Best Eating Plans for People With Diabetes

Life is full of important decisions, and how we choose to eat is certainly one of them. What we eat has a direct effect on our health, especially for those of us who have been diagnosed with diabetes. Carbohydrates, protein and fats all play a role in managing blood sugar levels in addition to assisting with our overall health.

Shot of an attractive young woman cooking at home

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The current American Diabetes Association Standards of Medical Care, which is a guide of best practices for diabetes management, states that there is no ideal distribution of calories from carbohydrates, protein and fat. The Standards of Care also recognize that eating plan recommendations for people with diabetes are not one-size-fits-all.

Finding the Right Eating Plan

Each of us is unique in our eating habits. We want to find an eating plan that we can stick with – the best match for each of us. And there are good reasons why. Research reveals that going on and off diets makes it that much harder to lose weight, and switching between different eating plans often can make it difficult to manage blood sugar levels.

Blood sugar likes to have consistency. So, if you are on a “diet” one week and on a different “diet” a month later, this can wreak havoc with blood sugar maintenance. Yo-yoing weight and blood sugar levels that rise and fall like a roller coaster are two issues those with diabetes should avoid.

For all people with diabetes, our goal is to find an eating plan that is both heart-healthy and helps with blood sugar management. The diet we follow should be able to help us achieve blood sugar levels that are in target range, improve A1C and be beneficial for heart health by improving blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides.

In addition to an eating plan that helps us stay healthy, we also want to make sure the plan includes some of our favorite and cultural food preferences – a plan that still allows eating to be pleasurable. A key to following any eating plan is that it is sustainable; we can follow it for a long time without feeling like we are missing out on the pleasure of eating.

Temporary Eating Plans

If your goal is to lose weight, research shows positive outcomes on weight loss for people with Type 2 diabetes when following a very low-calorie eating plan. A very low-calorie eating plan is defined as a diet that allows fewer than 800 calories per day. This type of plan uses liquid meal replacements and has a transition period for re-introduction of food and an increase in calories.

Typically, these very low-calorie diets are only recommended for a short period of time (three months or fewer). This type of eating plan isn’t sustainable from the perspective of overall health since you can’t obtain optimal nutrition nor food satisfaction when you’re consuming a very low-calorie diet. Again, this isn’t for everyone, and you need to check with your health care team before starting a restrictive eating plan.

For people with Type 2 diabetes, low-carb, low-calorie or intermittent fasting are potential temporary eating plans to achieve both weight loss and blood sugar improvement. Again, the biggest issue of concern is whether it’s sustainable to follow day after day, year after year. We want stability with our blood sugar management, and this involves keeping our eating plan and exercise routine as consistent as possible (for all types of diabetes).

These short-term eating plans have been shown to be helpful for people with Type 2 diabetes due to quicker weight loss and improved hemoglobin A1C when compared with the standard eating plan for diabetes. Weight loss helps decrease insulin resistance and can potentially lead to remission of Type 2 diabetes.

Sustainable Eating Plans

As the saying goes, if you keep doing the same thing, you will get the same results. I’m using this saying in a positive perspective. If we make a wise choice in our eating plan by following that eating plan on a daily routine, this can be very beneficial. We are being consistent and are able to learn more about our blood sugar management. When it comes to health, our body likes consistency, especially with food intake.

Therefore, we want to find an eating plan that will give us the nutrition we need, keep our blood sugar steady and that we will not feel deprived.

U.S. News & World Report publishes a review of best diets every year. These are U.S. News & World Report’s top-rated diabetes eating plans that offer opportunities for sustainable healthy eating habits and are appropriate choices for people with diabetes.

Mediterranean Diet for Diabetes

This eating plan also encourages exercise, which is part of the good health equation. This plan is easy to stick with because there are no bans on any food groups and the food is very filling due to the high fiber content. An additional benefit is that the higher fiber content helps slow down the absorption of the carbohydrate you are eating. That’s a win-win.

As a starting point, consume 30 to 45 grams of carbohydrate per meal as a trial. The best way to assess your carb intake in relation to blood sugar management is to check your blood sugar before a meal and two hours after the start of eating. Remember that the target for blood sugar is 80 to130 mg/dL before eating and less than 180 mg/dL two hours after eating.

Studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet may be a useful tool to reduce body weight if you reduce your calories, include a physical activity routine and follow this eating plan for more than six months.

Flexitarian Diet for Diabetes

As a registered dietitian, I love talking to people about the flexitarian eating plan because its focus is on vegetarian eating with the flexibility to consume animal protein – meeting people where they are comfortable. Plant-based eating has been trending for several years with good reason.

Plant-based eating has a wide spectrum of definitions. To some people, it is a vegan plan with no animal products, while for some people, it is a vegetarian plan that includes dairy, eggs and/or fish. Or it may just mean that you are putting more produce on your plate and considering your diet to be plant-forward.

Not everyone is ready to give up meat or chicken, so the flexitarian diet offers that option to add some animal products to a mostly plant-filled plate. Studies have shown that this plan has positive outcomes for overall health and offers flexibility to fit plant-based foods or animal-based foods which can be helpful for sustaining this eating plan – especially for those who don’t want to consume entirely plant-based foods.

The focus is on adding more produce to your plate with meat or poultry as a side dish. From a nutrition and health perspective, plant-based eating plans have a higher diet quality offering more fiber, vitamins and minerals. This plant-based eating plan is also better for your heart because you’ll consume less saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. People following a plant-based eating plan have seen improvement in their sleep, inflammation, immunity and even an increase in satiety and digestion. Red meat consumption increases insulin resistance and affects beta cell function, which have a direct influence on the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and complicate the management of diabetes.

Studies show those who follow a vegetarian eating plan tend to feel fuller from the higher fiber food choices and lose weight because they tend to eat less overall than meat eaters.

DASH Diet for Diabetes

Since two out of three people who have diabetes also have high blood pressure, this eating plan may be a good option. Studies have shown that blood pressure can be decreased with an eating plan that is low in saturated fat, cholesterol and total fat, which describes the DASH diet. This diet is rich in potassium, magnesium, calcium, protein and fiber.

Just like the other eating plans mentioned above, start with 30 to 45 grams of carbohydrate per meal and check your blood sugar before and after meals to monitor how the diet is effecting your blood sugar. If you are trying to lose weight, reduce your calorie intake by 500 to 1,000 calories.

Each year, U.S. News gathers top experts in the fields of nutrition and food science to rank diets, including the Best Diets Overall and the best diets for specific conditions and goals, like heart health, bone and joint health and family-friendly diets. This is a great resource to learn more details of each of the diets to see which is the best fit for you. The good news is that there are several eating plan options, which offers a solution to that “one size doesn’t fit all” concept for diet plans.

If weight loss is what you are striving for, you can start with one of the temporary plans and then move to the list of sustainable eating plans. Keep in mind that weight loss depends on your personal caloric intake and exercise choices for whichever plan you choose. Initial weight loss can be achieved by following one of the short-term temporary eating plans or by reducing the calories you consume in the longer-term sustainable eating plans.

The food you choose to eat should be enjoyable while also providing the nutrition you need for good health and maintaining blood sugar levels that are in target

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