If you have type 1 diabetes, staying on top of the condition is essential. While treatment with insulin is indispensable, maintaining a healthy diet can often be neglected.
A diabetic diet should provide the best nutrition possible while avoiding high blood sugar levels.
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Type 1 diabetes occurs when blood sugar concentrations get too high due to an insulin production deficiency. Health professionals also refer to this as high blood glucose levels or hyperglycemia.
With type 1 diabetes, blood sugar levels are elevated because the pancreas produces little to no insulin. Without insulin, cells do not receive the signals to absorb circulating glucose from the blood.
Glucose or sugar is often regarded as being unhealthy. However, it's a vital energy source for your cells, enabling them to carry out metabolic processes.
Without glucose for energy, cells rely on other sources. For example, when diabetes is left untreated, a secondary condition known as ketoacidosis can occur because the body rapidly breaks down fat for energy.
Additionally, when excess glucose is left to circulate in the body, it can have harmful effects in the long term, such as nerve damage. Therefore, every individual with diabetes knows the relevance of keeping low blood sugar levels, predominantly achieved through drug treatment and lifestyle changes.
Many people with type 1 diabetes find one particular lifestyle change challenging — their diet. Limiting food consumption can be overwhelming sometimes. Yummy foods loaded with too much sugar are strictly off-limits since the body has difficulty processing glucose from the blood.
But the truth is that many sugary foods are unhealthy regardless of whether you have diabetes or not because they lack nutritional value and are linked to obesity.
Besides the obvious sugary foods like chocolate or lollies, there are sources of hidden sugars like carbohydrate-dense foods. These foods are deceiving because they aren't sweet. However, when carbohydrates are digested, they are converted to sugar, resulting in high blood sugar levels. So for people with type 1 diabetes, limiting your intake of carbohydrates is just as relevant.
Low-carbohydrate diets like the keto diet¹ have reported success. So, switching to a low-carb diet may be an excellent start if you want to enhance your health.
There is no ultimate diet plan for type 1 diabetes. However, anyone who limits their intake of sugar and carbohydrates will notice a significant improvement.
Low-carbohydrate diets such as the keto diet are a good starting approach when cutting back on glucose and carbohydrates. The keto diet, in particular, is a popular strategy with many online resources.
With some trial and error, you will learn what works best for you and make your own adjustments accordingly. But for now, following a healthy low-carb diet is a good foundation for creating meal plans suited to diabetes.
Additionally, some people find it helpful to get advice from a dietician. Some dieticians specialize in diabetes and can offer meal plans for you to follow or recipes for extra guidance.
Meal plans are essential for managing type 1 diabetes effectively. For people with diabetes, meal planning helps them prepare healthier food when busy, select the right ingredients and healthy snacks and monitor blood sugar more adequately.
But if you want to start your diet today without any fuss, there's a straightforward method you can try. This method is the diabetes plate method.²
Imagine your plate looks like a pie chart and divide it into three segments: one half and two quarters.
From this method, one-half of your plate should be dedicated to vegetables. Low-starch vegetables are preferable because starches are another hidden source of sugar.
Next, one-quarter of your plate should contain carbohydrates like starches, bread, or grains. While these foods are a source of sugar, you do not need to cut them completely. Instead, it's best to just limit them.
Lastly, the other quarter of your plate should contain foods high in protein, such as meat, fish, or poultry (exclude dairy from this portion and limit it to a snack).
You should aim to have fruit or dairy items as snacks in moderation with this method. However, the diabetes plate method would be ideal for when you are planning lunches and dinners.
Due to the limited amount of carbs, starches, and sugars that you can eat, many people assume a diabetic diet is highly restrictive. However, that is not the case, and there are many different foods you can select from for your diet.
Whether you are a vegan or not, several protein-rich foods can be included in your diet.
Protein-rich foods include:
Lean meats (beef or venison)
Poultry (chicken or turkey)
Remember, one-quarter of your plate should be protein for a well-balanced diet.But you should also be aware that some protein sources, like beans and lentils, contain starches. Because of this, you will need to weigh your options carefully since starch needs to be limited.
Nevertheless, protein is an essential component of the diabetic diet, and unfortunately, many diets lack protein.
Protein is relevant because it helps every cell in your body function properly. Protein also maintains good bone, muscle, and skin health.
Unlike fats and glucose, which can be stored in the body, protein cannot. Therefore, the only way to ensure you have enough protein is to include it in your daily diet.
Starch is a type of carbohydrate. Therefore, it is composed of glucose molecules. Because of this, it's best to limit vegetables that contain starch.
