If you have diabetes, eating healthy meals helps you the same way it helps your
best friend or the guy who sits next to you in math class. Good nutrition helps you
grow properly, reach and maintain a weight that's right for your height, and stay
healthy. But eating right also helps you keep your blood sugar levels on track —
something that's important for people with diabetes. By eating well, you'll also help
to prevent diabetes problems that can occur later in life, like heart disease.
People who have diabetes don't need to be on strict diets, but they do need to
pay attention to when they eat and what's on their plates. Crack open the cookbooks
and surf to your favorite recipe website because it's time to plan meals that you
Eating right means knowing what's in the foods you're eating. It's easy to guess
what some foods contain, but others are more of a mystery. That's where food
labels come in. Food labels list a food's ingredients, nutritional information,
and calories per serving. This nutritional information includes carbohydrates
(pronounced: kar-bo-HI-drates, and also known as carbs), sodium, and fats, all of
which are important to people with diabetes.
The amount of carbohydrates
you eat can help you control your diabetes. People with diabetes need to balance the
amount of carbs they eat with their activity levels and insulin.
A doctor or dietitian will show you how to do this. Once you have this information,
food labels will make it easy to track and meet your goals.
Food labels list carbohydrates in grams. You can figure out your carb intake in
Look on the food label for the serving size.
Look on the food label for the amount of carbohydrates per serving.
Calculate how many servings you ate.
For example, a food label might show that the serving size is ½ cup (120
milliliters) and the amount of carbohydrates per serving is 7 grams. If you ate 1
cup (240 milliliters) of that food, you ate 14 grams of carbs (7 grams per serving
x 2 servings).
Food labels also list how much sodium (salt) is in foods. Some people with diabetes
have hypertension (high blood pressure), and eating too much salt can make it worse.
If you have hypertension, you may need to check how much sodium is in the foods you
eat so you can stick to the guidelines your doctor gives you. Even if you don't have
hypertension, it's a good idea to go easy on sodium.
People with diabetes are also at greater risk of developing heart disease, especially
if they have high levels of lipids (fats) in their blood. You can ask your doctor
or dietitian if you need to limit your intake of saturated fats, cholesterol, and
trans fats. Food labels list the amount and types of these fats that a food contains.
All of these can contribute to the development of heart disease in people with or
Aside from carbs, sodium, and fats, you might check food labels for the same reasons
that everybody else does. Watching the calories you eat — and limiting the amount
of high-calorie foods that you eat — can help you maintain a healthy weight.
It's also important to make sure that you get enough vitamins, minerals, and fiber
to stay healthy.
A quick-reference guide to food content can make choosing healthy foods a little
easier if you're eating out or in situations where there's no food label. This guide
contains details on the carbohydrate, fat, and sodium content of foods, along with
other nutritional information. If you don't have one, you can get one from your doctor
Just like everyone else, people with diabetes need to aim for each meal to be a
good balance of nutrition and taste. Here are some estimates to shoot for over the
course of a day:
About 10% to 20% of the calories you eat should come from protein. Try to select
lean meats like chicken or beef.
Roughly 25% to 30% of calories should come from fat. Try to avoid foods with lots
of trans and saturated fats (or eat them only in moderation).
About 50% to 60% of the calories you eat should come from carbohydrates. Try to
eat lots of green and orange vegetables in your daily diet — like carrots and
broccoli. And choose vitamin-rich brown rice or sweet potatoes instead of white rice
or regular potatoes.
Your diabetes health
care team will teach you (and whoever prepares your meals, such as your mom or
dad) meal planning guidelines. Your meal plan won't tell you specific foods to eat,
but it may suggest mealtimes, food groups to select from, and the amounts to eat from
these food groups.
There's no sense in having a boring diet you won't stick to, so your nutrition
team will work to build the plan based on the foods that you usually eat. To find
out what you like to eat, the team may ask you to keep a food diary or write down
what you eat and drink for 3 days to get a good idea of your tastes.
Your meal plan will probably look different from someone else's because it depends
on your needs and health goals. For example, if you need to lose weight, then the
team will help you focus on controlling the number of calories and fat grams you eat.
Three Ways to Plan Meals
Some people with diabetes use a program called the exchange
meal plan as a guide for what they eat each day. The exchange meal plan
is really useful for people with diabetes who are overweight or who need to pay close
attention to the balance of calories and nutrients they eat each day.
For this meal plan, foods are divided into six groups: starch, fruit, milk, fat,
vegetable, and meat. The plan sets a serving size (amount) for foods in each group.
And each serving has a similar amount of calories, protein, carbohydrate, and fat.
This allows a person some flexibility in planning meals because they can exchange,
or substitute, choices from a food list. The number of servings from each food group
recommended for each meal and snack is based on the total number of calories that
the person needs each day.
The other two types of meal plans help make sure that the amount of carbohydrates
that a person's eating matches up with the insulin or other diabetes medicines he
or she is taking. Focusing on carbohydrate intake is important because carbs are mainly
responsible for the rise in blood sugar that occurs after eating. With the constant
carbohydrate meal plan, the person eats a certain amount of carbohydrates
in each meal and snack. Then he or she takes insulin or other diabetes medicines at
the same times and in the same amounts each day. This plan is easy to follow for people
who usually eat and exercise about the same amount from day to day.
Another option is the carbohydrate
countingmeal plan. Many people with diabetes use carb
counting to figure out the amount of carbohydrates in the foods they eat at each meal
or snack. They then match their insulin dosage to that carb amount. This plan works
best for people who take a dose of insulin (as a shot or with an insulin pump) with
each meal. This meal plan works well for people who need more flexibility, because
the person takes insulin when actually eating, rather than at a set time each day.
Keeping a written record of what you eat can help you and your diabetes health
care team make changes to your diabetes management plan. One helpful tool is a blood
glucose record. This record makes it easy to jot down your carbohydrate intake alongside
your blood sugar readings and lets you see how well you're balancing your food and
insulin. Then if you need to adjust your insulin dose, this written record can help
you understand why and help you decide how much and what time you should have the
It can also help to keep a few references handy, such as charts that show portion
sizes and lists of how many carbohydrates various foods contain. Your diabetes health
care team or a nutritionist can supply this information, and the American Diabetes
Association offers it, too.
With your diabetes knowledge and the right tools, you'll be prepared to eat right
for your health.