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Foods to include in a diabetic diet

It is easy to say what a diabetic should not eat: sugars, simple carbohydrates, alcoholic beverages. Sometimes it seems that all tasty foods are off limits: pizza, donuts, cakes, ice cream, brownies, etc.

Is a diabetic doomed to a diet of broccoli and grilled fish?

No problem. For the most part, people can eat normal foods, but with caution.

The biggest problem diabetics have is consuming too many calories. Simply limiting caloric intake to 1,500-1,800 calories would stabilize blood sugar levels for many patients. Not only that, but body weight and serum cholesterol would also decrease. If you are diabetic and only make one change in your diet, choose to eat less.

Problematic foods for diabetics are those that rapidly raise blood glucose levels. Sugar yes, of course, but also simple carbohydrates and alcohol. It doesn’t mean you can’t eat a single bite of these foods, but you should be discreet and limit portion sizes to just 100-200 calories per day. Avoiding “white” foods is a good idea: white flour, white rice, white potatoes, white pasta. All of these convert to glucose in the bloodstream almost as quickly as sugar itself.

Beyond that, what should a diabetic eat? And because?

Some of the best foods for diabetics are fruits and vegetables, which are high in soluble fiber. These promote a feeling of fullness, help the intestines eliminate properly, add potassium, vitamins, and antioxidants to the diet, and are generally low in calories. Aim for 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Among the fruits, those that are less sweet, such as apples, berries and melon, are desirable. Very sweet fruits like watermelon and pineapple can be eaten, but in limited quantities. A full cup of watermelon has about the same number of calories as a cup of 7-up and can raise blood sugar just as much. A large slice of watermelon can have as many calories as a hot fudge sundae.

Vegetables tend to have more fiber and fewer calories. Lettuce, spinach, celery, cucumbers, cabbage, radishes, onions, leeks, kale, and other greens can be eaten as desired. Carrots have a higher glycemic index, but it’s hard to eat too many carrots. Green beans and pea pods are good because they include the low-calorie pod. Beans and peas are high in fiber, a good source of protein, but higher in calories than salad greens. Corn is actually a grain, not a vegetable, but it is preferable to a processed grain like white flour or cereal.

If it weren’t for the ingredients, a diabetic could eat an unlimited amount of salad. The dressing can add hundreds of calories, just like other dressings like eggs, croutons, seeds, and bacon bits. Tasty low calorie dressings are one option, or use a small amount of regular dressing. Again, portion size is vital. A restaurant serving of regular dressing for a large salad is easily 500 calories, while a large serving of diet dressing can be less than 100.

Most diabetics love carbohydrates, but limiting them to whole grains is a good idea. And while oatmeal has been touted as a health food, processed oatmeal is metabolized almost as quickly as sugar-coated cereal. If you like oatmeal, go for raw steel cut oats (but keep in mind they take much longer to cook).

Everyone needs dietary protein to keep muscles strong and healthy. While it is possible to get enough protein from a vegetarian diet, most people prefer to add animal products such as fish, chicken, eggs, or meat. Many diabetics have high cholesterol levels and therefore should avoid red meat and excess eggs. Lean meat such as chicken, fish, or turkey is preferable, but beware of salty deli meats, which can raise blood pressure.

Five daily servings of foods with calcium (1500 mg) in the form of green leafy vegetables or dairy products should be included in the diet. Skim milk, low-fat cheese, and artificially sweetened yogurt are all good choices.

Lastly, what about dessert? Today, many desserts are available in no-sugar-added varieties, including ice cream, cookies, and cakes. These are sweetened with sugar alcohols, which don’t raise blood glucose as quickly as regular sugar, but are just as high in calories. A bowl of berries with some sugar-free ice cream is a reasonable option.

Copyright 2010 Cynthia J. Koelker, MD

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