It can be overwhelming to be diagnosed with diabetes now-a-days. Everyone has something to say or advice to give. Family members and friends may be well-meaning by telling you what they think you should be doing, but typically they are not nutrition experts. Social media is swirling with nutrition information, some accurate... and some... well not well researched. Yet, what you need most is some clear direction so that you can get started taking care of yourself and feeling better. Although you will likely be referred to see a dietitian or certified diabetes educator fairly quickly, it doesn't change the fact that that you have to continue to eat until then and trying to figure out what to eat (or not to eat) can be stressful!
I have worked as a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator providing nutrition counseling to people with diabetes for over a decade. I know that people want to know what to eat right away after being diagnosed. My goal in this post is to give you some easy approaches to eating in those early days. Meal plans and nutrition recommendations will be individualized once you meet with your care team, but for now, these are universal strategies that are safe and quite effective in helping to lower your blood sugars. Healthy eating doesn't have to be hard.
Nutrition and diet is the first-line treatment for someone newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, either on it's own or in combination with medications. The decision about whether or not to start medication often has to due with how high your blood sugars were are diagnosis and your other medical conditions. Very high blood sugar levels put you at higher risk dehydration, stroke and other serious medical issues, which we want to avoid. Sometimes medications are used in the early days simply to reduce the risk of these medical issues, until diet can help you achieve better blood sugar control.
Diabetes Meal Plan Made Easy
So... where do you start?
Here are the 3 key nutrition strategies to focus on to help lower your blood sugars:
1. Avoid all fruit juice, regular pop and sweetened drinks.
2. Eat 3 meals at regular times.
3. Balance your plate.
Let's dive into each one separately...
Ditch Sweetened Drinks
To explain the impact of sweetened drinks, we need to talk a little about nutrition first. Foods that raise our blood sugars include a component called carbohydrates. Carbohydrates come in different forms, but its simplest form are sugars, which are very fast digesting and absorbed by the body. Because they are so quickly absorbed, they raise our blood sugars very quickly and very dramatically (the concept behind this is called the glycemic index of foods).
When diagnosed with high blood sugars, we experience a number of different symptoms, from fatigue, to vision changes, to excessive thirst. If you are really, really thirsty because your blood sugars are high, and you quench your thirst with thinks like juice, regular pop or iced tea, the sugars in those drinks are only going to raise your blood sugars more.
Instead, avoid all sweetened drinks, and choose water, diet pop or milk to drink. In my counseling, I have seen people cut out all sweetened drinks and have their hemaglobin A1C (long-term marker of blood sugar level done with our bloodwork) drop anywhere from 1-3%, or even more depending on how high blood sugars were to start. Water should be your number one choice. You are likely experiencing some dehydration if your blood sugars are high, and you want to try to rehydrate with water as much as possible.
Keep to Regular Routines
Blood sugars go up and down throughout the day. Before diabetes, your blood sugars would go up when you ate, your pancreas would produce just the right amount of insulin in response, then 1-2 hours later your blood sugars would come down. Now, your body isn't making insulin like it use to and often can't keep up when challenged with a large amount of food all at once.
To help give your pancreas a bit of break, we want to spread that food out evenly across the day. Time and time again I have seen how much diabetes does so much better with consistent routines. Blood sugars are so much easier to keep in the target ranges when meals are spaced out and at roughly the same times each day.
Try to have your first meal within 1-2 hours of waking. If you are not a breakfast eater, something is better than nothing. Try having a glass of milk or a piece of fruit to start the day if you can't stomach a full meal. Then focus on eating a meal every 4-6 hours. If your meals are more than 4-6 hours apart, and you are hungry, it is a good idea to have a small snack. This will help keep your blood sugars more stable across the day, satisfy your appetite and give you more consistent energy.
Balance Your Plate
Aside from sweetened drinks, there is not really a "foods to avoid" list or "diabetic diet". The foods we eat digest in different ways, and when eaten in combination they effect how quickly they are absorbed and how much of a blood sugar rise we have. We talked about foods that contain carbohydrate raise our blood sugars. When carbohydrates are eating in combination with protein and healthy fats, they help to give us a better blood sugar rise after a meal.
Over time, you will likely learn more about which foods have carbohydrate, protein and fats, and different ways to include them in your diet, but for now, in these early days of having diabetes, I like to work with the plate method instead. The plate method is visual approach to what you are going to eat, to help make sure your food choices have a good balance of foods with high-fibre cabohydrates, lean protein and healthy fats, without having to measure out your serving size for each item. In fact to make it even easier, I have created a easy meal planning guide, which is my go-to resource for using the plate method for you to download and use at home - click here to download.
I know you have a lot of questions. That is totally normal. Down the road you may get into reading nutrition labels, carb counting or working with your dietitian on meal planning, healthy recipes and shopping lists. All of these things can come in time, if you are interested in really learning about nutrition and healthy eating.
My advice at this stage is to keep it simple. You don't need to change your whole diet overnight. Yes, there certainly are other approaches to healthy eating that will help you improve your diabetes health, but for now, these 3 things will have the biggest impact on your blood sugars in just a short period of time. Slowly integrating manageable changes is more sustainable that trying to do it all at once. Pick one thing, like removing sweetened drinks and do that for a few days. Once you are feeling okay with that, you can then work on meal routines. Then maybe in a week, work on balancing your plate. Healthy eating evolves overtime, just as your goals may change over time as well.
If you live in Ontario and are looking for a more tailored approach to your healthy eating plan for diabetes, I offer 1:1 nutrition counseling to meet your needs - click here to book.
I’m a dietitian who works closely with women in Collingwood, Blue Mountains, Thornbury, Grey Bruce and beyond to help them achieve their health and weight loss goals so they can feel confident and live their best life. Find out how you can achieve success by booking your free discovery call today.