Vegetables that are high in starch include:
Starches are converted to glucose after digestion. However, starchy foods generally are a good source of fiber and offer some benefits, such as making you feel full faster. Hence, these foods help digestion, prevent constipation, and reduce weight gain.
So even though limiting starchy vegetables is wise, you can include them in small quantities.
Nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes are high sources of protein and fiber. However, they also contain some starch. These foods are beneficial when served in moderation.
Experts also mention that these foods can help regulate high blood pressure, a common issue for type 1 diabetics. Again, adding small portions is helpful — you don’t need to avoid them entirely.
Whole grains such as cereals, oats, pasta, and brown bread are another great source of fiber and contain some starch. They can also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Therefore, experts recommend eating whole-grain cereals for breakfast.
Current U.S guidelines recommend adding three servings of whole grains to your diet daily. Overall, how much you decide to add is entirely up to you, and you may find that certain whole grains work better for you than others.
Whole grains should not be confused with refined grains because refined grains are less healthy. Refined grains include white flour, white bread, and white rice.
Like sugar, fat also has a bad reputation. However, not all fats are bad.
Trans and saturated fats should be avoided or strictly limited because they offer no nutritional value and are linked to obesity. Food containing these fats includes butter, margarine, fried foods, fast foods, and snacks.
On the other hand, healthy fats can give your body energy and help you absorb vitamins.
Healthy fats are unsaturated, and foods that contain those fats are nuts, seeds, avocados, and vegetable oils.
If you are looking for a simple adjustment, you could start by changing the cooking oil you use or frying your food in vegetable oil instead of butter.
Eating low-fat or non-fat dairy options comes with many benefits, such as improving bone health, lowering blood pressure, and reducing cardiovascular risk. Besides having no or little fat, it is a source of protein, calcium, potassium, and vitamin D.
Smaller portions are best, and low-fat yogurt would be a good option if you fancy a yummy snack. Additionally, adding low-fat milk to whole-grain cereal in the morning is another easy strategy.
Foods that should be avoided include:
Sugary drinks and fruit juices
Cakes and candies
You should avoid these foods because they contain too much sugar, starch, carbohydrates, saturated fats, or trans fats.
These foods can cause health problems like high blood pressure or obesity, and these conditions can cause further complications with diabetes.
The importance of maintaining a healthy diet cannot be stressed enough, and there are many minor adjustments you can make to improve your health.
It's important to remember that the aim is to reduce or limit the number of carbohydrates you consume. Cutting carbohydrates is not recommended because many foods containing carbohydrates are healthy overall.
In fact, a regular amount of carbohydrates throughout the day can keep your blood sugar levels consistent. This means your blood glucose concentrations will stay within an optimal range and not get too high or too low.
When counting carbs, you need to consider starches and sugar from fruit or dairy products, as these items can also increase your blood sugar levels.
Everyone has different daily carbohydrate needs. However, experts recommend eating around 175 grams of carbohydrates per day as a rough guide.
Certain factors, such as weight or height, might mean that you require slightly more or fewer carbs. If you are pregnant, you should aim for 175 grams of carbohydrates per day.
To count carbohydrates, you will need to know the weight of your food. Some items specify the carbohydrate weight per serving on the label. Otherwise, you will need to weigh the portion of food and calculate the number of carbohydrates it contains.
You will need to add up the number of carbohydrates you have consumed at the end of the day. Or, you can plan your meals and know exactly how much carbohydrates you will eat in one day.
Counting carbohydrates may sound tricky at first. If you struggle to do the math, you could try downloading an app or referring to a chart that specifies how many carbohydrates are in each meal.
Many people also keep a diary to track their progress. By keeping a food diary, you can identify the most significant sources of carbohydrates in your diet.
It goes without saying that consuming large amounts of sugar will elevate your blood glucose levels. Because of this, sugar-free alternatives or artificial sweeteners are a good switch to make if you cannot go without a sweet treat.
Experts³ recommend these items because they can help reduce sugar cravings while easing the burden of diabetes. However, research⁴ has also shown that artificial sweeteners like aspartame can trigger irritable moods and depression.
Therefore, if you suffer from regular headaches or migraines, it might be best to avoid sweeteners.
Improving your diet can help improve your diabetes. You should watch out for foods high in sugar, starch, and carbohydrates. However, you can still consume these items in moderation.
If you have concerns about your high blood levels, you can try strategies such as carbohydrate counting and meal planning.
The healthy diabetes plate (2007)
Diabetic neuropathy | NIH: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Physiology, glucose | NIH: National Library of Medicine
Diabetic kidney disease | NIH: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases