Taking steps to treat or manage diabetes doesn’t mean living in deprivation; it just means eating a balanced diet. A healthy diet paired with exercise and proper medication management can significantly improve the quality of life of individuals living with diabetes. A diabetes diet is simply a healthy eating plan that is high in nutrients, low in fat and added sugar, and moderate in calories.
The biggest difference in a diabetic’s eating plan and a healthy diet for non-diabetics is that you need to pay more attention to some of your food choices—most notably the carbohydrates you eat. Carbohydrates have a big impact on your blood sugar levels—more so than fats and proteins—but you don’t have to avoid them. You just need to be smart about what types of carbs you eat. In general, it’s best to limit highly refined carbohydrates like white bread, pasta and rice. Focus instead on high-fiber complex carbohydrates—also known as slow-release carbs. Slow-release carbs help keep blood sugar levels even because they are digested more slowly, thus preventing your body from producing too much insulin. They also provide lasting energy and help you stay full longer.
When thinking of your diet, take a look at your meal plate. Half of your plate should be filled with non-starchy vegetables, such as lettuce, broccoli, cucumbers and other leafy greens. One-fourth should be a lean protein source, such as baked or broiled chicken without the skin, turkey or fish. The remaining quarter of your plate should be your starches or complex carbohydrates. Modifications such as these can kick-start new, healthier habits and help control blood sugar levels, ultimately helping you avoid diabetes-related complications down the road.
Portion sizes are also important to remember when planning your diet. A serving of vegetables is equal to ½ cup cooked or 1 cup raw, and you should aim for 2-3 servings. A serving of starches is 1/3 cup, significantly smaller than you receive at most restaurants. Finally, a serving of lean meat is generally 3 ounces, although the amount of protein you need is driven by your body build, so this serving size can be up to 5 ounces, especially for men. And don’t forget the power of exercise! The American Diabetes Association recommends diabetes patients to participate in at least 150 minutes of exercise each week, which is about 30 minutes, 5 times a week. Aerobic exercises, such as walking, swimming, biking and jogging, help control and lower blood sugar levels.
Our area is fortunate as the team of registered dieticians and diabetes educators at the Cone Health Nutrition and Diabetes Management Center is dedicated to educating diabetic patients throughout the community how to manage their disease through proper diet and exercise.
Margaret “Maggie” May is a certified diabetes educator, and registered dietitian and nurse at Cone Health. She earned a Master of Science in nursing in 1982 and a Master of Science in nutrition in 1998, both from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.