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Diets for Diabetics

A List of Standard and Popular Diabetes-Friendly Diets


Updated March 30, 2012

There is no one-size-fits-all diet. Standard diets prescribed for people with diabetes may not fulfill all that is personally desired in an eating plan for a particular individual. If you seek a diabetes-friendly diet beyond the standard plans, you have to weed through diets that could complicate management. These diets include crash diets, liquid diets, high-carb diets, strict elimination diets, and some diets with foods that might interfere with treatment before you find one that will work for you.

Here are some things to keep in mind when considering diets for diabetics:

  • Diabetes dietary basics: When you have diabetes, it's best to keep calories and carbohydrate intake in control, choose lower-fat proteins, and get plenty of fiber. Learn the difference between dietary fats. Include healthy unsaturated fats, minimize saturated fat and avoid trans fats. You should eat throughout the day, especially if you are taking insulin or other medications that can cause blood sugar levels to go too low.
  • Personal preferences: To complicate matters, there are different "camps" when it comes to diets for diabetes. Some people with diabetes believe in controlling diabetes with highly nutritious foods and restrictive diets. Others want to take advantage of modern medicines so they can eat what they like and eat the same foods as their family and friends. Perhaps they tried more restrictive diets and were not able to control diabetes with diet alone.
  • Your current health situation: You might have conditions or complications that could be affected by certain diets. For example, blood thinning medications may not work well with dark leafy greens which contain a lot of vitamin K. Let your doctor know when you are going to start a new diet and get guidance.

Here is a list of standard and popular diets among people with diabetes. The list goes from diets that allow you to eat what you like in limited amounts to diets that are a bit more restrictive but may allow you more control over your blood sugar levels through diet.

Carbohydrate Counting

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A carb counting plan is a popular diet method for diabetics. Your doctor or dietician prescribes a certain amount of carbs per day that you can consume. They may also prescribe amounts of carbs per meal and snack in an effort to space smaller amounts of carbs throughout the day to help keep blood sugar levels stable and avoid extreme spikes or dips.

This is one of the most flexible plans and allows you to eat any foods you like, even on the go. A nutrition count resource will be needed along with measuring tools. Portion sizes for commonly eaten foods will eventually be memorized so you won't have to rely on references or measuring tools as time goes on.

Exchange List Diet

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This is a meal plan that was designed by the American Diabetes Association and American Dietetic Association. This diet is often recommended to newly diagnosed diabetics.

Foods are divided into "exchange lists" such as lists for starches, meats, vegetables, fruits, milk, and fats. The food portions or "exchanges" within a particular list contain a similar amount of calories, carb, protein, and fat. For example, one starch choice of six saltine crackers would contain 15 g carb, 3 g protein, trace fat, and 80 calories. Your doctor or dietician will usually prescribe how many exchanges from each list you can have daily.

This is a pretty simple diet and allows you to eat any food you like. It is helpful to have access to exchanges lists and also have a nutrition count book or resource. This way of eating requires measuring implements such as measuring spoons, cups, and a scale. Eventually you come to memorize portion amounts for commonly eaten foods and also learn to eyeball portion sizes. Figuring out carb counts for mixed foods such as casseroles can be a challenge.

Some popular commercial diets are based on this plan, and their tools and booklets could help make life a little easier. One example is the Richard Simmons Food Mover Diet. This plan offers a handy portable gadget that allows you to keep track of exchanges, water, exercise, and vitamins. I have personally used the gadget in the past, and it made tracking much easier.

Insulin Resistance Diet

Cheryle R. Hart, M.D. and Mary Kay Grossman, R.D.

The Insulin Resistance Diet book was written by Cheryle Hart and Mary Kay Grossman and is one of the bestselling diet books for people with diabetes. These ladies are doctors at a medical weight loss clinic in Spokane, Washington and they have had great success with this eating plan in their practice. The goal is not only to keep blood sugar levels within normal limits, but also to have lower insulin levels. This plan prescribes a certain amount of carbs per meals and snacks. A "link-and-balance" method is employed where carbohydrates are linked with the right amount of protein, and you space out eating times.

You can incorporate smaller amounts of your favorite foods with this plan. A nutritional count guide will be necessary to look up carb and protein counts.

Mediterranean Diet

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There has been a lot of research that indicates the healthy Mediterranean diet can be very effective for people with diabetes and can possibly lead to a longer life for anyone who follows it. Research has shown it to protect against type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, obesity, dementia, and Alzheimer's. There are many diets based on the Mediterranean way of eating.

The most referenced version of this diet is The Mediterranean Diet book, plan, and pyramid from Dr. Walter Willet of the School of Public Health from Harvard University.

This type of diet focuses not only on food but also on exercise and lifestyle in general. Followers are encouraged to choose mostly fresh, seasonal, whole foods, unsaturated fats, and lean proteins. Very small amounts of red meats, sweets, and saturated fats are allowed.

Once you understand the guidelines, this is a pretty simple diet to follow. Of course, you will need to keep an eye on your carbs, calories and portion sizes. Similar diets include a variety of whole food diets, the South Beach Diet, and the DASH Diet.

The DASH Diet

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DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The DASH diet is similar to the Mediterranean diet and also the exchange list plan. This eating plan was developed by the National Institutes of Health. The low-sodium version of this plan has been shown to be effective for lowering blood pressure quickly and significantly. This diet has also been found to lower cholesterol and help people with type 2 diabetes. With this diet you eat a certain number of servings from various food groups. The number of servings depends on your daily caloric goals.

This eating plan has gained high respect and has been ranked by many sites and health organizations as the healthiest diet plan around.

The Paleo Diet

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The Paleo Diet is also known as the caveman diet. This plan has quite a few followers who claim to have experienced health benefits, including better diabetes control. There has not been as much research on this diet as the others on this list so there is some controversy. However, at least one study has shown a larger decrease in blood sugar levels with a paleo diet than with a Mediterranean diet.

On this program, you eat what would have been available to cavemen such as lean animal protein, nuts, seeds, non-starchy vegetables, and fruit. You avoid what was not available at that time. This means no sugar, grains, salty foods, fatty meats, dairy, starchy vegetables, and legumes. This also means you will be drinking mostly just water.

This is a pretty restrictive diet. On the plus side, it is naturally low-carb so there will be minimal carb counting. The cons are that there may be potential for nutritional deficiency and also for followers to consume too much meat, so it will require attention and planning to avoid these potential pitfalls.

Vegan or Vegetarian Diets

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Both of these diets are considered beneficial to people with diabetes, but neither is necessarily low-carb unless you monitor carbs and make good carb choices. These diets are usually inherently lower calorie.

Vegetarians avoid meat, poultry, and fish, but do eat milk, cheese, and eggs. Vegans avoid all animal products, even milk, cheese, and eggs. The basic vegan foods are dark leafy greens, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.

Going a step further is a raw food diet which is even more restrictive. This is similar to the vegan way of eating, but foods are not cooked.

In order to consume all that is needed to meet caloric needs, tools such as blenders, juicers, and supplements are usually needed.

These restrictive diets have a potential for nutritional deficiency, so anyone following these diets must do research, be knowledgeable, plan accordingly, and get their doctor's guidance.

Other Popular Diets

The best diet for diabetes is one that you can stick with. Many diets can be made diabetes-friendly if carb counting and good food choices can be incorporated into the plan. One such diet popular among people with type 2 diabetes is Weight Watchers which offers many tools and the program can be done in live groups or online.

As I pointed out before, whatever diet or method you choose, make sure to get your doctor's approval and guidance. It would be a good idea to also work with a dietician and diabetes educator.

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