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Healthy Eating Tips for Managing Diabetes
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Healthy Eating Tips for Managing Diabetes

Managing diabetes? It’s essential to keep your blood sugar level consistent to avoid the big “ups and downs” that can be dangerous. A registered dietitian (RD) or certified diabetes educator (CDE) can help you make a plan for healthy eating and active living, along with medications, if needed.

When it comes to eating, there’s no single prescription for blood sugar control. What matters is managing your intake of carbohydrate, protein, fat and calories and controlling your weight. Overweight and obesity increase the risk for diabetes and its complications. That said, you don’t have to give up favourite foods; instead keep track of the types of foods you eat and learn how to fit them into your daily meal plan.

Whether you use carbohydrate counting or the Canadian Diabetes Association’s Beyond the Basics choice system, match your eating plan for diabetes management to your food preferences and lifestyle. If you’re overweight, plan for weight loss, too.

Make Carbohydrates Count

Want flexibility or simplicity? Carbohydrate counting lets you adjust your intake of food and insulin (if you take it) to your blood sugar level. The amount of carbohydrate that is right for you will depend on your blood sugar control and your ability to respond to medication and/or insulin.

  • Work out a plan. With your RD, CDE or other health care provider, decide on carbohydrate amounts for each meal and snack. Track your carbohydrate intake, try to stay consistent and check your blood sugar levels.
  • Make nutrient-rich carbohydrate choices. Select starchy vegetables, legumes, fruit, milk products and whole-grain, high-fibre breads and cereals, without too much fat or added sugar.
  • Know carbohydrate facts. Nutrition Facts on food labels give carbohydrate amounts for labeled serving sizes. When looking at total carbohydrates on the label, be sure to subtract the amount of fibre. This will give you the available carbohydrate – the amount that will have an affect on your blood sugar.
  • Get carbohydrate savvy with unpackaged foods. Breads, starches, fruits, legumes, lentils and milk products are the carbohydrates that you will need to count along with sweet treats, salty snacks and desserts. Most vegetables, meats, nuts and fats contain very little carbohydrate and will not affect your blood sugar levels. Visit the Canadian Diabetes Association website at // for carbohydrate facts.
  • Use the Glycemic Index (GI). This is a tool that ranks carbohydrates according to how quickly they raise your blood sugar. Foods that are lower on the GI scale may help control your blood sugars and appetite, and may help lower your risk of heart disease. High fibre grains, dairy products and legumes are low GI choices. For more information visit

Beyond the Basics

For many, the Beyond the Basics choice system is the “full-service” meal plan approach for managing diabetes. This system groups foods and beverages according to nutrients and carbohydrate. Each food and beverage is given a serving size that provides about 15 grams of carbohydrate. This is described as one carbohydrate choice. Each group also considers the amount of fat and protein choices that will be contributed to the diet. It’s like a “mix-and-match” system for selecting foods because once you have a meal plan worked out, you can substitute different foods from the same group.

With your health care provider, create a daily meal and snack plan, specifying the number of “choices” per food group. Choose enough food variety while spreading energy-producing foods and drinks throughout your day. Paying attention to portion sizes is a must.

  • Carbohydrate containing food (Grains and Starches, Fruits, Milk and Alternatives, Other Choices). Go for variety so you aren’t short-changed on nutrients. Choose mostly fat-free or low-fat options, as well as those without added sugars. Go easy on Other Choices (desserts, sweets, higher-fat snacks) with few nutrients.
  • Meat and Alternatives. Choose fish, legumes and mostly lean or very lean meat and poultry. Your meal plan will account for the amount of fat and protein that is contributed by this food group.
  • Fats. Choose mostly vegetable oils, such as olive and canola, soft margarine and nuts. Limit intake of saturated and trans fats.
  • Vegetables. Load up your plate with veggies! Most vegetables contain very little carbohydrate and few calories but they are full of nutrients.

Useful Tools

Learn to figure out portion sizes. Misjudging affects not only the carbohydrate, calories and amounts you eat; it also impacts your blood sugar level.

  • Weigh and measure. Until you are skilled at visual estimates, use measuring cups, spoons and a kitchen scale to determine meal and snack portions.
  • Become food label savvy. Check the number of servings and serving size on the Nutrition Facts label. Since many containers provide more than one serving, do some math. Eating more than one label serving means more carbohydrates and calories.


Get Moving ... Another Important Strategy

Active living offers many benefits: 1) as active muscles use glucose, blood sugar levels go down; 2) since regular physical activity helps you manage weight, it also helps with blood sugar control and 3) regular aerobic exercise promotes heart health (important because diabetes significantly increases cardiovascular risk).

  • Devise a physical activity plan with your health care provider. This includes blood sugar level checks, snack plans and beverage choices, as well as the amount, type and timing of exercise.
  • Check your blood sugar level before and after exercising. Because exercise improves your body’s ability to move glucose into the cells, you can be at risk for a low blood sugar while working out. If it’s low before or after you exercise, eat a carbohydrate-rich snack.
  • Carry a carbohydrate-rich snack or beverage from your meal plan. Stop to eat it if you feel light-headed. This could mean that your blood sugar is too low. Fruit juice, regular soft drinks and sports drinks will be absorbed quickly and raise your blood sugar to a safer level.
  • Take precautions. Wear diabetes identification, carry a cell phone and get a workout partner who can help if you need it.

Managing your diabetes with prescribed medication, diet and exercise is essential for your good health. Healthy eating and physical activity can benefit everyone in your family, so get them on board, too.

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