Eating well

Eating well is all about finding the right balance of food that works for you.

This means:

  • There is no such thing as a diabetic diet. People living with diabetes can enjoy the same foods as everybody else.
  • Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from each of the five food groups every day. The five food groups include fruit, vegetables and legumes, grains and cereals, lean meat and meat alternatives, and dairy.
  • Knowing what type and how much carbohydrate foods to eat is important in managing your diabetes.

Eating well is an important step in managing your diabetes. ‘What can I eat?’ is often one of the first questions asked after diagnosis. Food and drinks provide more than just nutrition, we get enjoyment and pleasure from eating and often social events focus around food. So, it is understandable why food and drinks choices can cause worry for people living with diabetes.

Everyone’s body responds differently to different types of foods. What works for you may not work for someone else. There is no such thing as a ‘diabetic diet’ or a ‘magic diet’ for diabetes. It can take time to find a way of eating that works well for you and your diabetes management.

Diabetes Tasmania has a few tips you can use to move towards eating well for your diabetes or helping reduce your risk of diabetes and other chronic disease.

Choose more whole, unprocessed foods and less processed foods

Most Australians need to eat more: 

  • vegetables and fruit
  • wholegrain breads and cereals like wholemeal bread, oats and pasta
  • dairy (low fat dairy options if heart health is a concern)
  • lean cuts of meats, chicken, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds and legumes
  • drink more water

And less of: 

  • Pies and pastries
  • Hot chips and fried foods
  • Processed deli meats
  • Biscuits, refined crackers
  • Cakes, muffins and sweet biscuits
  • Lollies and chocolate
  • Ice cream and desserts
  • Cream and butter
  • Soft drinks, cordial, energy drinks and sports drinks
  • Wine, beer and spirts
Choose water most of the time

Water is the best drink option. Water does not contain added sugar like other drink choices such as soft drinks, cordials, flavoured milk, energy drinks, sports drinks and sweetened fruit juice. It won’t make your blood glucose levels rise and will help keep you hydrated.

Breakfast is important

Research shows that people who skip breakfast regularly tend to eat more of the foods we should be eating less of. This is not helpful as they are often the foods which are higher in added sugar, salt and fat.  Skipping meals might also not be a good idea if you are taking certain diabetes medications. Speak with your doctor or credentialed diabetes educator for more information on medications.

Eat mindfully and with others

Eating mindfully means focusing on the food in front of you instead of eating while distracted, such as in front of the TV or computer. Most of the pleasure we get from food is experienced within the first few mouthfuls. You might find that eating mindfully can help you feel satisfied with a smaller portion of the foods we need to be eating less of. Eating with others makes food enjoyable and is great for our emotional wellbeing.

Plan ahead

Make a plan for the week ahead on meals and snacks to be purchased. Planning will reduce the temptation to eat out of the home and reduce your need to go to the supermarket several times a week. The more often we go to the supermarket the more often we purchase food that is not needed.

Learn about carbohydrates (carbs)

When you eat and drink foods that have carbohydrates in them, your body breaks them down into glucose. This glucose makes your blood glucose level increase. The glucose in your blood stream is then used for energy throughout the day and night. It is important to include carbohydrates in your diet as glucose it our body’s preferred source of energy.

Eating too many carbohydrates in a meal or snack can raise blood glucose levels too high. Likewise, not eating enough carbohydrates can cause blood glucose levels to drop too low. You may also feel tired if you do not eat enough carbohydrates. Finding the balance of the right amount of carbohydrates for you is important. An accredited practicing dietitian can help you work out what the right amount is for you and your diabetes.

There are different types of carbohydrates in the food and drinks we consume. The two main types are: 

  • sugars
  • starches

Sugars can be natural sugars or added sugars. Eating natural sugars from fruit and dairy foods are part of eating well. Eating added sugars such as lollies, cakes and soft drinks should be limited.

Starches are found in foods such as bread and cereals, rice and pasta, potatoes, legumes and corn. Starchy foods contain fiber, which is good for managing blood glucose levels, as well as your gut health.

Some sugars and starches can digest into glucose very fast. The faster they digest the faster your blood glucose levels rise. Some sugars and starches digest slowly making you feel fuller for longer and cause a slower rise in your blood glucose levels. How fast a food or drink causes your blood glucose levels to rise is called the glycemic index (GI). Eating more low GI foods, or foods that digest slowly, throughout the day can help your diabetes.

Finding the balance between sugars, starches and GI is important in managing your diabetes.

Fasting

If you plan to fast for religious reasons or need to fast before a medical procedure or pathology test, speak to your diabetes health care team. Medications may have to be adjusted and methods for treating potential low blood glucose levels will need to be discussed.

Seeking support

Asking your doctor about eating well can be helpful. If you are wanting more in depth information a referral to an accredited practicing dietitian can be helpful. Diabetes Tasmania has accredited practicing dietitians available to assist to you.

FAQs

Below are some of the frequently asked questions our accredited practising dietitians get asked. If you have a different question, please call or email Diabetes Tasmania or use our referral form to make an appointment with one of our dietitians.

Can I still eat foods containing sugar like biscuits, cake or chocolate? 

When you have diabetes, you can still eat foods containing sugar. Like the rest of the population, we suggest you limit the amount of food with added sugar you eat to small portions and try not to eat these foods every day.

