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15 Things Nutrition Experts Need You to Know About Diabetes Dieting

Just because you have diabetes doesn't mean you have to totally overhaul your diet. Here's what experts want you to keep in mind about diabetes dieting.

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There’s no one-size-fits-all diabetes diet

Nutrition experts agree that no diet is perfect for all diabetics. What’s important, however, is that a diet is based on foods that the patient enjoys eating, can afford and that he or she can prepare. “Examples of ‘diets’ that are most appropriate for diabetics include the Mediterranean Diet, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, and a plant-based diet,” says Sarah Rettinger, MD, an endocrinologist at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. However, she insists that there is no perfect ratio of carbs, protein, and fats for all diabetics. Here are the best foods for diabetics.

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Exercise is vital

“Diabetics can have too much glucose in their blood, either because their body doesn’t produce enough insulin to process it, or because their body doesn’t use insulin properly—they’re insulin resistant,” explains David Friedman, ND, DC, doctor of naturopathy, clinical nutritionist, and chiropractic neurologist. “In both cases, exercise is the most natural way to help reduce your blood glucose.” In simplified terms, glucose is metabolized better in the body when you exercise.

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Carbohydrates are not the enemy

Cutting carbs isn’t the answer to every health and weight problem—they are an extremely important part of your diet, providing the fuel your body needs to function. “The key to dieting is finding the right carbs, not eliminating them altogether, as seen in the latest Keto diet craze,” says Adrienne Youdim MD, at Cedars Sinai Medical Center and Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. “Complex carbohydrates pack more nutrients than simple carbohydrates and are higher in fiber, so they are digested and absorbed more slowly, making them a fantastic source of sustained energy, and a staple in any diabetic weight loss plan.”

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Skipping meals leads to more problems

Skipping a meal here and there might sound like an easy way to shed pounds, but it can be unhealthy and it may do just the opposite of what you’re looking to achieve. “If you don’t eat breakfast, for example, the brain may trigger you to eat late at night,” Ann Feldman, MS, RD, LDN, CDE at Joslin Diabetes Center, explains. “And don’t be afraid to snack—snacking helps prevent hunger between meals and potentially avoids a binge.” Here’s what happens to your body on a binge.

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Holidays can be tricky traps

Along with many holidays comes a serious temptation to gorge on your favorite foods, many of which can be unhealthy or loaded with sugar. Experts advise moderation: “Find a balance and keep the plate method in mind when making your plate during the holiday,” says Cara Schrager, MPH, RD, CDE at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. “Fill up half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables, one-fourth with lean protein and one-fourth with complex carbohydrates.” Here are some of the worst foods for diabetics.

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Stay away from sugary drinks

The one thing doctors recommend avoiding at all costs, especially if you’re diabetic, is sugar-sweetened beverages. “Sugar-laden drinks like sodas and fruit juices quickly raise blood sugar levels and require much more insulin than beverages containing less sugar,” says Schrager. “This makes your body more insulin resistant.” She recommends drinking mostly water, seltzer water, unsweetened coffee, and teas. Learn more about the best and worst drinks for diabetics.

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Don’t rely on food labels

Food labels can be deceiving, especially given the leniency that comes along with their requirements. “Seeing food labels that say ‘whole grains,’ ‘reduced sugar,’ ‘low calorie’ and ‘all natural’ is enough to make your head spin!” says Dr. Friedman. “When reading labels, keep in mind that the FDA allows a margin of error up to 20 percent on the calorie counts and other values of packaged foods.” In other words, the actual amounts are often much higher than appear to be on the label. Dr. Friedman recommends reaching for high-fiber foods (three or more grams,) to keep your blood sugar from spiking.

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Stay hydrated

Since your body is made up of nearly 60 percent water, it needs topping off with fluids constantly. “Being dehydrated can raise your blood sugar, harm your kidneys and increase the risk of nerve damage,” explains Dr. Youdim. “However, when diabetic dieting, it’s best to steer clear of high-sodium foods and caffeine, both of which may result in increased water losses.”

Don’t miss these healthy habits to prevent diabetes.

