For people living with diabetes, eating well can significantly affect glucose control and overall health. A balanced meal plan includes foods that not only fuel your body and provide nutrients but also bring you joy. Success with meal planning is not an all-or-nothing proposition! Every small positive change you make is a “win.”
With a little practice and support, you can develop a meal plan that works for you. Here is an introduction to the five pillars of nutrition.
Pillar #1 - What to Eat
Here’s a little secret that the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association have shared: There is no fixed diet that defines what people with diabetes should eat. Rather, a more personalized approach, based on your blood glucose pattern, is recommended. One size, and one meal plan, may not fit all! Eating well, along with other lifestyle factors, monitoring glucose trends, and collaborating with your care team can empower people with diabetes to live healthier lives.
Nourishing your body with a variety of nutrients, including fiber-rich carbohydrates, lean meats or plant based proteins, and heart-healthy fats, can help slow the breakdown of carbohydrates into sugar, and as a result may improve post meal glucose trends. While a sustainable meal plan should have a long list of foods to choose from, it is best to avoid sugary beverages and limit highly processed foods, store-bought bakery goods, granola bars, and processed meats. Typically, meals that are high in carbohydrates tend to raise glucose levels faster than meals that include a mix of energy-giving nutrients. For instance, cereal and milk (both high-carbohydrate foods) may raise glucose levels faster than a mix of fiber-rich carbs, protein, and fat — for instance, a slice of sprouted bread topped with avocado and tomatoes and a side of egg/tofu scramble, or a quick fix such as sprouted bread with almond or peanut butter. Another useful tip is to choose fruits and veggies in their natural form rather than juicing them. For example, eating an apple (with the skin) is a wiser choice than drinking a glass of apple juice. The extra time to chew the apple and take in the fiber works better on glucose levels than gulping down a glass of juice.
A simple yet effective guide to a balanced meal is called the Plate Method.
Pillar #2 - How Much to Eat
Portion sizes seem confusing. Read this handy visual guide on portion sizes for more information. And remember to ask your health care team how many portions are right for you.
When it comes to eating out, restaurants most often serve larger portions — almost two to three times a portion size. Following the Plate Method even at a restaurant can make eating out enjoyable while also allowing you to better manage post-meal glucose trends.
For people with diabetes taking insulin with meals, an important learning is carbohydrate counting. Click here to learn more.
Pillar #3 - When to Eat
While what to eat and how much to eat often take the spotlight with meal planning, the timing of meals and snacks plays an equal role. Ever found yourself going long hours without eating and then feeling “hangry”? Or nibbling away through meetings, only to feel full right before lunchtime? That would be a signal to adjust your eating schedule rather than what you’re eating, to prevent glucose levels from going on a rollercoaster ride of lows and highs.
Pillars #4 & #5 - Where to Eat and Why we Eat
As often as possible, choose a location where mindful eating choices can be made — for instance, at the table while focusing on each bite. Engage your sense of smell, taste, feel, and sight. Often, food habits include emotional eating, comfort eating, and eating when not hungry. Talk to a dietitian to help identify areas where your glucose trends might be elevated due to non-hunger-related eating habits.
Listen to Your Body
No matter how well we plan and stick to a meal plan, we’re not robots! Everyone has days when they feel less than their best. It is important to understand that many factors other than food, such as stress, illness, and the natural progression of diabetes can affect glucose trends. Listening to your body can be as simple as noticing when you’re fatigued and taking time to rest or physical activity that brings you joy or it could be recognizing challenges with managing glucose patterns, even when eating well. Do talk to your care team when something just doesn’t feel right. We will listen.