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Healthy meal-planning tips for people with diabetes

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Having diabetes isn't a sentence to bland foods and boring dinners. Learn how meal-planning can help manage your disease.

Those who have diabetes know all too well that sometimes a seemingly simple decision like what to eat for dinner can be challenging. Familiarity with carbohydrate-containing foods and proper portions can be top of mind. In most cases, portion control is key to keeping your blood sugar within the target range, and planning ahead can be a helpful way to keep this in check so you can spend less time fretting about what to eat and more time enjoying food. Women’s College Hospital registered dietitians and certified diabetes educators Behnaz Abedi and Janis Rusen weigh in. Here are a few things to consider when mapping out your meals.

There’s no one recommended diet for every person with diabetes. That is, “when it comes to diabetes, there’s no one-size-fits-all diet,” says Abedi. Instead, there are many different ways to eat that will manage your blood sugar. If you have diabetes and are trying to change your eating habits, it’s important to remember that strict diets are usually impossible to stick to long-term. Instead, the key to managing your blood sugar is “an emphasis on fresh whole foods and avoiding added sugars, sweetened beverages and processed foods,” says Rusen. Talk to your doctor, nurse or dietitian about the type of diet that’ll work best for you, including the best food choices and appropriate balance for you. 

Learn about carbohydrates and how they affect your blood sugar. Carbohydrates, made up of sugars, starches and fibre, are naturally found in all grains, starchy vegetables, fruits, milk and yogurt. It’s mainly the sugars and starches that increase your blood sugar. "Pay attention to the types of carbohydrates you choose and aim for consistent portion sizes spaced throughout the entire day," says Abedi. Try to limit carbs with added sugars or refined grains such as white bread, processed cereals and white rice. Other carbs, such as vegetables, whole fruits and whole grains, are better for you – they contain fibre, which may lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

Examples of healthy carbohydrates:
- Whole fruits (fresh or frozen)
- Starchy vegetables (squash, parsnips, peas, sweet potatoes and carrots)
- Whole grains such as oats, bulgur, barley, brown rice and quinoa
- Sourdough, spelt and whole-grain bread
- Plain/unsweetened yogurt and milk

Incorporate heart-healthy fats. Fat is an important component of a balanced meal and some fat-rich foods are good for us, especially our hearts: olive oil, canola oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, unsweetened nut butter and oily fish like trout and salmon – these are unsaturated fats. Typically, you’ll want to limit saturated fats from foods such as butter, high-fat dairy products and red meats and avoid trans fats found in many snack foods, baked goods and fast foods, which can increase your cholesterol levels and your risk of heart disease.

Make every meal well-balanced. As much as possible, plan for every meal to have a mix of protein, carbohydrates, vegetables and healthy fats. Rusen suggests planning your meals around seasonal vegetables or more convenient frozen vegetables; healthy protein choices like lean meats, fish, tofu, legumes and low-fat dairy products; and whole grains (or starches). Look at the new Canada’s Food Guide for a good visual of a healthy balanced plate, “keeping in mind that people with diabetes should choose more non-starchy vegetables than starchy vegetables and fruit when filling half their plate,” she adds.

Don’t forget about snacks – if/when you need them. If having a snack will help stop you from overeating later in the day, or when a meal is going to be delayed because of travel or an unexpected meeting, go for it. “In some cases, eating a small snack can prevent an episode of low blood sugar,” says Abedi. “On the other hand, unnecessary snacking can lead to high blood sugar results and weight gain.” Bottom line, if you’re going to have a small snack, make sure you’re truly hungry and aim for one to two (max) servings of carbohydrates plus protein.

Snack ideas:
- Apple slices + piece of low-fat cheese or 1-2 tbsps of unsweetened peanut butter
- Whole-grain crackers or fresh vegetables with hummus
- ½ cup Plain yogurt and a handful of berries
- Simple trail mix with nuts, seeds and dried fruit

Meal planning for people with diabetes is really about healthy eating, so anyone can benefit from these tips. Diabetes Canada (diabetes.ca) and UnlockFood.ca are great resources for recipes, meal plans and culturally tailored resources for diabetes.

Behnaz Abedi, registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, Women’s College Hospital family practice
Janis Rusen, registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Centre for Integrated Diabetes Care, Women’s College Hospital

This information is provided by Women's College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on November 25, 2019.

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