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The Diabetic Diet

Source: The American Diabetes Association and the American Dietetic Association.

Diet is a vital component in your overall diabetes control program. Your diabetes educator, dietitian, and doctor will develop a personal meal plan to help you attain appropriate blood sugar (glucose) and blood fat (cholesterol and triglyceride) levels.

If you have non-insulin dependent diabetes, sticking to your meal plan helps you achieve and maintain your correct weight, and balances the foods you eat with the insulin your body produces.

If you have insulin dependent diabetes, you must stick to your meal plan to insure a balance between injected insulin and the foods you eat.

Your diabetic diet is a well-balanced meal plan tailored to your individual needs, tastes, activity level and life style. Meal times and types and amounts of foods are planned and adjusted just for you. You may need to learn more about foods, and you may have to make some changes in your eating habits. The better you understand your diet, the more flexibility you can enjoy.

Your dietitian is there to get you started on your way to good nutrition and better health. He or she can help you tailor favorite recipes to fit your prescribed meal plan. Your dietary needs are not like anyone else’s. That’s why your dietitian’s help is so important. Once you understand your dietary needs, you’ll be able to design your own menus and make safe judgments about your diet.

Attention Vegetarians!

Ask your dietitian about vegetarian options, and check your book store for Vegetarian Cooking for Diabetics by Patricia Mozzar (published by The Book Publishing Company).

Basic Nutrition for People with Diabetes

Although foods contain many nutrients, it is easiest to categorize them in three groups: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

  • Carbohydrate foods include bread, potatoes, rice, crackers, cookies, sugar, fruit, vegetables, and pasta. When digested, carbohydrates provide fuel for energy. 
  • Protein foods include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, dried beans, and legumes. When digested, protein is used to build and repair your body. Some protein may also be used as fuel for energy. 
  • Fat foods include butter, margarine, cooking oil, cream, bacon, and nuts. When digested, fats are stored as fat cells or later used as fuel for energy.

    Your meal plan will include carbohydrates, proteins and fats in amounts that will promote good diabetes control while providing adequate fuel for energy and building and repairing your body.


A calorie is a unit of heat used to express the energy-producing content of foods. Your dietitian will determine how many calories you need every day, and how they should be divided among types of food, by considering your height, weight, age, activity level, growth needs, metabolism, and general life style. For example, an active young person of normal weight needs more calories than an inactive older person or an overweight person.

Remember, if you eat more calories than you need to produce energy, the excess calories are stored as body fat.


If you are overweight, losing weight is your primary goal. You can lose weight by eating fewer calories than your body needs for your usual activity level and by increasing your exercise.

A pound of fat is equal to 3,500 calories. To lose a pound in a week, you’d have to cut your calorie intake by 500 calories a day (500 calories x 7 days = 3,500 calories, or one pound). If that sounds like a lot of dieting for very little weight loss, remember a pound a week is 52 pounds a year. But you have to stick with it.

To achieve your ideal weight you have to develop good eating habits, and to maintain that weight you must continue those habits.

Be realistic. Making a big change in your life takes time. It might help to keep a record of your weight each week, so you know when you’re making progress, and when you’re not. And don’t worry about occasional relapses. Don’t be harsh with yourself if you overeat once or twice, or regain a pound or two you thought you’d lost forever. But do try to identify the causes of your relapses, so that you can avoid them in the future.

Guidelines for Healthier Eating

There are some very simple things you can do every day to make sticking to your diet easier:

  • Plan your meals so that you eat healthy food, not just whatever is easiest 
  • Think before you eat instead of raiding the refrigerator every time you feel hungry. 
  • Use a smaller plate, so that you can’t heap on much more than you really want or need. 
  • Chew slowly and completely, savoring every mouthful, instead of packing in as much as you can as quickly as you can.

The following guidelines are a little more complicated, but well worth the effort:


Cut down on meat. Eat more fish and poultry instead. When you do eat red meat, choose the leanest cuts.
Roast, bake, or broil instead of frying. Trim the fat off meat and the skin off poultry, and avoid adding fat in cooking. Beware of sauces and gravies. They often contain lots of fat.
Eliminate or cut down on high-fat foods like cold cuts, bacon, sausage, hot dogs, butter, margarine, nuts, salad dressings, lard, and shortening.
Eat less ice cream, cheese, sour cream, cream, and other high-fat dairy products. Check for low-fat versions; they’re increasingly available in grocery stores. And drink skim or
low-fat milk instead of whole milk.

Know Your Fats

  • Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in animal foods (meat, poultry, egg yolks, whole milk, cheese, ice cream, butter). Have your cholesterol level tested; your goal is a level under 200 mg/dl. 
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is a type of cholesterol that may protect against heart disease (good cholesterol). 
  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is a harmful type of cholesterol that deposits on artery walls and increases the risk of heart disease (bad cholesterol). 
  • Monounsaturated fat is a type of unsaturated fat that lowers blood cholesterol. It is found in olive oil and peanut oil. 
  • Polyunsaturated fat is a vegetable fat that lowers total blood cholesterol. It is found in cottonseed, soybean, sunflower, and safflower oils. 
  • Saturated fat is an animal fat that raises total blood cholesterol. It is found in hydrogenated vegetable fats, coconut and palm oils, cocoa butter, meat fat, whole milk, butter cream, and fatty cheeses. 
  • Triglycerides are fats in the blood that may increase the risk of heart disease.


  • Switch to whole-grain breads, cereals and crackers. 
  • Eat more vegetables — raw and cooked. Instead of fruit juice, eat fresh, whole fruit. 
  • Sample high-fiber foods that may be new to you, like bran, barley, bulgur, brown and wild rice, and dried beans, peas, and lentils.

What is Fiber?

Also known as roughage, fiber is the part of plant food your body cannot digest.
Fiber relieves constipation, lowers blood cholesterol levels, and apparently slows down the rate of carbohydrate digestion, reducing carbohydrate-induced elevations of blood sugar.

Fiber also causes gas if you eat too much too quickly.


Don’t add salt in cooking, and try not to put salt on your food at the table.
Cut down on high-salt foods like canned soups, ham, sauerkraut, hot dogs, and pickles. Food that tastes salty probably is salty.
Eat fewer convenience foods and try to avoid fast-food restaurants. Even when they don’t taste salty, these foods are often loaded with sodium.


  • Don’t eat table sugar. If you’re used to adding sugar to food beverage, substitute an artificial sweetener that has no calories, like saccharin or aspartame (Nutrasweet).
  • Avoid honey, syrup, jam, jelly, candy, sweet rolls, regular gelatin, cake with icing, and pie. Instead of fruit canned in syrup, choose fresh fruit, or fruit canned in natural juice or water. 
  • Drink diet soft drinks. One twelve-ounce can of regular cola contains nine teaspoons of sugar!

Exchange Lists

Your dietitian may use exchange lists to help you plan meals and snacks. Exchange lists are groups of foods that contain roughly the same mix of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and calories. There are six exchange lists:

1. Starches and Breads
2. Meats and Meat Substitutes
3. Vegetables
4. Fruits
5. Milk
6. Fats

You need foods from all six lists for complete nutrition. Foods on the exchange lists are familiar, everyday items you can buy at the supermarket. The Exchange Lists are the basis of a meal planning system designed by a committee of the American Diabetes Association and the American Dietetic Association. While designed primarily for people with diabetes and others who must follow special diets, the Exchange Lists are based on principles of good nutrition that apply to everyone.