Do I need to start using artificial sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners can be used as a tool to reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet. It is safe to eat and drink foods and drinks which contain small amounts of artificial sweeteners. For example, tea and coffee with artificial sweetener or diet products. A healthy long-term plan would be to try to reduce the amount of sweet foods you consume, including both foods and drinks with added sugar as well as those with artificial sweeteners.

What type of sugar is best?

Once your body has digested any type of sugar (white, brown, raw or coconut sugar and honey), your blood glucose levels will increase. Whichever type of sugar you choose to use try and limit how much and how often you use it.

I’ve been told to avoid all foods that are white, is this true?

This is often a blanket statement made to people newly diagnosed with diabetes. It is not very helpful. Lots of white foods fall within the five food groups of the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating and are recommended to be eaten every day. Healthy white foods include things like onions, potatoes, cauliflower, bananas, milk and yoghurt, fish, basmati rice and quinoa. A more helpful statement would be to limit highly processed white foods such as white bread, potato chips and refined breakfast cereals.

Are carbohydrates (carbs) bad and should I avoid them? 

Carbohydrates are one of the three types of fuel in the food we eat (the other two are fats and protein). In your body, carbohydrates are digested into glucose, which provides fuel for your muscles and organs. If you restrict your intake of carbohydrate foods, you might start to feel tired because not enough energy is being supplied to the body. Carbohydrate foods also contain many other vitamins and minerals which are essential for the body like fibre, calcium, iron and vitamin B. Try and include nutritious carbohydrate foods in your diet every day, like wholegrain breads and cereals, pasta, sweet potato, fruit and dairy.

Bananas and grapes make my blood glucose levels go very high, so should I avoid them?

Bananas and grapes are types of fruit. It is recommended we eat two pieces of fruit every day for good health.  If you find bananas and grapes make your blood glucose levels rise too high, but you enjoy them, limit your intake to no more than a small handful of grapes; or a small, firm banana in in one sitting. It is very easy to snack on grapes throughout the day without being conscious on how many you are consuming. Rest assured bananas and grapes are high in fibre, vitamin C and potassium making them a healthy choice to include everyday if you like.

Should I eat six smaller more frequent meals or three larger meals a day? 

The short answer is, do what suits you and your diabetes. Some people prefer to eat smaller more frequent meals throughout the day because they have the time and ability to eat like this and they find their blood glucose levels respond better. If eating three main meals a day is what suits your appetite, then this is also fine. Either eating style should consist mostly of foods from the five food groups, grains and cereals, fruit, vegetables, meat and meat alternatives and dairy. The type of medication you take for your diabetes might influence how often and what time you need to eat. Discuss this with your doctor, credentialled diabetes educator or accredited practising dietitian if you are unsure.

When I look up ‘best diabetes diet’, I get lots of different options. Which is best?

There are lots of different diets available for people to follow. A ‘diet’ is simply the word used to describe someone’s eating habits. People with diabetes should follow an eating plan which includes a variety of foods from each of the core food groups and minimises ‘sometimes’ foods. Importantly, your way of eating (or ‘diet’) should not only be healthy but suit your eating preferences, tastes and culture; fit in with your lifestyle and be sustainable in the long-term.  In general, the Mediterranean diet is a healthy way of eating for most people and a good starting point if you want to improve your eating habits. For more specific, individualised advice about how you can improve your eating habits, see an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

Do I have to lose weight to better manage my diabetes? 

Research shows you do not have to lose lots of weight to better manage your diabetes. Eating more fruits and vegetables and less processed foods is an effective long-term solution to improving your overall health. If you would like to lose weight, then it is best done with help from your doctor, an accredited practising dietitian and exercise physiologist. Aiming for small achievable weight loss goals of 5% - 10% of your body weight can have significant positive results on your diabetes. Remember to look at all area of wellbeing to manage your health, don’t just focus on weight.

What about diabetes and alcohol?

Most people can enjoy small amounts of alcohol. It is important to be aware that drinking too much alcohol can have some negative effects on your overall health and diabetes. Too much alcohol can cause weight gain, high and low blood glucose levels, and elevate cholesterol and blood pressure. If you choose to drink alcohol, then it is suggested you keep it to two standard drinks per day.

Do I still need to eat well if my blood glucose levels are at target? 

Eating well is important for everyone to maintain good health and to reduce the risk of diabetes related complications.  If your blood glucose levels are within target eating well is still important, as food from the five food groups provides our body with the essential nutrients it needs to function. Eating well also helps us maintain a healthy weight, improves energy levels and is good for mental health.

I feel like I eat well but my blood glucose levels are above target, why is that? 

Blood glucose levels are influenced by many factors other than the food we eat. Diabetes management is different for everyone. It is normal for your diabetes management to change over time despite your best efforts to eat well. There is no such thing as having “failed” because your diabetes management changes, it is just the normal progression of the condition. Discuss with your doctor or credentialled diabetes educator on how to manage your diabetes in a way that works for you.

How can a dietitian assist me with my diabetes management? I don’t want to follow a meal plan or be told what I must eat. 

Accredited Practising Dietitians are trained health professionals who have university qualifications in nutrition and dietetics. They love food and recognise that the food we eat is not only important for our physical health but also our sense of wellbeing. A diagnosis of diabetes doesn’t mean that you will have to give up your favourite foods or no longer be able to enjoy a meal at your favourite restaurant! Dietitians work with you to make dietary changes to achieve your health goals in a way that fits in with your food preferences and lifestyle.

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