How to Make Any Meal Diabetes-Friendly

Dealing with diabetes? You can eat just about anything, but the way your food is prepared, and how much you eat, determines its effect on your blood sugar.

When most people think about eating to manage diabetes, they think about cutting back on carbohydrates and eliminating sugar. But to make your meals diabetes-friendly, you not only have to watch your carb count, but also the amount of protein and the types and amounts of fats you serve.

Although carbs have an immediate effect on your blood sugar levels, excess fats have a long-term effect on your circulatory system and heart and, over time, too much protein can affect kidney function. Here are some tips to help you eat a nutritionally balanced meal that will keep your blood sugar levels in check.

1. Start Smart

As the saying goes, we manage what we measure. If you're not doing this already, "Try monitoring your glucose (sugar) before a meal and one or two hours after to get a sense of how your food choices and combinations are affecting your blood," advises Alison Massey, MS, RD, LDN, CDE, Director of Diabetes Education at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

2. Choose High-Fiber Carbs

Since all carbohydrates are not created equal, it is especially important for people with diabetes to choose carbs carefully. Foods made with starchy grains, like breads, muffins, pancakes, cereals, pastas, sweets, and other foods high in white flour can send your blood sugar skyrocketing.

Replace these foods with whole grain flour versions and you'll have a dish thatís higher in fiber. This is not only good for your digestive tract, but it also reduces the effect of carbohydrates and helps keep your blood sugar from spiking. Other high-fiber carbs include legumes (dried beans, lentils, and split peas) and most fresh fruits and vegetables.

3. Divvy Up Your Plate

The best meal for people with diabetes is a plate in which half is filled with non-starchy vegetables (like broccoli, green beans, leafy greens, sweet peppers, or a tossed salad); one-quarter filled with a protein such as meat, poultry, seafood or eggs, and the remaining quarter filled with a high-fiber, starchier carb such as whole-grain bread, brown rice, bulgur, quinoa or whole-grain pasta. Depending on your individual food plan, you may have dairy and/or fruit on the side.

When you're eating a dish that contains a mix of proteins and carbs, like a casserole, lasagna, soup, or stew, imagine dividing the ingredients up into similar proportions, with more emphasis on veggies and less on starches and high-protein foods. Dividing your plate this way not only ensures a balance of nutrients, but also helps limit high-calorie foods and ingredients.

4. Makeover Your Meals

Are you still using whole-milk ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, ground meat, and plain white noodles to make lasagna? Time to upgrade your menus so you can make diabetes-friendly meals that everyone will love! Here are some ways to incorporate more fiber, less sugar, and healthier fats into a few classic dishes:

French Toast: Substitute whole-grain bread for white or other low-fiber breads. Bake French toast, or use a nonstick pan to cook in just a small amount of oil. Top with chopped fresh, seasonal fruit or berries instead of syrup and a sprinkling of chopped nuts. (Try the same toppings in place of syrup with pancakes and waffles.)

Fried Chicken or Fish: Instead of frying, roast boneless chicken or broiled fish fillets, dipped first in beaten egg white or yogurt, then lightly coated with or a half-and-half mixture of whole-grain breadcrumbs and ground nuts.

Burgers: Instead of a classic greaseburger on a white-bread bun, choose lean cuts of ground meat, such as sirloin or top round, and use whole-grain rolls. Or try serving well-seasoned, bunless turkey or chicken burgers on a bed of crisp, lightly dressed salad greens.

Tacos: Substitute pinto or black beans for half the ground or shredded meat you normally use to fill a taco. Top your taco with plenty of veggies, including shredded dark green lettuce or cabbage, chopped tomatoes, sliced red onions or scallions, shredded carrot, avocado.

Baked Potato Toppings: Skip the butter and sour cream; instead, mash in a healthy helping of plain low-fat yogurt and sprinkle with chopped scallions, chives, basil, or cilantro. Other healthy and delicious potato toppings include bean chili, kale and goat cheese, sun-dried potatoes packed in olive oil, and basil or spinach pesto.

Lasagna and Other Baked Pasta Dishes: Choose whole-grain noodles. Substitute chopped, cooked kale, spinach, or other veggies for half (or all) of the meat you normally use. Try ground chicken or turkey instead of ground beef. Substitute low-fat cottage cheese for half the ricotta and choose part-skim mozzarella over whole milk cheese.

Fruit Smoothies: Be sure to balance the ingredients in your blender by combining ripe fruit and berries with any mix of plain yogurt, nuts, avocado, tofu, dairy or nondairy milk, and a leafy green, like kale. Choose a mix of ingredients the same way you choose different types of foods from different food groups on a dinner plate.

Dessert: Instead of serving cakes, pies, puddings and other sugary desserts at the end of a meal, consider a combo plate that includes small servings of cheese, fresh fruit, and nuts.

Finally, remember that portion-control is still key, says Massey. No matter how healthy the food you're choosing is, you don't want to overdo it. "Too much of a healthy carbohydrate can elevate blood sugar and contribute excess calories," she warns.

Alison Massey, MS, RD, LDN, CDE, reviewed this article.


Alison Massey, MS, RD, LDN, CDE. E-mail to author January 28, 2016.

"Create Your Plate." The American Diabetes Association. Edited October 9, 2015.