic Diet (trusted resources on the science of diabetes and nutrition)
  • Last Edited 03/31/2019