For people living with type 2 diabetes, eating well is a huge factor in taking control of blood sugar levels. A good meal plan includes foods that not only fuel your body and provide nutrients but also bring you joy. Success with meal planning is not an all-or-nothing proposition! Every small positive change you make is a “win.”
With a little practice and support, you can develop a meal plan that works for you.
Here’s a little secret that the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association have shared: There is no fixed diet that defines what people with diabetes should and should not eat. Rather, a more personalized approach, based on your blood glucose pattern, is recommended. One size, and one meal plan, may not fit all! Diabetes affects how your body turns the food you eat into energy your body can use. With type 2 diabetes, the body either does not make enough insulin or resists the use of insulin. Insulin helps the body convert the food you eat into energy, especially foods that break down into sugar — carbohydrates. Eating well, along with other lifestyle factors, monitoring blood glucose trends, and collaborating with a healthcare team can empower people with diabetes to live healthier lives.
Nourishing your body with a variety of nutrients, including fiber-rich carbohydrates, lean proteins, and heart-healthy fats, can help slow the absorption of sugar, While a sustainable meal plan should have a long list of foods to choose from, it is best to avoid sugary beverages and limit highly processed foods such as fast food, store-bought bakery goods, granola bars, and processed meats. This is good for helping manage your blood glucose, as well as overall health.
Typically, meals that are very high in carbohydrates tend to elevate blood sugar higher than meals that include a mix of energy-giving nutrients. For instance, cereal and milk (both high-carbohydrate foods) may spike the blood sugars higher than a mix of fiber-rich carbs, protein, and fat — for instance, a slice of sprouted bread topped with avocado and tomatoes and a side of egg/tofu scramble, or a quick fix such as sprouted bread with almond or peanut butter. Another useful tip is to choose fruits and veggies in their natural form rather than juicing them. For example, eating an apple (with the skin) is a better choice than drinking a glass of apple juice. That extra time to chew the apple and take in the fiber in it works better on blood sugar levels than gulping down a glass of juice.
A simple yet effective guide to a balanced meal is called the Plate Method. Picture a nine-inch dinner plate.
• Make about half the plate non-starchy veggies, such as salad, broccoli, or green beans.
• Fill one quarter of the plate with lean protein, such as fish or grilled chicken.
• Fill the remaining quarter with a carbohydrate-rich food. This can be brown rice, whole-grain pasta, potatoes, peas, fruit, yogurt, or milk.
• A serving of fruit or cup of milk can be eaten with the meal or saved for a snack
Portion sizes seem confusing, but there is a simple (and handy) way to remember how much we should be eating of certain foods.
• A portion of protein is three ounces, or about the size of a deck of cards
• One ounce of cheese is about the size of three dice
• One cup of fruit is about the size of a baseball
• One to two ounces of nuts or pretzels is about the size of a cupped hand
• A tablespoon of peanut butter, cream cheese, or butter is about the size of a poker chip
When it comes to eating out, restaurants most often serve larger portions — almost two to three times a portion size. Following the Plate Method even at a restaurant can make eating out enjoyable while also allowing you to better manage post-meal blood sugar trends. (See this handy visual guide on portion sizes for more information.) Add in an easy post-meal walk for bonus points!
To learn more about what works for you, talk with your healthcare provider. You may want to consider wearing a CGM (continuous glucose monitor) to learn more about how your body reacts to the foods you eat and other lifestyle factors.
While what to eat and how much to eat often take the spotlight with meal planning, the timing of meals and snacks plays an equal role. Ever found yourself going long hours without eating and then feeling “hangry”? Or nibbling away through meetings, only to feel full right before lunchtime? That would be a signal to adjust your eating schedule rather than what you’re eating, to prevent blood sugar from going on a rollercoaster ride of lows and highs. Especially if you are taking medication to manage type 2 diabetes.
As often as possible, choose a location where mindful eating choices can be made — for instance, at the table while focusing on each bite. Engage your senses of smell, taste, feel, and sight. Often, food habits include emotional eating, comfort eating, and eating when not hungry. Talk to a dietitian to help identify areas where your blood glucose trends might be elevated due to non-hunger-related eating habits.
No matter how well we plan and stick to a meal plan, we’re not robots! Everyone has days when they feel less than their best. It is important to understand that many factors other than food, such as stress, illness, and the natural progression of diabetes can elevate blood sugar trends. Listening to your body can be as simple as noticing when you’re fatigued and taking time to rest. It can also include finding physical activity that brings you joy and making changes to your diet. Do talk to your doctor when something just doesn’t feel right.
Managing type 2 diabetes can feel like juggling a lot of different balls in the air — diet, physical activity, blood sugar levels, stress, medication management, and more. A good support system can be your best cheerleaders. Check in with your physician about how you're managing, how you're feeling, and your personal health goals. Making that appointment and building those relationships with a healthcare team are so important for your long-term well-being. If you need to find a primary care physician who can connect you with great specialized diabetes care, Carbon Health is a great place to start.
Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.