Diseases & Conditions

Diabetes and the Foods You Eat

The foods you eat are made of three basic nutrients: carbohydrates, fat, and protein. All of these nutrients provide calories (energy) that allow your body cells to function properly.

Why do I need a meal plan?

A balanced meal plan is important for everyone. If you have diabetes, eating properly balanced meals and snacks is even more important. Food is an important tool that you can use to control diabetes and stay healthy. Carbohydrate counting adds variety to your meals and still allows you to control your blood glucose. Ask a registered dietitian how carbohydrate counting can be incorporated into your lifestyle.

Eating a balanced meal plan can help you:

  • Control blood glucose (sugar) levels
  • Control cholesterol levels
  • Control blood pressure
  • Maintain a healthy weight or reduce your weight, if you are overweight
  • Prevent low blood glucose reactions
  • Reduce the risk of health problems caused by diabetes

How can I plan a balanced diet?

You will need to plan the amount of foods that you eat with a registered dietitian or other qualified health care provider. Together, you can develop an eating plan that is right for you. This plan will be based on such factors as your:

  • Blood glucose levels
  • Cholesterol and triglyceride (a type of blood fat) levels
  • Blood pressure levels
  • Height
  • Weight
  • BMI (body mass index)
  • Age
  • Activity level
  • Amount and type of any medications you are taking

Do I have to count every bite?

No. But you will need to be aware of what and how much you are eating and the right portions of foods. The number one goal of the meal plan is to control blood glucose levels with an even distribution of carbohydrates at meals and snacks.

Your health care provider can help you manage your blood glucose levels by referring you to a nutrition professional who can develop meal plans with you.

Here are some basic guidelines:

  • Follow the meal plan set with your health care provider.
  • Eat a variety of foods every day to get all the nutrients you need.
  • Eat only the amount of food in your meal plan. Eat about the same amount of food each day. Be aware of portion sizes.
  • Do not skip meals.
  • Eat meals and snacks at regular times every day. Distribute meals 4 to 5 hours apart, with snacks in between. If you are taking a diabetes medication, eat your meals and take your medication at the same times each day.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. If you need to lose weight, cut down on your portion sizes but do not skip meals. Exercise to maintain and/or achieve a healthy weight.

Can I eat sugar if I have diabetes?

You can eat small amounts of sugar if it is part of a healthy meal plan, and if you check your blood glucose levels regularly.

Keep these sugar "tips" in mind:

  • Cookies, pies, cakes, ice cream and other sugary foods add a lot of calories but few nutrients. Eat these "treats" only in limited amounts and only after planning with your health care provider.
  • Count both table sugar and natural sugar in fruits, juices, vegetables, and starches. Both types of sugar can raise blood glucose. Eat only the amounts of these foods set in your meal plan.
  • Some artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, may cause digestion problems. Talk with your health care provider about sugar substitutes.
  • Starchy foods are converted to sugar during the process of digestion. For this reason, eat only the amounts listed in your meal plan.
  • Alcohol-based sugars are labeled “sugar free,” but they will raise your blood sugar levels.

Can I eat salt?

Yes. However, you only need a small amount of salt to meet your nutrient requirements. Most people eat more than 10 times as much salt as they need. This added salt can contribute to higher blood pressure, which can cause heart disease. People with diabetes already have a higher risk of getting high blood pressure.

To reduce salt in your diet, cut back on table salt and eat fewer:

  • Canned foods, especially soups and vegetables
  • Frozen and boxed mixes for potatoes, rice, and pasta
  • Ketchup, mustards, salad dressings, and other spreads and canned sauces
  • Salty snack foods
  • Processed foods, such as luncheon meats, sausage, bacon, and ham

Instead, select:

  • Foods marked "sodium-free," "low sodium" or "unsalted"
  • Herbs and spices to flavor foods instead of salt
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Check with your healthcare provider before using salt substitutes containing potassium

More food tips

  • Eat foods rich in fiber (20 to 35 grams per day). Good sources of fiber are cooked and dried beans; whole grain breads, cereals, and crackers; fresh fruits and vegetables, and; bran products.
  • Eat less fat. Since people with diabetes have a greater risk of developing heart disease, eating meals lower in fat may help lower your risk for heart disease.
  • Avoid alcohol. Alcohol can make it more difficult for you to control your blood glucose levels.

Where can I learn more?

American Diabetes Association
or 800.232.3472

Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International
800.533.CURE (2873)

© Copyright 1995-2010 The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. All rights reserved.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 3/19/2010...#4094