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All About Diabetic Meal Planning

Adjusting to a new style of eating is challenging enough without a host of myths and legends about diabetes do's and dont's. Let's begin with the facts.

Diabetes is a condition characterized by the body's inability to produce sufficient insulin, as in Type 1 diabetes, or to correctly use insulin, as in Type 2 diabetes. One of the important ways to stabilize blood sugar or glucose levels is with a diet low in carbohydrates.

While carb control isn't the only factor in the treatment of diabetes, a healthy diet along with exercise and medication allows people with diabetes to lead normal lives.

Diabetic meal planning isn't rocket science, although it can seem quite complicated when you first learn that you or a family member has diabetes. As you get used to counting the grams of carbohydrates in the foods you eat, diabetic meal planning becomes quite routine and relatively simple.

The Challenges of Diabetic Meal Plans
These are the most frequent questions that arise about diabetic meal planning:

How many grams of carbohydrates per day? That depends on your total caloric intake. Since you should consume about half your calories in carbs, and a gram of carbohydrates equals four calories, the calculation isn't that complicated. If you consume 2000 calories a day, 1000 calories or 250 grams of carbs is average. You can vary from forty to sixty percent and still be in the correct range. If you're overweight and your nutritionist has recommended a daily intake of 1600 calories, then, you should aim for 200 or fewer grams of carbohydrates per day.

Will I be on a diet for the rest of my life? No, ideal diabetic menus are similar to those of healthy eaters: you can eat a variety of foods and you can eat almost anything—as long as you keep track of those carbs and keep portion sizes under control.

Isn't sugar out of the question? You can eat sugar, but the carb cost of a teaspoon of sugar is high. Why eat a cup of ice cream with 32 grams of carbs when an entire cup of fresh strawberries costs only 10 grams? Of course, it's up to you. You can blow your ration on sugar if you wish, but you'll find that spreading out your carbs is healthier and easier. And sugar isn't the only high-carbohydrate culprit: flour, rice, potatoes, corn and peas are examples of starchy foods that are high in carbs.

What foods can I eat? As we said before, just about anything in moderation. While meat, cheese and butter have almost no carbs, they're packed with fat calories and they're sure to put on the pounds you're desperately trying to lose. Obesity is one of the diabetic's worst enemies.

Isn't a diabetic meal plan boring? We all know cooks who can make a steak dinner boring and flavorless. On the other hand, a nice variety of foods served with flair makes even the healthiest foods mouth-watering. You can use a variety of seasonings and spices to perk up your foods.

How about eating out? Eating foods that others prepare can make carb counting an incredible challenge. You'll get used to asking questions and reducing portions of the particularly high-carbohydrate foods. For example, you might be out with friends enjoying pizza and beer. Ask for low carb beer, if you can, or bring your own to a party. Stick to two thin slices of pizza, and fill up on salad instead.

Do I have to eat six meals a day? Look at it this way: you're never ravenous if you're grazing all day. Most people with diabetes eat three small meals and throw in mid-morning and evening snacks. Or if you eat dinner quite late, you might have your snack in the afternoon. If you're used to eating lunch and dessert, try saving the yogurt or fruit you packed for your afternoon snack. It's all the same food—you just space it out a bit.

Can I eat what my family eats? That's the beauty of this whole plan. Your family can enjoy the same foods you do. They'll get used to sugar free snacks and lighter meals—and they'll love stepping on the scale when they discover the weight loss benefits of healthy eating. Kids can have larger portions appropriate for their age and size, but they'll learn healthy eating habits that will benefit them forever.

How do I know the carb content of foods I eat? Packaged foods contain the carb contents for each portion. Just do the math correctly. A portion of Doritos is surprisingly small and a bag of chips can include three or more servings! For fast foods, just browse the internet for sites that reveal the nutritional content of foods served in popular fast food chains. Since the Atkins craze, everyone wants to know carb counts, so it's easier than ever.

