A key factor in diabetes management is eating balanced, healthy meals and snacks every day. This doesn’t mean you have to completely stop eating the foods you like, but you need to understand how food affects your blood sugar and often have a meal plan in action for your day.
I will cover some basic guidelines you can follow to structure a meal plan, however a plan works best when it fits your lifestyle and schedule. It’s recommended to work with a dietitian to design a meal plan specifically for you, so that your eating habits and preferences can be taken into account.
How does food affect blood sugar level?
Carbohydrate-rich foods raise blood sugar higher and faster than other types of food. This doesn’t mean you need to avoid carbohydrates all together, but you should be mindful of which foods have carbohydrates and portion them accordingly.
The main types of carbohydrates:
- Starches: bread, pasta, cereal, rice, beans, squash, potatoes, peas, corn, yams, and lentils
- Sugars: both naturally present and added – fruits, fruit juices, dairy products, honey, most desserts, processed foods, candy, soda, fruit and sports drinks
- Fiber: found mostly in plant foods – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, peas, and many nuts
Carbohydrate consistency, or spreading your daily allowance of carbohydrates over several meals and snacks, is recommended for those with diabetes. This arrangement helps manage your blood sugar levels by limiting spikes from having too much carbohydrate at one time.
Keeping relatively higher protein intake, approximately 20-30% of total calories (in the absence of kidney disease), has been shown to improve glycemic control, increase satiety, and preserve lean muscle mass during weight loss.
More recently, scientists have researched ketogenic (extremely low-carb) and low-carb diets as treatment for Type 2 Diabetes. However, until the evidence is clear, I recommend following the current guidelines and recommendations. I want to re-emphasize the importance of seeking guidance from your physician or dietitian before making any drastic changes to your diet.
Understanding Serving Sizes
The definition of a serving size is “the amount of food or drink that is generally served.” However, you may be grossly misguided if your point of reference is what is served at the average American restaurant. A simple way to estimate an appropriate serving size (without the use of measuring cups or spoons) is to use your hand for comparison:
- An open palm is about 3 to 4 ounces.
- A closed fist is approximately 1 cup.
- A cupped hand is about ½ cup.
Another method to determine carbohydrate servings for a meal or snack is to use the carbohydrate exchange system, also commonly called carbohydrate counting. This method counts 15 grams of carbohydrate as one serving, and allows for 3-4 servings per meal and 2 per snack (varies based on individual recommendations).
I find that more people have an easier time using their hands as reference or using the MyPlate model, which is explained below. However if you are interested in learning more about carbohydrate counting, ask your diabetes educator for a more detailed explanation.
A Balanced Plate
Now that we have established serving sizes, let’s learn how to organize a balanced meal. At breakfast, start your day off with protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fat to keep you energized. For lunch, and dinner, think about keeping your plate balanced with vegetables, protein, and carbohydrates, which will help manage your blood sugar levels most effectively. MyPlate (choosemyplate.gov) is a visual food guide designed to help you choose the right proportions to eat at each meal.
The basics of MyPlate:
- Cover half your plate with vegetables and fruit (size of 1 to 2 fists, and more vegetables than fruit)
- A quarter of your plate should be lean protein (palm of hand)
- The other quarter should be starchy vegetables or grains (cupped hand or fist)
Include snacks between meals and/or at bedtime to keep from overeating at mealtime and manage blood sugar control. Just as you do with your meals, combine a protein and/or a fat with carbohydrate-rich foods to prevent spikes in blood sugar and increase satiety.
Example Meal Plan
Using the above guidelines, the following is an example meal plan. Calorie and nutrient needs are specific to individuals (particularly those with kidney disease, other illnesses, or advanced complications from Diabetes), so please consult your primary care provider or contact a dietitian to determine a meal plan appropriate to meet your needs.
- 6-8 ounces 2% fat Greek yogurt
- 1 cup mixed berries
- 1 ounce walnuts
- Medium apple
- 2 Tablespoons of natural peanut or almond butter
- 3 -6 ounces grilled chicken
- 1 cup white beans with mixed vegetables
- side salad, with 2 Tbsp. vinaigrette dressing
- 1 slice whole grain bread, toasted (such as Ezekiel bread)
- ¼ hass avocado, sliced
- 2 tomato slices
- salt and pepper to taste
- 3 to 6 ounces lean beef, pork, chicken, or fish
- 1 cup steamed brown rice
- 1 cup roasted vegetables