People with type 1 diabetes need to balance what they eat and drink with their insulin medication to keep their blood glucose in range. Managing blood glucose levels helps prevent further health complications.
Planning a diet and knowing what foods to eat and avoid are, therefore, key to staying healthy.
In this article, we discuss what a type 1 diabetes diet involves, foods to avoid, and how to create a plan. We also talk about healthful snack options, recipes, and how to prepare meals for children with diabetes.
Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, can occur if someone does not balance their food and insulin intake. Therefore, people with diabetes need to eat regular meals and snacks. Daily physical activity should also be part of their lifestyle.
People may find that they can still enjoy some of their favorite foods, but in smaller portions or less often.
There is no standard diet for type 1 diabetes, and the American Diabetes Association (ADA) report that ideal macronutrient percentages vary among individuals.
People can plan their meals according to the following guidelines:
Choose healthful protein foods
Including protein in every meal can help balance blood sugar. People should choose healthful protein foods and vary their choices. Examples of these foods include:
- lean meat and poultry
- beans and lentils
- nuts and seeds
- low fat dairy foods
Eat plenty of nonstarchy vegetables
People should include plenty of nonstarchy vegetables in the diet. According to the ADA, diets that consist of mainly plant-based foods — such as Mediterranean, vegan, and vegetarian diets — show benefits for diabetes, weight loss, and blood pressure.
Nonstarchy vegetables are fiber-rich and have less effect on blood sugar than starchy vegetables. Nonstarchy vegetables include:
- greens, such as lettuce, kale, cabbage, pak choi, spinach, rocket, and watercress
- bell peppers
- zucchini and eggplant
- green beans
- broccoli and cauliflower
Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, pumpkin, and corn, contain more sugar. However, people can still include these in their diet in smaller amounts as long as they monitor their blood glucose.
Include nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes
Nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes are good sources of fiber, which can slow down the release of sugar into the blood. They are also a source of protein. Examples of these foods include:
- Nuts: walnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, and hazelnuts
- Seeds: chia, hemp, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds
- Beans and legumes: black beans, kidney beans, pintos, lentils, and garbanzo beans
Choose whole grains
People should choose whole grains in preference to refined grains. Whole grains are a source of carbohydrates, but their fiber content means that they have a better effect on blood sugar than refined grains.
However, it is advisable to be careful with portion size and monitor the effect of these foods. Whole grain foods include:
- brown rice
- whole wheat bread
- whole grain pasta
- other whole grains, such as buckwheat, quinoa, and millet
Opt for healthful fats
Including healthful fats in meals can help someone feel fuller and avoid eating too many carbohydrates. Healthful fats include:
- olives and olive oil
- nuts and seeds
- oily fish, such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel
Less water in the body means a higher blood sugar concentration, so it is crucial for someone with type 1 diabetes to stay hydrated.
Water is the best choice for hydration, but people can also try adding citrus slices and mint to create flavored water or drink herbal teas.
Foods to avoid or limit include:
- added sugars
- refined grains, such as white bread, pasta, and rice
- processed foods
- sugary breakfast cereals
- sweet treats, such as cakes, biscuits, pastries, and candies
- soda, diet soda, and other sugary drinks
- juice drinks
- fried foods and food high in saturated and trans fats
- alcoholic beverages
People can use different methods to plan their type 1 diabetes diet. They can also seek help from a dietitian. Some common ways to prepare meals are:
Carbohydrate counting: This method involves keeping track of how many grams (g) of carbohydrate someone eats and drinks each day.
Glycemic index: Glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL) measure the amount of sugar in foods and how much they will raise blood sugar.
Plate method: People can use this technique to control portion sizes and food groups. It ensures that half of the plate consists of nonstarchy vegetables while a quarter contains a healthful protein, and a grain or starch fills the last quarter.
Snacks should aim to balance carbohydrates with protein or fats. So-called diabetic sweets are also available, but people should keep these to a minimum. Healthful snack ideas include:
- hummus and oatcakes
- chocolate protein balls made with oats, nut butter, cocoa powder, and a diabetes-friendly sweetener, such as stevia
- celery sticks and nut butter
- a boiled egg
People who are tracking their carbohydrate intake should take care to count fruit if they eat it as a snack. A small piece of whole fruit contains about 15 g of carbohydrate. Berries are a lower GI fruit, and melons, pineapples, and some dried fruits have a medium GI.
Eating a lower sugar fruit together with a protein source may help balance blood glucose more than eating the fruit on its own. For example, someone could have berries with natural yogurt.
The ADA’s Diabetes Food Hub provides suitable recipes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For example:
Breakfast: Oatmeal pecan pancakes
A healthful start to the day, these pancakes contain whole grain oats and delicious pecans.
Ingredients (6 servings):
Put oats and baking powder into a food processor, then set aside. Mix the eggs, milk, vanilla extract, and mashed banana together, add the oats, then fold in the pecans. Pour one-quarter of a cup of the mixture into an oiled skillet and cook on both sides.
Lunch: Power lunch salad
A nutritious salad with a healthful balance of vegetables, protein, and carbohydrates.
Ingredients (4 servings):
Mix all of the salad ingredients in a salad bowl. Combine the vinegar and oil to make a dressing, then drizzle it onto the salad.
Dinner: Alaska salmon with orange and watercress
A tasty, nutritious dinner that is full of healthful fats.
Ingredients (8 servings):
Brush both sides of the salmon with avocado oil and cook on a skillet on medium heat for 4 minutes on one side until browned. Turn the salmon over and season the other side with salt and pepper. Cook the salmon until it is opaque throughout.
Mix the watercress, cucumber, and orange pieces in a bowl and season with white wine vinegar, avocado oil, and salt and pepper to taste.
Plate everything and top with avocado, walnuts, apple cider vinegar, and optional nasturtiums.
When preparing meals for a child with diabetes, the principles of healthful eating are the same as for an adult. For instance, it is important to avoid processed foods and packaged breakfast cereals, as these contain a lot of sugar.
Preparing a packed lunch for children makes it easier to monitor food groups and portions. The Diabetes Food Hub includes plenty of example meals for children, including packed lunches.
Healthy back-to-school lunch
This healthful and tasty lunch is quick to prepare and ideal for lunch boxes.
Ingredients (1 serving):
Spread mustard on the roll and fill it with turkey, cheese, and lettuce to make the sandwich. For a snack, spread hummus on the cucumber slices and top with sunflower seeds. Put everything in the lunch box.
Planning meals carefully can help people manage their diabetes and reach or maintain a moderate weight. Combining a healthful diet with daily physical activity provides many health benefits, including keeping diabetes symptoms under control.
A standard type 1 diabetes diet does not exist. However, people can plan their meals according to healthful eating guidelines and their blood glucose levels.
Eating a whole foods diet, avoiding processed foods, and being aware of portion size are all key. Learning about food groups and using carbohydrate counting, GI, and plate methods can make it easier for people to balance their blood sugar.
Anyone who needs help with planning a healthful diet can consider contacting a dietitian.