A dietitian’s tips for a healthy type 2 diabetes diet
How to make the right food choices without sacrificing flavor.
It can be challenging to make good choices about what to eat, and when, with type 2 diabetes (T2D). How do you know which foods will nourish your body best and help you manage your T2D?
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Antonella Dewell (MS, RDN) has some helpful answers. Dewell is passionate about empowering people to change their diets so they can find relief from symptoms while enjoying a variety of nutritious (and delicious) foods.
What are some of the biggest dietary concerns that clients with T2D have when they first see a dietitian?
Many people with T2D don’t understand what foods most impact their blood sugar and are confused about how to change their diet. For example, many think they will not be able to eat any sugar at all, but can eat other types of carbohydrate-rich foods such as bread and rice. To best control their blood sugar, I would recommend they eat smaller portions of all carbohydrate-rich foods — grains, cereals, bread, tortillas, fruit, etc. — and space them evenly throughout the day. They can occasionally even include small amounts of dessert in their diets.
What are simple ways to eat better without sacrificing flavor?
- Choose fiber-rich grains and cereals (quinoa, barley, brown rice) instead of refined grains (white bread, crackers, white rice) —their richer flavor will grow on you.
- Replace sugar-sweetened beverages like soda or sweetened ice tea with water flavored with mint or cucumber, or try sparkling water with a splash of juice.
- Stick to unsweetened yogurt instead of fruit-flavored ones (which have mostly added sugar) and add real fruit to sweeten it.
- Satisfy your sweet tooth with fruit or plain dark chocolate. Once you stop eating lots of added sugar, your palate will adjust and you won’t crave it nearly as much.
- Replace fattier meats with their leaner counterparts, but use spices and fresh herbs to flavor them.
What if you really, really love carbs?People with T2D don’t need to avoid carbs altogether. They just need to eat smaller portions and choose the whole (not refined) versions of bread, pasta, and rice. There are also great carb alternatives today like zucchini or lentil pasta!
The most important thing is to eat small portions of carbs throughout the day, as people with T2D don’t produce enough insulin to process large portions of carbs at one time. Eating some protein, healthy fat and fiber together with carbs helps your body digest them slowly, which in turn helps insulin work better; It also helps achieve a feeling of fullness when the portion of carbs in the meal is small.
People with T2D should talk with their registered dietitian or doctor about what the right amount of carbs is for them, as well as remember to measure their blood sugar after eating and notice how they respond to different carb sources.
What are the best foods to eat regularly?
- High-fiber grains: sprouted whole-grain bread, whole-wheat kernels, quinoa, barley, brown rice
- Legumes: lentils, beans, dried peas like chickpeas or split peas
- Healthy fats: avocados, nuts, olive and avocado oils
- Lean protein sources: eggs, low-fat/non-fat dairy (if tolerated), fish and lean meats (chicken breast without the skin, lean pork, leanest cuts of beef)
What are foods to avoid?
Avoid any sweetened beverages (sodas, iced teas, etc.), fruit juices, or smoothies prepared with fruit juices or large amounts of fruits. Sugar from liquid sources causes a big spike in blood sugar that people with T2D are not prepared to handle.
I would say limit (not necessarily avoid) added sugars (table sugar, honey agave for example), desserts, and very processed products like cookies, chips, and crackers. “Treat” these foods in the true sense of the word: something out of the ordinary rather than something you typically eat every day.
Can you share an easy sample meal plan?
- Breakfast: scrambled eggs with avocado on whole-grain toast
- Morning snack: plain, unsweetened yogurt topped with raspberries
- Lunch: lentil-vegetable soup, mixed green salad dressed with olive oil and vinegar; a medium apple
- Afternoon snack: mixed nuts or brown rice cake topped with almond or peanut butter
- Dinner: grilled salmon with broccoli and a sweet potato
- Dessert: a square of dark chocolate
If someone with T2D really wants a cheat meal (or two) during holidays or special occasions, what are some indulgent things they can eat without going overboard?
It’s important to participate in the celebration without feeling guilty. Eating is such a big part of socializing with family and friends. Rather than thinking of them as “cheat” meals, I prefer “balanced eating”— which includes an occasional treat.
My biggest advice is to choose what is most important to you. Focus on the foods that you only enjoy during holidays or special occasions rather than indulging in everything. Watch your portion sizes on food items that you know will raise your blood sugars. You can have a little slice of pie with sugar-free whipped cream.
Any final tips?
- Eat more whole, unprocessed foods, which means: cook more! Today, many people eat most of their food from restaurants and take-out, which serve portions that are too big and may have ingredients that are not the healthiest for us.
- Planning and preparing food ahead of time is key for anyone who wants to eat healthier. It is so much easier to make healthy choices when they are available to us; it’s when we are caught unprepared that we end up choosing fast food for lunch, or that pastry in the office after rushing out of the house without breakfast.
- Last but not least, move as much as you can. Exercising helps your body put away the carbohydrates you eat without the need for insulin. Even a short but brisk walk after lunch or dinner can help lower your blood sugar after a meal.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of Pendulum.