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7 Lessons from the Diabetic Diet


I don’t believe in the “diabetic diet.” I believe in a balanced diet that focuses on wholesome, real foods. I teach my patients that no food is “off-limits.” With planning and moderation, all foods can fit into a healthful diet. To put it simply, we could all benefit from the lessons of the “diabetic diet.”

Here are the 7 lessons from the diabetic diet I teach my young patients and families:

1)     Moderation.

With my diabetic patients, type 1 or type 2, I recommend a limit of one “concentrated sweet” per day. A concentrated sweet is a dessert (cake, cookies, candy, etc.), sweet snack food, or sweet breakfast item (sweetened cereal, pastries, donuts, etc.). Not only do these foods raise blood sugars, but they tend to be nutritionally void. That being said, a life without chocolate is not a life worth living. I encourage my patients to include these foods in their diet, but plan for no more than one, reasonably-sized portion per day.

2)     Choose your carbohydrates wisely.

Carbohydrates are an essential part of a balanced diet. The Dietary Guidelines recommend that 45-65% of calories come from carbohydrate. I give my patients a carbohydrate “allowance” per meal, and teach them to “spend” wisely. If your meal allowance is 60 grams of carbohydrate per meal, you can choose to eat 2 pancakes (57 grams of carbohydrate, 2 grams of fiber). Alternatively, you could choose to eat an egg, whole grain English muffin, and an apple with peanut butter (49 grams of carbohydrate, 9 grams of fiber). I’m not saying pancakes are forbidden, but I teach my patients to focus on getting the most bang for their carbohydrate-buck. Carbs are the nutrient of concern for diabetes, but this principle applies to all components of the diet. Choose your foods wisely.

3)     Eliminate sweetened beverages.

I tell my patients that there are no strict rules when it comes to planning a diabetic diet—except for this one. Sweetened beverages offer added sugar and calories, and provide no nutritional benefits. Furthermore, they may displace milk and water in a child’s diet, placing them at risk for deficiencies or dehydration. Many of my patients use juice or soda to treat a low blood sugar. I teach them to consider this medicine. Aside than these occasions, eat your fruit, don’t drink it.

4)     Consistent meals.

For a diabetic child, consistent, evenly-spaced meals help keep blood sugars stable throughout the day. However, all children can benefit from this method of eating. Do you find your child getting cranky, tired, or jittery when they’re hungry? Do not forget the importance of consistent meals and snacks.

5)     Allow 3 hours between meals and snacks.

For my patients, this rule is also related to insulin regimen. However, eating no more than every three hours also discourages grazing and boredom snacking. I teach my patients that by planning complete and balanced meals and snacks, their child should not be hungry more than every three hours. Grazing throughout the day does not foster natural hunger and satiety cues. Consider adding protein or healthy fats to your child’s meals and snacks to promote fullness.

6)     Keep it real.

I often get questions from families regarding sugar-free or “diabetic foods”. There are countless products on the market that claim to be better choices for an individual with diabetes. Nine times out of 10, my advice to my patients is: eat an appropriate portion of the “real-deal”. If the majority of your meals and snacks are wholesome, nutritious foods, an occasional splurge is fine. So next time Grandma makes her famous pie, enjoy a small slice. Chances are if you allow yourself a special treat, you will be far more satisfied than you would be with an imitation food.

7)     Work with what you’ve got.

Would I love for all of my patients to prepare all of their own meals from scratch using fresh, local ingredients? Absolutely! But I also understand that life happens. Regardless of your time or budget constraints, there are steps you can take to improve your diet. Do not beat yourself up for what you can’t do. Concentrate on what you can do.  Acknowledge your accomplishments, take note of your mistakes, and focus on small changes that fit into your lifestyle.

Leigh Delavan, RD
Leigh Delavan, RD

  This post was written by Leigh Delavan, RD who works with children who have both Type I and Type II diabetes at Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

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  1. Various studies have shown that if you moderate your pre-diabetes condition earlier, then there are very less chances to develop type 2 diabetes mellitus,
    or you’ll be able to delay it to build up. So
    always make an effort to manage your blood glucose under control limits when you have been in pre-diabetic
    stage to prevent yourself from developing diabetes type 2.

  2. I think you were spying in our home. My daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 10 years ago at age 4 1/2 and we followed these even before then (I have an older son too). These eating habits are a great guide for everyone for healthful eating while also enjoying food! #1, 2, 3, & 6 especially to eliminate empty calories.