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Watch your sodium

Dr. Youdim explains that some pre-packaged meals (frozen dinners, for example) may be low calorie and helpful with dieting, but are usually very high in sodium. “A diet too high in sodium can raise blood pressure and compound kidney disease, adding to poor health in an already vulnerable diabetic population,” she says. She suggests limiting your sodium intake to 2,500 mg daily. Check out these foods with way more salt than you realize.

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Cut back on booze

Drinking in moderation isn’t the worst thing for a diabetic, but be mindful how often you drink and how much. “On average, a regular beer has 140 calories, a draft cider has 170 calories, and table wines have about 180 calories,” says Feldman. “It only takes an extra 3,500 calories to gain a pound of body weight, so if you consume an extra 250 calories per day, this equals a half-pound of weight gain in one week.” When dining out or at events, she suggests avoiding milk- or fruit-based cocktails A White Russian has 260 calories; a sangria can have up to 280 calories. By contrast, a wine spritzer has 85 calories.

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Fill your plate with blueberries

Most diabetics shy away from sweet fruit for fear that the sugar is not good for their condition. But Dr. Friedman explains that healthy fruit choices, such as blueberries, are good for diabetics. “They are packed with dietary fiber, vitamin C, and flavonoids, or phytonutrients that help boost your immune system and fight off infection,” he says. “Even though blueberries are high in sugar (15 grams of sugar per cup!), their fiber content ensures that the natural fruit sugar is released slowly into the body and won’t cause any unhealthy sugar spikes.” In fact, research shows that blueberries can actually help control blood sugar.

Here are eight sneaky things that can raise your blood sugar levels.

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Prepare more of your own food

While it’s tempting to order takeout after a busy day of work, don’t make this a daily habit. As Schrager puts it, you have more control over what you’re putting into your body if you make it yourself. “Dining out often leads to high-fat, high-sodium meals, but you can control the amount and types of carbs if you eat at home,” she says. “Create your own version of a meal you liked to order out. For example, instead of ordering a large pizza, try making a pita pizza using whole wheat pita, tomato sauce, vegetables, and cheese.” Here are some other simple tricks for living well with diabetes.

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Just say “no” to artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners may seem like a great alternative to sugar, but Dr. Friedman recommends avoiding them at all cost. “Artificial sweeteners are created using an array of synthetic chemicals that can disrupt the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, cause metabolic changes and are a precursor to diabetes,” he says. “In fact, research suggests, artificial sweeteners may lead to type 2 diabetes as much as eating sugar does.”

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Eat an apple a day

It actually is a great way to keep the doctor away: Although people often avoid apples because of their high sugar content, the pectin and soluble fiber they contain helps slow digestion and can actually help regulate blood glucose levels, says Dr. Friedman.

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Beans are good for more than your heart

Starchy foods are often difficult for diabetics to consume because they can boost blood sugar. Dr. Friedman points out that beans, however, are a great alternative because they’re high in fiber and protein. “Beans are chock-full of vitamins and minerals like folate, iron, magnesium, and potassium,” he says. One study, published in JAMA, linked beans, lentils and other legumes to helping people with type 2 diabetes gain better glycemic control and lower their risk of heart disease. Here are more diabetic foods your body will thank you for.

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Check your blood glucose often

“Many people are going to tell you what you shouldn’t eat, but only you know how the food will affect your blood glucose,” says Schrager. As we mentioned before, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to eating healthy with diabetes, which is why it’s so important to keep a close pulse on your body and its needs. Schrager recommends checking your blood glucose after a meal or snack to see if that food was the right choice for you.

Check out these healthy—and simple!—ways to control your blood sugar.

Jenn Sinrich
Jenn Sinrich is an experienced digital and social editor in New York City. She's written for several publications including SELF, Women's Health, Fitness, Parents, American Baby, Ladies' Home Journal and more.She covers various topics from health, fitness and food to pregnancy and parenting. In addition to writing, Jenn also volunteers with Ed2010, serving as the deputy director to Ed's Buddy System, a program that pairs recent graduates with young editors to give them a guide to the publishing industry and to navigating New York.When she's not busy writing, editing or reading, she's enjoying and discovering the city she's always dreamed of living in with her loving fiancé, Dan, and two feline friends, Janis and Jimi. Visit her website: Jenn Sinrich.