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Home / Diabetes / What is the best diet?

What is the best diet?

Diabetes management tips

Controlling your diet is one of the best ways to manage diabetes and prevent worsening symptoms and serious complications.

We all have our favourite foods, and being told we cannot eat this or that is frustrating to say the least. However, if you have type-2 diabetes, or any other chronic condition, it is in your best interest to stick to a few gastro guidelines. And this doesn’t mean you can’t ever enjoy a meal again or experiment with different flavours; it just means you have to stay slightly more alert to the effects food has on your body.

Read on to discover what you should avoid and introduce to get and stay healthy with type-2 diabetes.

Remember: always consult a dietitian before making any changes to your diet.

Why do I have to change my diet?

It’s best to start by talking about why a healthy diet plays such a significant role in managing diabetes.

As you may know, there are two main types of diabetes: type-1 and type-2.* Both of these have the potential to be incredibly serious if left unmanaged. All forms of diabetes are the result of insulin resistance. If you have type-1 diabetes, this means your body is incapable of producing insulin. If you have type-2 diabetes, your body’s production of insulin is inefficient and the hormone cannot work as it should.

Insulin, which is produced in the pancreas, is responsible for controlling blood glucose levels. Without enough insulin, these blood sugar levels will continue to rise and the cells in your body will have no energy source. The long-term complications of untreated diabetes include:

  • nerve damage
  • excessive urination
  • heart disease
  • kidney disease
  • stroke
  • eye problems
  • feet problems
  • increased risk of infection

For type-2 diabetes, the best way to control the amount of glucose in your blood is to moderate what foods you put into your body.

For type-1 diabetes, understanding food intake will not lead to insulin production. However, it will help you to administer the correct amount of insulin and prevent the complications listed above.

*There are other kinds too, such as MODY and gestational diabetes, but these are far rarer.

What are the basics?

First off, steer clear of anything that advertises itself as “diabetic food”. Whether diabetic ice-cream, diabetic chocolate or diabetic sweets, these food substitutes (usually sweeteners) often contain equally as damaging ingredients as the added sugar they replace.

When it comes to diet, it is best to think about variety. Every single one of us needs a combination of different foods to ensure we’re getting all the nutrients we need. You shouldn’t completely cut out a food from your diet, rather limit its consumption drastically if it is considered unhealthy. That being said, it is important that you focus on “diabetes-friendly” foods.

Overwhelmingly, obesity is cited as the cause of type-2 diabetes. This does not mean that everyone with type-2 diabetes is overweight, however, for those that are, it is very important to lose body weight. Weight loss is arguably the best treatment for diabetes as it controls symptoms and can even promote remission.

If you are a healthy weight and have type-2 diabetes, it is still important to practice portion control and make healthy food choices. What you consume will always affect your body’s regulation of glucose levels.

What about carbohydrates?

Disclaimer: only type-2 diabetes can be managed with diet and exercise. If you have type-1 diabetes, please speak to your doctor for more information.

Carbs are a necessary energy source that help us to function throughout the day. This macronutrient has a bad reputation, as its overconsumption can quickly lead to weight gain. The amount of carbs you need will depend on your age and activity levels. For example, if you are aiming for weight loss and blood sugar management, a low-carb diet is best, whereas an individual with a healthy weight may decide to eat more carbs.

The two categories of carbohydrates are sugars and starches. Both of these are broken down by your body into glucose. Of these, you should eat more of the starches. Also known as “complex carbohydrates”, these include whole-grain brown rice and quinoa as well as sweet potatoes and pulses. You should also avoid processed carbs like white rice and white bread.

The NHS recommends that starchy carbohydrates should be eaten with every meal. However, this is controversial, as too much can lead to a daily calorie surplus. Though it is not unhealthy to eat carbohydrates, overeating them will worsen symptoms of diabetes. Instead, aim to include starchy carbs in meals in amounts that do not put you at risk of becoming overweight.

Fruit and veg

Fruit and vegetables are the perfect foods! They contain lots of useful vitamins, minerals, and fibre to keep your digestive system functioning well. Plus, they fill you up!

