Consider for a minute that more than 30 million Americans have diabetes. That means there are more Americans with diabetes than the total population of Australia! The good news is diabetes can be managed through diet and lifestyle. Fortunately, there is a wealth of information out there to help people with diabetes manage their disease. To help navigate that information, I recently reached out to registered dietitian Ashley Lee of Your Wellness Consultants to help sort out fact from fiction.
IBX: Type 2 diabetes can be really overwhelming. What are the most important things to remember when it comes to nutrition?
Ashley: The thing to remember about diabetes is that the recommendations for how to eat actually apply to everyone. It’s healthy to eat this way whether you have diabetes or not!
Work with the way you are eating now. You will be more successful with your diabetes management if you incorporate diabetes management into your current lifestyle and diet instead of changing everything at once. Incorporate foods that you already enjoy that are higher in fiber, and choose moderate portions of starchy foods on your plate. Read nutrition labels for grams of dietary fiber; foods with a higher fiber content are better for blood sugar management.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Increase your intake of non-starchy vegetables that you prefer, which are naturally low in carbohydrates and high in fiber. Add them into your breakfast, have a green salad with them for lunch (include a protein), or cook them with your dinner.
- Keep all sugary foods in check. Try to keep your added sugar intake at 25 grams or less per day (this doesn’t include fruit sugars). If you eat fruit, make sure the fruit is high in fiber and you limit it to 1 to 2 servings of fruit per day.
IBX: Let’s talk about carbohydrates. Why are they so problematic for people with diabetes?
Ashley: Carbohydrates, including starches and sugar, increase blood sugar levels. Most carbohydrates (especially in large portions) spike blood sugar levels, which can be dangerous for those with diabetes. When choosing any starch, such as a starchy vegetable, grains, rice, noodles, etc., practice portion control. Aim for half a cup to one cup of starch on your plate.
IBX: What foods should people with diabetes try to avoid or limit?
Ashley: Carb-heavy foods are going to be the most problematic, so if you are going to eat them, portion control is crucial.
- Starchy vegetables
- Packaged sweets (added sugars)
- Sugary beverages
- Dried fruit
- White rice
- White potatoes (these can be worse than sugar!)
Tip: If you are going to eat a high-carbohydrate food, it can help to add a small amount of fat to the meal to help slow digestion and manage blood sugars. A great example of this is adding oil when cooking vegetables. I always recommend clients pair their starches with a small amount of fat. (This is true for everyone, not just for those with diabetes.)
IBX: What are some diabetes superfoods?
Ashley: Foods that are high in fiber are going to be the most beneficial foods for people with diabetes, whether the food is generally a carbohydrate, fat, or protein. Fiber helps to manage blood sugar levels and can help prevent blood sugar spikes. (The recommendation is 25 to 30 grams of dietary fiber for women per day and 35 to 40 grams of fiber for men per day.)
- Flaxseed or chia seed (These also add that healthy fat to your meal.)
- High-fiber cereals (one that has 3 grams of fiber or more per serving)
- High-fiber fruits such as apples, orange, berries (keep skin on)
- Non-starchy vegetables (aim for filling half your plate with these)
IBX: Are there any easy food swaps you recommend?
Ashley: Anything that delivers more fiber and less sugar is going to be a healthier choice. For example:
- A sweet potato instead of a white potato
- Stevia instead of sugar
- Berries instead of melon
- Quinoa instead of rice
IBX: I read that those with diabetes should also limit red meat, bacon, and other types of processed meats. If diabetes is predominantly concerned with carbohydrates, why are these meats problematic?
Ashley: These types of meats are often high in saturated fat which clogs arteries and can lead to heart disease. Everyone — regardless of whether or not they have diabetes — should limit these meats. However, it’s especially important for those with diabetes to limit these meats because people with diabetes are at an increased risk for heart attack and stroke. If you have diabetes, it’s especially important for you to protect your heart. You can still enjoy meats, just choose leaner meats.
IBX: Why is meal-planning so important when you have diabetes?
Ashley: Simply put, it’s healthier to make your own food at home, and the best way to do this is to start some simple meal planning. Eating home-cooked meals is one of the best ways to regulate your blood sugar because when you cook at home, you can control the portions and you always know what’s in your food. If you do eat out, try and find out the nutritional information beforehand. Nowadays, many restaurants will include this information on their website.
IBX: Is meal timing important when you have diabetes?
Ashley: I recommend clients don’t go more than four hours without eating. Eating every four hours helps you maintain a steady blood sugar level.
Looking for more help managing your diabetes through diet?
If you’re an IBX member, you may be covered for six free annual visits with a registered dietitian who can help you come up with a diet that is realistic for your lifestyle. Check to see if your plan covers nutrition counseling. To find a participating registered dietitian, primary care provider, or another network provider, Independence Blue Cross members can search our Find a Doctor Tool or call 1-800-ASK-BLUE (1-800-275-2583) (TTY: 711).