What’s the Best Diet for Diabetes? An Expert Weighs In

What's the best diet for diabetes? An expert weighs in

Diabetes is quickly becoming a world health issue, with the prevalence of the condition among adults rising from 4.7 percent in 1980 to 8.5 percent in 2014. In the U.S. the numbers are even more staggering—1 in 11 Americans has diabetes, and nearly half of kids and adults are at risk. One of the best ways you can help reduce your risk or manage your symptoms is through healthy eating, and in the Diabetes (Type 1) and Diabetes (Type 2) groups in the Fitbit app, community members are sharing support and encouragement. One of the biggest questions they’re currently discussing: “what’s the best diet for diabetes?” “Healthy eating for diabetes is healthy eating for everybody,” says Sacha Uelmen, Director of Nutrition for the American Diabetes Association. “But we never recommend one specific plan, because the best diet for you is so personal, from your family to your finances.”

The usual healthy eating advice still applies. (Hint: Eat more veggies! Avoid processed foods!) But with diabetes, there is more to keep in mind. The immediate priority is to manage your blood glucose levels, and if you have type 2 diabetes, your doctor may recommend you set a long-term goal to lose weight. To do both, you have to understand carbs and calories, and start timing your meals and snacks evenly throughout the day. Here are a three different approaches.

The Plate Method

“Start with your plate,” says Uelmen. “That’s a super easy visual, and the first and best thing everyone can do is eat more veggies.” The method involves filling half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables, then one-quarter with lean protein, and one-quarter with healthy carbs. This idea might feel familiar, but there’s one key difference when you have diabetes. You have to consider fruit and dairy differently, because they contribute some carbs, even if they’re good carbs.

Counting Carbs

“Counting carbs can get super advanced, but the important thing is that you develop an awareness of how many carbs you’re eating,” explains Uelmen. She recommends food logging for at least a few days, to see how many grams of carbs you’re getting at meals and snacks. (Log into your Fitbit dashboard online, click on the fork and knife icon, click on “see more,” and scroll down to see more detail.) The goal is to stay below a certain number and stay consistent throughout the day. “But there is no official recommendation for what that number should be, because it’s so individual,” explains Uelmen. “So get a sense for your baseline, compare it to your blood sugar levels, and discuss with a registered dietitian or your doctor.”

The DASH Diet

The DASH diet consistently ranks as one of the most commonly recommended diets for people with diabetes. DASH was originally developed to help manage high blood pressure. But, as Uelmen explains, diabetes and heart disease are related issues, so a heart-healthy diet isn’t far from a diabetes-friendly one. “The DASH diet has a lot of great research behind it, and it’s the same basic premise, pushing lots of fresh vegetables,” Uelmen confirms. One side note is that the DASH diet also has strict rules for sodium, which you may or may not need to worry about yet. “If you have high blood pressure, you definitely need to watch sodium. But if you’re at risk for diabetes, focus on carbs and calories first.”

These aren’t the only options that may help you reduce your risk or manage your symptoms for diabetes. From the Mediterranean diet to more plant-based eating, there are lots of healthy eating plans that can help you enjoy a balanced diet. Just don’t do a crash diet or try to cut all of the carbs out of your life. You don’t want to risk sending your blood sugar on a rollercoaster ride, or getting frustrated and giving up. “Drastic changes don’t stick,” says Uelmen. “And healthy eating doesn’t have to be so hard, expensive, or restrictive. Look at the foods you love to eat now, and start making small and sustainable changes.” If you have a bowl of cereal and milk every morning, maybe you can try eggs and veggies for breakfast. If you have a sandwich for lunch on two slices of bread, swap it for a small whole-wheat burger bun. Once you start tracking, there are lots of easy tweaks to cut back on carbs and calories. “Also, activity is huge,” Uelmen adds. “Every little bit you move is going to burn glucose. So make sure you’re getting those steps, and get up and go for a walk after dinner, instead of sitting on the couch.”

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