Diet and Nutrition

Nutrition Guidelines for Diabetes Management

October 20, 2017   /
Nutrition411 Staff

If you have diabetes, it is important to eat well to help keep yourself healthy. Nutrition care should be personalized for each person based on blood glucose (sugar) level, blood lipid (fat) levels, risk factors for heart disease and high blood pressure, exercise habits, and food preferences. 

For most people, general guidelines for diabetes are as follows:

  • Aim to maintain a healthy weight
  • Exercise moderately for about 30 minutes at least five times per week
  • Get your carbohydrates mainly from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and low-fat or skim dairy products
  • Limit saturated fats, trans fats, and dietary cholesterol
  • Consider using sugar substitutes
  • Do not use low-carbohydrate diets to control diabetes

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If you currently have prediabetes, controlling your weight can help prevent you from getting type 2 diabetes. If you already have diabetes, controlling your weight can help you improve your blood sugar levels. A healthy eating pattern, combined with regular physical activity, can help people who are overweight lose weight and keep it off. Frequently, this will also lead to improvements in blood lipid levels.

Diets for weight loss
Individuals must find a healthy eating pattern that they can continue for a lifetime in order to successfully achieve weight loss and weight maintenance. No best diet exists because different things work for different people. However, changing eating and exercise behaviors is essential for successful weight loss.

To lose weight, a deficit (decrease) of approximately 500 calories per day is generally recommended. A combination of eating and drinking fewer calories, and burning more calories through physical activity can create this deficit, and help you lose weight. Generally, about 1 hour per day of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, along with small calorie restrictions will produce weight loss.

It is true that everyone, including those with diabetes, should try to get most of their carbohydrates from foods that also contain other nutrients, such as whole-grain breads and cereals, legumes, low-fat or skim milk, fruits, and vegetables. A healthy diet can include refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, white rice, and regular pasta, as long as you also include whole grains and monitor portion sizes. You can substitute sugary foods and drinks for other carbohydrates in your meal plan every now and then. On your birthday, for example, you could substitute a small piece of birthday cake for the roll you usually eat at dinner. Remember, most sweets, such as cakes, cookies, pies, and candy, will raise your blood sugar more quickly, and they have very few valuable nutrients. It is best to get most of your carbohydrates from the more nutritious foods previously mentioned.

Carbohydrates are important to good health. In fact, your body needs at least 130 grams (g) of carbohydrates each day to work correctly. Foods that contain carbohydrate often are good sources of energy, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. One key to diabetes management is choosing most of your carbohydrates from whole-grain breads and cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and low-fat or skim milk, rather than avoiding carbohydrates altogether.

Sugar substitutes
These sweeteners do not cause weight loss or improve blood sugar levels, but they allow you to enjoy sweetened beverages and foods with fewer calories. Aspartame (Equal®), saccharin (Sweet’N Low®), sucralose (Splenda®), and stevia (Truvia®) are among the most readily available sweeteners. Sugar-free foods often commonly contain sugar alcohols such as sorbitol and xylitol. These substances contain calories and count as carbohydrates, although they are counted differently. If you enjoy these, a registered dietitian nutritionist can help you add these sweeteners into your meal plan. Some people may experience unpleasant side effects from consuming sugar alcohols, so try a little at a time if you have never eaten foods containing sugar alcohols before.

People with diabetes are at risk for heart disease. For that reason, you should limit your intake of saturated fat and trans fat, which can raise your blood cholesterol and increase your risk for heart disease. 

Saturated fat is usually found in animal foods, such as:

  • Fatty cuts of beef, pork, and chicken
  • Processed meats, such as bacon, sausage, and luncheon meats
  • Whole milk
  • Whole-milk cheeses

Trans fats may be found in fried foods, and snack foods including: 

  • Commercial baked goods
  • Cookies
  • Crackers
  • Fried foods
  • Margarine

Look for the words “partially hydrogenated” on the ingredients label to identify foods that contain trans fats.

Limiting these types of foods may help prevent heart or circulatory problems as a result of your diabetes. Fat is also very high in calories. Eating too much fat makes it very difficult to maintain a healthy weight.

References and recommended readings
American Diabetes Association. Standards of medical care in diabetes—2016. Diabetes Care. 2016;39(Suppl. 1):S1-S2. doi:10.2337/dc16-S001.
Making healthy food choices. American Diabetes Association website. Accessed April 29, 2016.


Reviewed and Updated April 29. 2016