The truth about the so-called ‘diabetic diet’

By Michelle Tong, Diabetes Queensland dietitian and CDE

A diagnosis of diabetes may mean your doctor has suggested you make changes to your diet. This may be a good time to become wiser about your regular eating pattern, but does that mean you need to follow a “diabetic diet”?

Despite all the publicity surrounding nutritional guidelines and research, many people living with diabetes still believe that there is something called a “diabetic diet”. Some believe this diet consists of avoiding sugar, while others believe it to be avoiding carbohydrates. Unfortunately, neither are right.

As with any healthy eating plans, looking after your diabetes is more about your overall eating pattern rather than becoming concerned about specific foods. At the end of the day, your nutritional needs are virtually the same as all Australians. So the need to prepare separate meals, buy special foods and avoid your favorite foods or special family meals are usually not necessary.

In truth, your diet is really nothing more than a nutritionally balanced meal plan aimed at maintaining your blood glucose levels (BGLs). Here are some tips to help you better understand how to eat to support your diabetes management.

Choose carbohydrates that keep blood glucose levels steady

Eating the right quality and amount of carbohydrate foods at each meal can help prevent spikes in your BGLs. The quality of carbohydrates is determined by how quickly they are digested and broken down into glucose. They are rated on a scale called the Glycaemic Index (GI). High GI carbohydrate foods break down into glucose quickly, resulting in a faster rise in your BGLs, while low GI carbohydrate foods break down into glucose more slowly, resulting in smaller and slower rise after eating.

Diabetes Diet

Lower GI foods are generally higher in fibre, less processed and contain less added sugar.

For a list of low GI foods, head to our factsheet The glycemic index. Aim to include at least one low GI food per meal, but remember, taking care with portion sizes is still important, as a large amount of low GI foods can still result in elevated BGLs.

Choose foods with lower saturated fat, trans fat and salt

People living with diabetes are two to four times more likely to develop heart (cardiovascular) disease, including heart attack. Although fat plays an important role in the body, the amount and type of fat also matters.

Saturated fats and trans-fat can increase the amount of bad cholesterol known as low-density lipoprotein or LDL cholesterol in the body, where too much can lead to a buildup of fatty material in the artery walls, increasing your risk of heart disease.

Saturated fats are found in animal foods such as fatty meat, full fat dairy foods, butter and cream, as well as plant sources such as palm oil and coconut oil. Trans fats are formed during food manufacturing and can be found in fried foods, and baked goods such as cakes, biscuits and pastries.

Too much salt can also contribute to high blood pressure, leading to greater risk of heart disease and stroke. Most of our excess salt intake comes from processed foods, so check the package for sodium content. Aim for products that have less than 400mg sodium/100g. To learn more about label reading, come along to a ShopSMART event.

You can find more details at our event calendar of events.

Fibre up

A high fibre diet is essential for good health by lowering cholesterol, improving glucose management, maintaining healthy bowel function and regularity. Make vegetables the main part of your meal by filling at least half your plate with non-starchy vegetables or salad. Fruits are also high in fibre, so try to include two serves of fruit each day. A serve of fruit is equivalent to one medium piece, two small pieces or half a cup of diced fruits.

Now that you know what foods to consider, the final piece in the puzzle of healthy eating is portion sizes.

Remember, allowing yourself to enjoy an occasional sweet may empower you to self-manage your diabetes in a way that suits your individual needs.

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