When you have Type 2 diabetes, figuring out what to eat — not to mention when and how much to eat — can feel overwhelming. But there are plenty of simple strategies that make following a diabetes-friendly diet a lot less stressful. Here are nine tips to demystify the process and get you started:
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Stock These Staples
Make sure your kitchen has a few nutritious essentials that you can use to whip together meals, especially when you’re short on time and might be tempted to grab something unhealthy. On your must-have list should be:
-Fresh fruit, including grab-and-go options like apples, bananas and oranges as well as a bag or two of frozen fruit to keep in your freezer for smoothies or to mix with plain yogurt.
-Fresh veggies like baby carrots, cherry tomatoes and snap peas — all great additions to a salad or to eat as stand-alone snacks if you’re running out the door.
-100 percent whole-wheat bread, pitas or wraps.
-Quick and easy sources of protein, including canned tuna or beans, reduced-sodium lean deli meat, rotisserie chicken or hard-boiled eggs.
-Low-fat dairy — think skim or 1 percent milk, nonfat plain Greek yogurt, and low-fat cottage cheese.
-Nuts to liven up salads and veggie dishes and to pair with fresh fruit.
Shop the Perimeter
The items located around the edges of a grocery store — fresh produce, eggs, dairy and poultry — tend to be the healthiest, so try to fill up most of your cart with these foods. Avoid the middle of the store, where the packaged, highly processed foods lurk. One exception: canned or frozen veggies. Just make sure that if you’re buying canned goods, you rinse off items like beans thoroughly to get rid of excess sodium, and opt for canned fruits or fish that are soaking only in water.
Never Miss a Meal
It might not seem like that big of a deal. You’ll eat when you get a moment, right? But if you have diabetes, it can be dangerous to skip a meal, as it can cause either super-low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) or sky-high blood sugar (hyperglycemia). Ideally, you don’t want to go longer than four hours without eating, says Erin Spitzberg, M.S., RDN, CDE, a certified diabetes educator for health coaching company Fit4D. If you’re in a rush or looking for something that you can just grab and go with, try one of these low-carb, satiating eats: an ounce of nuts, celery sticks with a tablespoon of peanut butter or a quarter of an avocado.
Be a Label Sleuth
When you’re at the grocery store, remember to check the “total carbohydrate” section of the nutrition facts label. “This gives you the number to include in carb counting because all carbs can impact your blood glucose,” explains Jennifer Bowers, Ph.D., RD, a nutritionist in Tucson, Arizona. “Many people look only at the ‘sugars,’ but that’s only one subset of the carbohydrates.” As a result, you may end up overeating foods like grains that have no added sugar, but are chock-full of carbohydrates. And if you see the term “net carbs” on the label, ignore it. To get this number, manufacturers subtract the grams of fiber and sugar alcohols from the total carbohydrate, which makes the food seem lower in carbs than it actually is.
Practice Portion Control
For counting carbs, the most important foods on your plate to keep in specific portions are the starchy foods and fruits. “Until you’re able to eyeball a one-cup serving, simply use a measuring cup to plate your meals,” suggests Bowers. One cup of cooked whole-wheat pasta, for example, contains about 30 grams of carbohydrates, while three-quarters of a cup of blueberries has about 15 grams. “These are vitally important numbers when you’re keeping your carbs in check and counting them each meal,” says Bowers. If you don’t have a measuring cup handy, make a fist to guestimate it to the size of a measuring cup, then hold your fist up next to the food to compare.
Master the Plate Method
If you’re overwhelmed at the idea of carb counting, the American Diabetes Association has an easy alternative. Mentally divide a 10- to 12-inch plate into four quadrants. Fill two quadrants (or half the plate) with nonstarchy veggies like broccoli, tomatoes and salad greens. Grains and other starchy foods such as potatoes, corn and brown rice go in one small quarter and a protein like fish, chicken or cheese goes in the remaining quarter. Still hungry? You can add in a small serving of fruit or low-fat dairy or some healthy fats, such as nuts or seeds. Presto! Dinner’s ready.
Opt for Meatless Monday A vegetarian diet helps you manage your diabetes, according to a 2014 review, with one study showing that a plant-based diet can improve a key indicator of blood sugar control, hemoglobin A1C, by as much as 1.2 points in 22 weeks. The key is to focus on fiber-rich fruits and veggies as well as healthy plant proteins (think foods like edamame, tofu, lentils, chickpeas and almonds) and to avoid less nutritious fare like refined grains or sweets, says Spitzberg. If you simply can’t go a day without some sort of animal protein, build that day’s meals around eggs or canned tuna, suggests Andrea Kirkland, M.S., RD, a nutritionist at eMeals.com.
Pair Fruit and Dairy
While it is true that fruits and dairy products have natural sugars, they are also packed with important nutrients and are considered healthy choices. One study published this past April in the medical journal PLOS found that people with diabetes who ate the most fruit had the lowest risk of dying. Ditto for dairy: Several studies have found that milk, including whole milk, can significantly reduce the risk of developing diabetes. If you’re munching on fruit, it’s a good idea to pair it with some protein and fat (like a cup of milk or an ounce of cheese) to help stabilize blood sugar, says Spitzberg. And avoid fruits like watermelon and grapes, which tend to have a high water content and little fiber while also being higher in sugar, notes Spitzberg.
Limit Late-Night Noshing
Late-night eating raises both blood sugar and insulin levels, according to a University of Pennsylvania study presented this past June. The study also found that people who ate earlier in the day produced more of the hormone leptin later at night, which helped them avoid the after-hours munchies. If you have the urge to nosh post-dinner, opt for a “free” food like a sugar-free popsicle, a handful of baby carrots and some hummus or a cup of light popcorn sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. These should help control your cravings without causing your blood sugar to spiral out of control.
What Do YOU Think?
Which of these tips have you already tried? Which ones do you plan to add to your routine? And was there anything we missed? Share in the comments below.