You might be worried that fruits are too sugary, but that’s not the case. Again, everything in moderation, but it’s beneficial to snack on fruit throughout the day and to include it as a healthy dessert.

The exception is fruit juice and smoothies; these do not have a high-fiber content and are quite calorific. Instead, opt for herbal teas. Though these won’t contain the same vitamins, they are a tasty beverage to add some flavour.

Sources of protein

There are lots of foods that contain protein. Protein is an essential nutrient, needed for the repair and growth of bodily tissues.

If you’re a meat-lover, it is best to opt for lean, white meats and oily fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines. The latter options are great for heart health as they contain beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Alternatively, pulses, such as beans and chickpeas, as well as unsalted nuts, are great sources of protein. Although, nuts are very calorie-dense, so you make sure to limit your consumption.

Recently, there has been an upsurge in vegan and plant-based diets. You can take advantage of this even if you are not vegan or vegetarian. Experiment with protein alternatives (but be aware of potentially high sodium content and other additives).

Though it is fine to indulge occasionally and in moderation, you should ensure your diet is mostly free from the following products:

  • fried foods
  • fatty meats (pork chops/bacon/etc.)
  • processed meats
  • red meats (beef/lamb/pork)
  • any deep-fried protein sources

Fats and oils

Just like carbs, dietary fat has a bad reputation; but it shouldn't have. Your body needs healthy fats as an energy source and to help with essential functions like absorbing vitamins. Sadly, there are many health campaigns that falsely argue that you should completely remove fat from your diet.

Instead, you should reduce your fat intake, particularly saturated fats. Saturated fats are found in foods like red meats, dairy products and certain oils.

The danger of consuming too much saturated fat is two-fold:

  1. Firstly, fat is incredibly calorific. A single gram of fat contains nine calories, compared to four for carbohydrates and four for protein. If you overeat fatty foods, you may find your calorific intake far surpasses your recommended daily allowance. The result is weight gain and eventually obesity. As we know, this is not good news for diabetes.
  2. Saturated fats tend to increase your body’s production of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels (this is “bad” cholesterol). High cholesterol levels significantly increase your risk of heart disease and stroke; potentially deadly conditions already more likely if you have diabetes.

Unsaturated fats on the other hand are far less dangerous. You should look to replace the saturated fats in your diet with their unsaturated relatives. The best ways to do this is to switch butters for olive oil or smashed avocados for your toast, trade red meats for skinned poultry and fish, and reduce the amount of processed foods you eat. Fast-food chains and pre-packaged food manufacturers care little for your health.

Alcohol

Beer, wine, spirits; anything with alcohol is a bad idea to over-consume if you have type-2 diabetes. We all know the potential hazards of drinking; from heart and liver disease to high blood pressure and poor mental health, alcohol poses many health risks.

For diabetics, the risk of drinking to excess is increased. Depending on whether you are taking medication to control your diabetes, drinking can cause hypoglycemia. Otherwise called a “hypo”, this is where your blood sugar level drops too much. Symptoms include intense hunger, fatigue, headache and loss of concentration. The condition can be very serious if not treated. On top of this, alcohol is very calorific and can lead to weight gain.

Drinking is fun but, as with everything listed so far, it is best done in moderation.

How to get started?

As you can see, a varied balanced diet is best. By keeping portion sizes under control and introducing as many high-fiber, nutrient-rich foods as possible to your meal plan, you will be in the ideal position to combat the symptoms of type-2 diabetes. These tips, and other tips contained in this article, will also help if you’re prediabetic.

However, though the rules for healthy eating don’t change that much, everyone is different and requires different amounts of food. For that reason, it is essential that you speak to a dietitian who can design the perfect type-2 diabetes diet and eating plan.

For more information, contact your GP; they will be able to refer you to the relevant specialist.

Medically reviewed by
Dr. Kok Ching Ng MBBS/MRCGP Written by our editorial team
Last reviewed 07-10-2021
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