Improve Nutrition and Food Choices

For a person with diabetes, it is most important to control blood sugar levels. Diabetes puts the person at risk for other health issues. Good nutrition can help reduce these health risks and control blood sugar levels.

Getting started Know how foods effect blood sugar.

  • Carbohydrates (carbs) include foods such as bread, pasta, rice, fruit, fruit juice, milk and cereals. 100% of carbs turn to blood sugar. This occurs within a few minutes to about two hours after eating. This does not mean you should avoid carbs. Your body needs them for energy.
  • Protein includes foods such as meat, poultry, fish and cheese. About 60% of protein turns to blood sugar. This occurs over about three to five hours.
  • Fats include oils, salad dressings and butter or margarine. Only about 10% of fats turn to blood sugar. This is a slow process. Fats slow down the break down of other foods by staying in the stomach longer. Fats do have over twice as many calories as carbs and proteins. Eating too much fat can cause weight gain.
  • Balance your intake of carbs, proteins and fats. Eat small portions of fats and no more than 3 oz. of protein at each meal. Eat modest amounts of carbs. Balance your food with your diabetes medicines (oral pills/insulin).
  • Learn how your diabetes medicines work.
  • Your doctor and healthcare team can tell you the best times to eat and take your diabetes medicines.

Steps you can take to improve general nutrition and decrease health risks:

  1. Decrease your intake of saturated fats (butter, cream, cheese, whole milk). This will reduce your risk for heart disease, strokes, peripheral vascular disease and some cancers.
  2. Cut down on the use of stick margarines, baked foods (crackers, cookies and snack foods) and deep fried foods (french fries, fried chicken and fried fish).
  3. Choose lean meats, poultry and seafood. Eat low fat dairy products. Use fats such as olive oil, canola oil and nuts. Use soft margarine in place of butter or stick margarine. Make sure the soft margarine is trans fat-free (find this on the label).
  4. Increase fruits and vegetables. This will help lower your risk for hypertension, heart disease and cancer. - Aim for 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. - Count each fruit as a carb choice.
  5. Increase fiber in your diet. This will help control blood sugar levels and decrease constipation. A high fiber diet can decrease the risk for hypertension, heart disease and some cancers. - Choose whole grains over refined grains. - Learn how to use dried beans and legumes in your meal plan.
  6. Get enough calcium to decrease risk of osteoporosis, hypertension and certain types of cancer. - Include low fat dairy products, canned salmon or sardines with bones, greens (collards, turnip or mustard greens) and legumes. - If you cannot get enough calcium from food, ask your doctor about calcium supplements.
  7. Decrease intake of sodium if you have hypertension or certain types of heart and kidney disease*. Reduce sodium to 2,300 mg/day. - Use less salt in cooking. Remove the saltshaker from the table. Try herbs and spices for added flavor. - Cut down on your use of convenience foods.
  8. Limit alcohol intake to no more than 1-2 drinks per day.
  9. Ask your doctor about taking vitamin supplements. Some people may benefit from getting more of vitamins B, E and C.

How can your doctor help you? It may be hard to balance your food for blood sugar control and to reduce health risks. A registered dietitian can help. Dietitians are trained to develop healthy plans that fit your needs. Every patient with diabetes should see a dietitian at the time of diagnosis. Others may need repeated visits. Check with your doctor or insurance company to see if a referral is needed to meet with a dietitian.

*American Diabetes Association: Diabetes Care Volume 37, Supplement 1, January 2014 S29. Accessed 07/05/19.