Contributor: Kathy Warwick, RD, LD, CDE
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I will often start my diabetes nutrition class by declaring “You can eat anything you want with diabetes.” This is met with some blank stares and looks of confusion from the participants. After all, they have been given lots of well-meaning advice about all the foods and beverages that are forbidden now that they have diabetes.
Diet is a four-letter word in my book, and most diets are doomed to fail because we do not like to feel deprived. How does this notion of living the rest of your life without some of your favorite foods make you feel? Popular diets tend to be extreme with little room for individualization. Ask yourself these questions when evaluating an eating plan:
- Can the entire family follow the diet?
- Does it require expensive or difficult to find food items?
- How long can you follow the diet?
- Is it something you can enjoy the rest of your life?
Research shows that most of us will return to our usual pattern of eating in just a few weeks if the diet plan is unrealistic. Shouldn’t eating be more pleasurable and less stressful?
What is a healthy diet? Should it be low carbohydrate and high protein? Maybe it should be low fat with moderate carbohydrate levels? There is no ideal “diabetic diet” or perfect amount of carbohydrates to control blood sugars. Each individual will respond to different foods and combinations of nutrients in a unique manner. Eating pattern recommendations should take into consideration favorite foods, cultural preferences, cost, availability, and diabetes treatment goals.
- Choosing a more plant-based eating style has proven to have benefits. Including a variety of vegetables and fruit daily provides fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals in a low-calorie package. There is no reason to purchase only fresh or expensive organic produce. Frozen or canned versions are just as nutritious and economical. Try a smoothie made with Greek yogurt, frozen fruit and fresh baby spinach for a portable breakfast. Check out the Mediterranean style diet, the DASH eating plan and Vegetarian pattern for more ideas.
- Protein-rich food sources provide the building blocks for muscles, bones, cartilage, blood cells, hormones, enzymes and every cell in our bodies. We don’t need a lot of protein for health, but a little more protein with meals can help curb hunger later. In people with type 2 diabetes, protein stimulates the release of insulin which may help control post-meal spikes in glucose. People with diabetes can enjoy a variety of animal and plant protein sources for good health. Beans, legumes, tofu, fish, shellfish, nuts and nut butters, seeds, quinoa, milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, chicken, beef, and pork can all fit. Choose leaner cuts of meat, lower fat dairy, and cheeses. Try to include two servings a week of a fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, cod) for those heart-healthy Omega-3’s.
- Carbohydrate is the nutrient that plays the biggest role in blood glucose management. It is probably the most hotly debated as well. A recent meta-analysis linked a moderate intake of carbohydrate with a lower risk of health issues and death from all causes. Greater health risks were associated with very low carbohydrate or very high carbohydrate intake. All types of carbohydrate can be a part of the eating plan. Experts emphasize the use of whole grain, higher fiber, nutrient-rich carb choices. Sugars and sweet treats can be substituted for an equivalent calorie amount of carbs in the diet with moderation in mind. Limiting sugar-sweetened beverages is recommended.
- The amount of fat in the eating plan is not as important as the type of fat consumed. Substituting heart-healthy monounsaturated (olive or canola oil) and polyunsaturated fats (soy, corn, safflower, sunflower oils) for carbohydrate and saturated fats decreases heart disease risk, increases insulin sensitivity and may decrease inflammation. Avocados, nuts and nut butters are sources of these healthy fats. Trans fat, coconut, and palm oil should be avoided if possible.
People living with diabetes need a balanced diet just like the rest of the population. Eating healthy in real life can be simple, enjoyable and affordable.
Kathy Warwick is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator with 36 years of experience in several areas of dietetics practice. She is the owner of Professional Nutrition Consultants, LLC in Madison, Mississippi, providing inpatient and outpatient diabetes education, long term care consultation, hospice consultation, wellness program services, media communications, and medical-legal consultation. Kathy is a medical reviewer for Healthline.com.
Kathy speaks regularly to community and professional groups and has presented multiple national webinars. She serves as the Print Communications Chair for the Diabetes Care and Education Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and is a Past-President of the Mississippi Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In her spare time, Kathy enjoys her grandbabies, gardening, caring for her chickens, yoga, and a weekly art class.