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Diabetes mellitus or diabetes is a chronic metabolic disorder, which can lead to serious health complications if left untreated.
While there is no cure for diabetes, it can be effectively managed through medication, diet, exercise, and an overall healthy lifestyle.
Healthy eating plays a key role in the management of diabetes. Although the meal plan for diabetics has to be customized according to each individual patient, there are general healthy eating recommendations to effectively manage diabetes.
What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease in which blood glucose is elevated because of impaired utilization of glucose as a source of energy.
In a healthy person, glucose derived from ingested food is the primary source of energy for the cells. Insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas, is needed to transport glucose into the cells to be used for energy.
In people with diabetes, blood glucose is elevated because insulin is not enough or completely lacking, resulting in type 1 diabetes, or the action of insulin is impaired (referred to as insulin resistance), resulting in type 2 diabetes.
The Role of Diet in Diabetes Management
Diet plays a crucial role in overall diabetes management.
Nutrition therapy focused on individualized meal plans based on each diabetic patient’s personal and cultural preferences, goals, and economic/social factors is the most effective dietary intervention for long-term diabetes management.
Foods Recommended for Diabetes Patients
Individualized healthy eating patterns with an emphasis on a variety of nutrient-dense foods, including non-starchy vegetables, fresh fruits, whole grains, and whole or minimally processed foods, are the most effective nutrition interventions for long-term management of diabetes. (1)
Individualized healthy eating patterns promoting weight loss and maintenance of healthy weight in overweight/obese diabetics can further improve diabetes management. (1)
The meal plan for people with diabetes should include:
- A variety of non-starchy vegetables of varied colors, based on their personal and cultural preferences. Examples of non-starchy vegetables include dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, celery, cucumbers, cauliflower, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini (2)
- A variety of whole beans (such as black, white, and red kidney beans and garbanzo beans) and lentils, which are nutrient-dense plant foods with important health benefits for diabetics
- Portion-controlled whole grains, such as quinoa, oatmeal, rye, whole wheat, and brown rice, and whole foods (unprocessed or minimally processed), which should replace refined grains and processed foods
People with diabetes should work closely with their health care providers, including a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), to incorporate healthy diet patterns based on their personal and cultural preferences and goals.
For diabetic people with limited economic/social resources and accessibility to healthy foods, following a healthy eating pattern is even more challenging and will require innovative approaches. (3)
For example, non-starchy frozen vegetables or vegetables, fruits in season, whole grains, lentils, and whole beans bought in bulk are healthy. These are low-cost food choices that can be included in healthy diet plans on a budget.
Incentives to buy fresh produce from local farms and free delivery of healthy foods from grocery stores can also improve access to healthier and affordable food choices.
Foods That Can Harm Diabetes Patients
Excessive consumption of foods high in added sugar, refined carbohydrates, and highly processed food products are harmful to people with diabetes because they cause a rapid increase in blood sugar and impair long-term blood glucose control. (4)
Some examples of foods high in added sugar are soda, candies, and desserts such as cakes, cookies, and ice cream.
Excessive consumption of highly processed foods and refined grain products, such as white rice, refined-grain pasta, and refined flour products, are also harmful.
It may not be practical to completely eliminate these foods because of preferences, economic/social factors, and food accessibility.
A better approach is to reduce the consumption of these harmful foods and replace them with healthy food choices.
Include Fruits in Your Diet
People with diabetes should be encouraged to consume a variety of fresh fruits because they are nutrient-dense foods high in fiber.
Fresh fruits are healthy food choices to replace added sugar in the diet. Naturally sweet fruits offer a healthy alternative to sugar-laden desserts.
Canned fruits without added sugars should be included only when fresh fruit choices are not available. If canned fruits are to be consumed, they should be packed in their own juice and should be without any added sugars.
Limit Your Meat Intake
Emerging evidence suggests that a high intake of red and processed meat may be associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. (5)
In contrast, plant-based, unprocessed, or minimally processed foods, may help lower the risk of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes. (5)
While further studies are needed to confirm the harmful effects of excessive meat consumption on diabetes management, reducing meat consumption and replacing it with healthy plant-based food choices, such as whole beans (e.g., soy beans, garbanzo beans), lentils, tofu, and quinoa may offer additional health benefits for diabetics.
Does the Same Diet Work for Both Types of Diabetes?
The general individualized healthy eating patterns offer similar health benefits for managing both type 2 and type 1 diabetes.
An important difference is that the diet for people with type 1 diabetes should take into account the insulin/medication regimen and carbohydrate content of meals.
Consistent carbohydrate intake and/or carbohydrate counting based on insulin/medication regimen is key for the management of type 1 diabetes.
Is There Any Standard Diet for All Diabetes Patients?
People with diabetes should follow individualized healthy eating patterns emphasizing nutrient-dense foods based on their preferences and goals. They need not follow any specific diet to achieve blood glucose control.
However, if a diabetic patient prefers to follow a healthy diet plan, such as the Mediterranean, plant-based, or DASH diet plan, it can be modified and individualized to optimize diabetes management.
People with diabetes should work closely with their health care providers, including an RDN, to follow individualized healthy diet patterns emphasizing nutrient-dense foods such as non-starchy vegetables, fresh fruits, and whole grains.
Meal plans for diabetics should avoid or limit the consumption of foods containing added sugars, refined carbohydrates, and highly processed foods.
The healthy eating plan for overweight/obese diabetics should be individualized to promote weight loss and maintenance of healthy weight for optimizing long-term diabetes management.
People with diabetes and their RDN should work closely to individualize their diet plan to include healthy food choices to replace harmful foods based on their personal and cultural preferences, goals, and economic/social factors.