The Cleveland Clinic

Diabetes: Eating Right

Maintaining a healthy diet is important for everyone, but it is especially important for people with diabetes . Following the right meal plan can make all the difference to a person struggling to keep their blood sugar under control. But, what is the right meal plan? How much of which food group should you eat?

Along with a visit to a dietician, this guide should help answer questions you may have.

Understanding Carbohydrates and Fiber

Carbohydrates are one of the major food categories (the others include proteins and fats). They provide fuel for the body in the form of glucose. Glucose is a sugar that is the primary means of energy for all of the body's cells.

There are two ways to classify carbohydrates -- simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are sugars -- like glucose, sucrose, lactose and fructose. They are found in refined sugar and in fruits. Complex carbohydrates are the starches, which are the simple sugars bonded together chemically -- they are found in beans, nuts, vegetables and whole grains. Complex carbohydrates are considered healthier mostly because they are digested by the body slowly, providing a steady source of energy. They also contain valuable amounts of fiber.

Carbohydrates, rather than fats or proteins, have the most immediate effect on your blood glucose since carbohydrates are broken down directly into sugar early during digestion. It is important to eat the suggested amount of carbohydrate at each meal, along with some protein and fat.

Carbohydrates are mainly found in the following food groups:

  • Fruit
  • Milk and yogurt
  • Bread, cereal, rice, pasta
  • Starchy vegetables

What Is Carbohydrate Counting?

Carbohydrate counting is a method of meal planning that is a simple way to keep track of the amount of total carbohydrate you eat each day. It helps allow you to eat what you want. Counting grams of carbohydrate and evenly distributing them at meals will help you control your blood glucose.

Instead of following an exchange list, with carbohydrate counting you monitor how much carbohydrate (sugar and starch) you eat daily. One carbohydrate serving is equal to 15 grams of carbohydrate.

With carbohydrate counting, you plan your carbohydrate intake based on what your pre-meal sugar is and your intake or insulin dose can be adjusted. Carbohydrate counting can be used by anyone and not just by people with diabetes that are taking insulin. If you eat more carbohydrates than your insulin supply can handle, your blood glucose level goes up. If you eat too little, your blood glucose level may fall too low. These fluctuations can be managed by knowing how to count your carbohydrate intake.

A registered dietitian will help you figure out a carbohydrate counting plan that meets your specific needs. For adults, a typical plan generally includes three to four carbohydrates at each meal, and one to two carbohydrate servings as snacks.

With carbohydrate counting, you can pick almost any food product off the shelf, read the label, and use the information about grams of carbohydrates to fit the food into your meal plan.

Carbohydrate counting is most useful for people who take multiple daily injections of insulin, use the insulin pump or who want more flexibility and variety in their food choices. However, it may not be for everyone, and the traditional method of following food exchange lists may be used instead.

How Much Fiber Should I Eat?

Fiber is the indigestible part of plant foods. It plays an important role in the digestive process as it helps move foods along the digestive tract, adding bulk to stool to help it pass through the bowel. In addition, diets high in fiber are associated with lower risks of obesity, hypertension, heart disease and strokes.

Fiber also:

  • Delays sugar absorption, helping to better control blood glucose levels.
  • Binds with cholesterol and may reduce the level of 'bad' LDL cholesterol in the blood.
  • Is a good source of vitamins and minerals.
  • Helps prevent constipation and reduces the risk of certain intestinal disorders.
  • Promotes weight loss by helping to decrease caloric intake. (It adds bulk to the food we eat, making you feel fuller.)

The goal for all Americans is to consume 25 to 35 grams of fiber per day. The best way to increase your fiber intake is to eat more of these fiber-rich foods:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Cooked dried beans and peas
  • Whole grain breads, cereals, and crackers
  • Brown rice
  • Bran products

Understanding Fat