Ask the RD: How Can Diet Help Manage Blood Sugar For Diabetes?

Kelly Hogan, MS, RD
by Kelly Hogan, MS, RD
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Ask the RD: How Can Diet Help Manage Blood Sugar For Diabetes?

Diet plays an important role in blood sugar management, especially when you have diabetes. In fact, some individuals with Type 2 diabetes can avoid taking medications by dialing into their eating habits and making some positive changes. That said, it’s always important to work with your endocrinologist and a registered dietitian who specializes in diabetes when making any changes to diet or medications. The advice you’ll see here is for educational purposes and should not be used in place of individualized medical or nutrition advice.

HOW FOODS AFFECT BLOOD SUGAR LEVELS

After we eat, the body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, which is then absorbed into the bloodstream, causing a rise in blood sugar. Elevated blood sugar also signals the pancreas to release insulin, so the body can take glucose into its cells and either utilize it for energy or store what is not needed for later. Simple and refined carbohydrates, like candy, fruit juice and white bread, cause blood sugar to spike quickly. Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains and beans, still cause an increase in blood sugar but it is more controlled over time thanks to their fiber and protein content.

Controlling blood sugar, especially high spikes from simple carbohydrates, is harder for diabetics who are not able to produce insulin as efficiently (or at all) to take glucose into the cells. Sugar may stick around in the bloodstream, which can cause short- and long-term complications.

THE IMPORTANCE OF FAT, FIBER AND PROTEIN

There is often much confusion around this, but I encourage most patients and clients with diabetes to consume carbohydrate-containing foods. It’s not about avoiding carbs altogether, but rather, what types of carbs are eaten and what they are eaten with. Quality fats from foods like avocadoolive oilnuts and seeds, fiber from vegetables and protein from chicken, fish, eggs and dairy products, all work to slow digestion. This is why you may feel much more full after a meal that contains any or all of these nutrients. Blood sugar also rises more slowly when meals include fat, protein and fiber, even if other carbohydrates are present.

One cardinal rule for individuals trying to control blood sugar is to include at least one of these nutrients with each meal and snack to keep blood sugar steady and avoid any big spikes that can come with eating carbohydrates alone. Complex carbohydrates mentioned above, like whole grains, beans and potatoes (with the skin for added fiber) are also preferable instead of more simple or refined carbohydrates.

THE CASE AGAINST SKIPPING MEALS

Another behavior that can negatively affect blood sugar is skipping meals or irregular mealtimes. To avoid big drops in blood sugar, which inevitably leads to big spikes (and vice versa), aim to have a meal or snack that includes fiber, protein or fat at least every 3–4 hours.

DIABETICS SHOULD WATCH SIMPLE SUGARS

Being mindful of simple sugars is always important if you have diabetes. That said, the occasional sweet treat on special occasions is OK, as long as your diet as a whole includes a variety of vegetables, high-quality protein sources and healthy fats. The short list of things I would recommend avoiding completely are sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas, juice and sugary sports drinks. These beverages lack nutritional benefits, and can lead to quick blood sugar spikes that are hard to control. Swap any of these drinks for water with a fresh lemon squeeze, seltzer or unsweetened iced tea to stay hydrated and keep blood sugar steady. If you need some electrolytes after a hard workout, try a low-sugar, flavored electrolyte tablet that dissolves in water, or replenish them with whole foods like bananas or avocados with a sprinkle of salt.

WAYS TO KEEP BLOOD SUGAR STEADY

Always be thinking about where your protein, fat and fiber are coming from when putting together a meal or snack.

MEALS TO TRY: 

SNACKS TO TRY:

  • Banana with peanut butter
  • Apple with string cheese
  • Greek yogurt with fruit
  • Hard-boiled egg and whole-grain crackers
  • Nuts with fruit
  • Whole-grain toast with almond butter

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About the Author

Kelly Hogan, MS, RD
Kelly Hogan, MS, RD

Kelly Hogan, MS, RD is an NYC-based registered dietitian specializing in women’s health, sports nutrition and plant-based eating. She is passionate about helping people develop a positive relationship with food and their bodies, and uses a non-diet approach in her practice. When she’s not talking or writing all things nutrition, Kelly can be found running in Central Park – she’s run 11 marathons and counting! – cooking recipes new and old, handstanding at the yoga studio or hanging with friends and/or her rescue dog, Peanut.

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