As a diabetic, you’re constantly aware of your blood sugar levels and the food choices you make. Meal planning and eating well can be challenging, especially if you’re not familiar with what healthy choices are best for diabetes patients. David Trachtenbarg, M.D., UnityPoint Health physician and chair of the Diabetes Steering Committee, discusses what foods you should be adding, and subtracting, from your shopping cart.
Carbs and Sugars
In general, food has three main components – fat, protein and carbohydrates. A well-balanced diet usually contains some of each of these, but diabetes patients need to be especially mindful of how many carbs they’re consuming.
“Carbohydrates affect diabetes the most because they are converted by the body into glucose (sugar),” Dr. Trachtenbarg says. “With diabetes, you want to control the number of carbohydrates you eat. For most patients with diabetes, this is between 60-80 grams of carbohydrate per meal.”
How quickly the body absorbs sugar is important, too. For diabetics, slower absorbing foods, or foods with a lower glycemic index, help prevent blood sugar spikes.
“Table sugar (sucrose) has a high glycemic index because it raises the sugar more quickly and higher than carbohydrates foods with a low glycemic index, such as green leafy vegetables,” Dr. Trachtenbarg says.
Best and Worst Foods
So, how do you easily compare foods by the level of carbs, sugars and overall glycemic index? Dr. Trachtenbarg offers this simplified list as a general guide (1 = best, 5 = worst).
Foods for Diabetes – Best to Worst
- Green, leafy vegetables (lettuce, spinach, etc.)
- Whole fruits (apples, oranges)
- Whole grains (whole wheat bread)
- White flour and starch vegetables (potatoes)
- Foods with sugar (soda)
“Green leafy vegetables, like lettuce, spinach and kale, are great vegetables to add to your diet. With fruit, whole fruits help maintain your health. Juices, however, have most of the calories and carbohydrates of whole fruit without the fiber. Most people can easily drink a glass of orange juice that contains the calories of four to six oranges, but few people would eat that many whole oranges,” Dr. Trachtenbarg says.
He also adds that eating with diabetes isn’t a one-size-fits-all model.
“There is no ‘diabetic diet’ that is best for everyone with diabetes. Some may do better managing blood sugar levels by eating several, small meals in a day. But, you also can't go wrong with three, healthy meals a day. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends that everyone with diabetes gets dietary advice tailored for them. However, there are guidelines that everyone with diabetes should follow,” Dr. Trachtenbarg says.
Resources for Smart Food Choices
Planning the best diet for diabetes isn’t always easy. Dr. Trachtenbarg offers these resources as useful places to start when making changes in your diet.
For any questions about diabetes and your diet, contact your UnityPoint Health provider to discuss what is best for you.