Diabetic Menus Made Easy
Before you begin your diabetic meal planning, arm yourself with a food pyramid that tells you how many servings of each type of food (starches, fats, fruits and vegetables, grains, etc.) you should have each day. You might also buy a nutrition guide that lists the calorie, fat gram and carbohydrate gram count for all the foods you eat. You can find such a chart online if you have a computer handy.

Next, prepare a chart such as the one below, for each day of the week:

  Foods Cals
Carbs (g) Fats (g)
Morning Snack        
Afternoon Snack        
Evening Snack        

Now, fill out the chart for each day, using the following guidelines:
  • Keep your eye on the "totals" line to make sure you stay within the calorie, carbohydrate and fat limits recommended for your weight and size.
  • Vary your foods. Don't eat the same thing for lunch each day. Also, include a variety of foods at each meal and snack. A cup of blueberries and a non-fat yogurt for your afternoon snack is quite different from the celery and peanut butter you had for your morning snack.
  • Make yourself a list of substitutes with equivalent calories, fats and carbohydrates so you can switch them in and out. For example, a serving of chicken and linguine might be equivalent to a serving of salmon and rice.
  • Until you're used to serving sizes, measure and weigh foods to be sure you stay within your caloric limits. Eventually, you'll recognize a cup of ice cream or an ounce of cheese.
  • If you're not sure how some foods, particularly alcohol, affect your blood glucose levels, check your blood levels after eating and chart the results. After a year or two, some people can even recognize their highs and lows without checking their blood glucose levels.
  • Use fresh foods as much as possible. Packaged foods are convenient, but they're often loaded with sodium and preservatives that aren't healthy for you. Make cooking your new hobby and enjoy the challenge of coming up with creative meals. Invest in a diabetic cookbook or check out diabetic menu plans online.
  • Be sure to include the suggested number of servings from each food group on the food pyramid.
Free Foods and Low-Carbohydrate Options
The surge in popularity of the Atkins diet has raised plenty of controversy. While the diet doesn't offer a good balance of nutritious foods, it has spawned an industry that tracks carbs for you. For example, low-carb ice cream bars and low-fat, low-carb instant puddings offer some delicious dessert options that weren't around a few years ago.

Several foods and beverages are great additions to your diabetic meal plan since they're relatively free of calories and carbs: coffee and tea, diet sodas, bouillons and many sugar-free items such as candy, gum, puddings, flavored gelatin, syrups, jams and jellies.

A Sample Diabetic Meal Plan
Here's a sample meal plan filled out for a person who's on a 1600-calorie/200-gram carb regimen:

  Foods Cals Carbs (g) Fats (g)
Breakfast oatmeal, 1 serving 145 25 2
strawberries, 1 cup 45 10 1
skim milk, 1 cup 85 12 0
coffee 0 0 0
Morning Snack 1 oz. cheddar cheese 115 0 9
4 wheat crackers 35 5 1
Lunch 3 oz. roasted chicken breast 140 0 3
2 slices reduced-carb bread 95 11 1
1 tbsp. low-fat dressing 35 2 1
Lettuce, 2 leaves 5 1 0
Iced tea 0 0 0
Afternoon Snack 1 cup non-fat yogurt 120 17 0
1 cup blueberries 80 20 1
Dinner 4 oz. halibut with lemon & butter 140 0 6
1 small baked potato 75 20 0
2 tbsp. non-fat sour cream 30 5 0
1 cup green beans 40 8 0
Diet soda 0 0 0
Evening Snack ¼ cantaloupe 45 11 0
2 oatmeal raisin cookies 220 18 5
Total   1,455 166 30


National Diabetes Education Program. (nd). Eating healthy and staying fit to control and manage diabetes.

National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. (July, 2003). What I need to know about eating and diabetes.

Blanchette, K. (nd). The "diabetic" diet.

Endocrine Web. (nd). Treatment of diabetes.
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