a pile of vegetables

Anyone newly diagnosed with diabetes learns quickly that eating habits are one of the first things to change—and that’s not easy to do. Many long-time diabetics still struggle to eat the right foods. A diabetes-friendly diet can be challenging and restricting. Many diabetics feel they can no longer eat anything good or any of the foods they love. When asked about how he sticks to his strict diabetic diet, my uncle often jokes, “If I put something in my mouth and it tastes good, I spit it out because I know it isn’t on my diet!” He may joke about it, but that’s really how he feels about a lot of the foods he can and can’t eat.

Brian and Melody, a couple living with diabetes, echo his sentiment. (Click here to read their story.) There are many foods they miss eating. As I sat down with Brian and Melody in their home, I asked them about their diet and how they compensate for the foods they crave but can’t eat. They gave several diet tips for fellow diabetics:

1. Meet with a dietician.

Brian recommends meeting with a dietician who specializes in diabetic nutrition. When he was first diagnosed, a dietician helped him learn how to follow a proper diabetic diet, and she encouraged him and helped him see that he could take charge of his diet and stay healthy. He still follows her advice today, fifteen years later.

2. Control your portions.

Melody has found that she feels best when she eats six times a day: three small meals and three snacks. This helps her eat smaller portions and not feel hungry. She recommends eating protein-rich snacks like raw almonds or cheese sticks, and she even has fruit sometimes—she just makes sure to monitor the sugars in the fruits and keep her portions small. Melody also makes sure to get plenty of protein with each meal—peanut butter, chicken, fish, etc.

Brian only eats three meals a day, and doesn’t snack much, but he pays close attention to the portions he eats, especially portions of carbohydrates. He packs a lunch for work each weekday: half a sandwich on whole grain bread (only one slice) with turkey or another lunch meat, a small amount of potato chips, and sometimes a sugar-free cookie or treat.

For dinner, they try to eat lean proteins, like chicken or fish. They do eat pasta, potatoes or rice sometimes, but only small amounts. Melody explains, “When we have pasta, we take very little and don’t gorge ourselves.” She says it was hard when she first started eating smaller portions, but soon her stomach got used to it. Now if she eats too much, she feels sick and it keeps her up at night. She has learned that she feels much better if she controls the portions she eats.

The American Diabetic Association has a method called “Create Your Plate” that makes it simple for diabetics to monitor the portions they eat. They recommend dividing your dinner plate in half, and making sure one half is filled with salad and other non-starchy vegetables like spinach, carrots, broccoli, tomatoes, beets, etc. Then divide the remaining half into two quarters. Fill one quarter with grains and/or starchy vegetables: bread, rice, pasta, corn, green beans, potatoes, etc. Then fill the remaining quarter of your plate with lean protein.  Add a small amount of fruit and some low-fat milk or yogurt—and you have a complete meal, with correct portions of the right types of foods.

3. Watch what you drink.

Sugar content counts in everything—even what you drink. Melody says, “I just drink ice water. And every now and then, when I crave root beer, I’ll have a diet root beer.” Brian likes to have sugar-free punch as a treat. In fact, his grandkids are so used to seeing him drinking his punch, they now call it “Papa Juice.”

4. Take advantage of sugar-free products (in moderation).

One of the first things Brian did upon finding out that he was diabetic was to cut out sweets, completely. And he doesn’t miss them! Melody, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine life without sweets.  She says, “I could live off of sugary cereal. I love chocolate and sweets. LOVE THEM!” So, she has learned to adapt her love of sweets to her diabetic diet. She bakes with sugar-free ingredients. She says there are many more sugar-free products and mixes on the market today than there were ten years ago. You can find ingredients like sugar-free chocolate chips at the grocery store. She makes sugar-free cookies and keeps them in the freezer, so they can eat them one or two at a time.

Brian says they still have to monitor their portions, even with sugar-free foods—just because foods are sugar-free doesn’t mean they are carb-free. They still contain flour and sugar alcohol. But with sugar-free treats, diabetics can enjoy a sweet-tasting snack, and like Melody does, have a little every now and then to satisfy a sweet tooth!

 

What works for Brian and Melody may or may not work for you, depending on the type of diabetes you have and your dietary needs. Work closely with your doctor, to make sure you are following a diet appropriate for you, but as Brian and Melody have found, it is possible to eat well and enjoy good-tasting food as a diabetic. As you adopt a healthy diet, food becomes more about nutrition—what your body needs—and less about what you crave. By paying close attention to what they eat, Brian and Melody are healthy and enjoying life, despite diabetes.