Meal plans for diabetes: what you need to know
Diabetes is one of the most common conditions in the United States, so as a dietitian, you can help clients manage it with certain dietary recommendations. Here’s what you need to know about creating meal plans for diabetes.
Chronic diseases are on the rise–in the United States alone, 37 million people have diabetes, and 1 in 3 adults have pre-diabetes.
As people are looking to delay or prevent the onset of diabetes, the role of dietitians and nutrition education becomes increasingly important. But what are some dietary considerations, and how can you, as a nutrition professional, create a diet for diabetes that will help manage this condition? Here’s what you need to know about creating meal plans for diabetes.
Diabetes is a chronic health condition that affects how the body turns food into energy.
In people who don’t have diabetes, the body breaks food into glucose to be released into the bloodstream. When blood sugar levels rise, it signals the pancreas to release insulin (a hormone that converts blood sugar into energy).
With diabetes, the body doesn’t make enough insulin or is unable to use it properly. This decline in insulin sensitivity leads to excess glucose in the bloodstream, and over time can cause serious health problems, such as heart disease, vision loss, and kidney disease.
There are two types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. Let’s briefly break these down to better understand the differences between the two.
Type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is a genetic condition in which the immune system attacks and destroys insulin cells in the pancreas. It usually develops in children, teens, and young adults, but it can happen at any age.
While type 1 diabetes can’t be prevented, it can be treated by managing blood sugar, getting regular health checkups, and seeking support.
Type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is much more common, as it’s generally lifestyle related and develops over time.
Some risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes include people who:
- Are overweight or obese
- Are aged 45 or older
- Have a family history of type 2 diabetes
- Are physically active less than 3 times a week
- Had gestational diabetes
- Are an African American, Hispanic or Latino, American Indian, Alaska Native, Pacific Islander, or Asian American person
Unlike type 1 diabetes, you can help your clients prevent or delay type 2 diabetes by maintaining a healthy weight and being physically active.
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How does nutrition affect diabetes?
Experts have found that a diet high in nutrient dense foods, fiber, antioxidants, and healthy fats can decrease inflammation, reduce oxidative stress, and help manage insulin levels. And, since insulin resistance is associated with impaired glucose tolerance, diabetes, excessive weight, and cardiovascular diseases, diet can play a significant role in managing insulin sensitivity and blood sugar levels.
Furthermore, research shows that insulin resistance can be managed by having a high-energy and low-glycemic-index breakfast, and engaging in mindful eating practices.
What foods should you include in a meal plan for diabetes?
As a dietitian, you can work with your diabetic clients to create a meal plan that fits their lifestyle, needs, and goals. This will help them understand when, what, and how much to eat to get the right nutrition for their blood sugar levels. But what foods should you include in a meal plan for diabetes, and are there any other considerations to keep in mind?
Here’s what to consider when creating a meal plan for diabetic clients.
- Carbohydrates. Experts have found that consistent carbohydrate intake will help minimize the spikes in blood glucose levels throughout the day. Furthermore, high fiber foods such as wheat bread, raw fruit, non-starchy vegetables, and whole grains can help regulate blood sugar and possibly aid in weight loss .
- Protein. This macronutrient is necessary for tissue repair and can increase satiety. It’s recommended for clients to get 10-35% of their total calories from high quality protein sources. This includes plant-based proteins, eggs, low fat dairy products, and lean meats.
- Healthy fats. The American Diabetes Association recommends that people with diabetes include more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in their diets. Some examples include olive oil, avocados, peanut butter, flaxseeds, and most nuts.
- Physical activity. While this isn’t dietary related, you can encourage your clients to move more frequently, if possible. Studies have found that regular physical activity should be encouraged as it can help regulate glucose levels and significantly improve insulin sensitivity.
- Limit added sugars. For improved health outcomes, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting calories from added sugars to no more than 10% each day. Added sugars include sucrose, dextrose, table sugar, syrups, honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices.
- Focus on whole foods. Encourage your clients to limit highly processed foods as much as possible and to eat more whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, and legumes.
Eating styles for diabetes
While it’s important to include many nutrient-dense foods in your client’s meal plan, there are some eating styles that have become popular for those with diabetes. However, these aren’t recommended for everyone, so it’s important to work with each client to determine the best dietary solution for them.
- The Mediterranean Diet. This eating style has been associated with reduced weight and decreased cholesterol and blood pressure levels, especially for those with type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, the Mediterranean diet could lead to a 20–23% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes and a 28-30% lower risk of cardiovascular problems. The Mediterranean Diet emphasizes fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains, and healthy fats while limiting saturated fat, red meats, and added sugar.
- Low carbohydrate diets. This eating style has been found to enhance glucose control in people with type 2 diabetes while also having a positive effect on triglycerides and HDL cholesterol. However, low carb diets (especially keto) can be high in saturated fat, low in fiber, and hard to follow in the long run.
What foods should be avoided?
While there are no specific foods that should be avoided (unless your client has an allergy or intolerance), there are some that should be consumed in small amounts.
- Sugar-sweetened beverages (such as regular sodas, sweet tea, and lemonades)
- Trans fats (mostly found in processed foods)
- Breakfast cereals that are high in sugar and/or low in whole grains
- Processed grains (such as white rice and white flour)
- Foods high in salt
Creating healthy meal plans for diabetes: the plate method
The plate method is a simple way to help your clients practice portion control, as it offers a good visual representation and doesn’t focus on calorie counting . With the plate method, it’s recommended that one half should contain non-starchy vegetables and that the other two quarters contain lean protein and whole grain.
When creating healthy meal plans for diabetes, try to keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be challenging or bland. Since the goal of a diet for diabetes is to regulate blood glucose levels and slow the progression of the disease, it’s important to create meal plans that your clients can enjoy and stick to for the long run.
To help your clients stay motivated, offer them dietary options for each meal, and let them choose what foods they prefer. You can then further educate them on glucose levels, satiety, cooking tips, and other nutrition topics so they can get a better handle on their diabetes.
Diabetes is a common condition, and one that you may encounter frequently. You can help clients manage their diabetes by creating a meal plan that works for them and their lifestyle, needs, and goals.
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