A Healthy Diet and Diabetes

Healthy eating is important for everyone and this leaflet explains why a healthy diet is a key part of the treatment for diabetes. It answers the questions about what healthy eating is and why we should all be eating a healthy balanced diet.

Healthy eating for people with diabetes is important because it can help:

  • Maintain blood glucose control and thereby reduce the risk of complications

  • Reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and the tissue damage associated with high blood glucose levels

  • Support management of body weight

  • Maintain quality of life and general health

A healthy diet is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, seafood, legumes, and nuts; lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.


The main type of nutrient in food that raises blood glucose levels is called carbohydrate, often referred to as 'carbs'. Carbohydrates are found mainly in starchy and sugary foods. All carbohydrates, whether sugar or starch, processed or unprocessed, will affect blood glucose levels. Examples of foods containing carbohydrate are:

  • Starchy foods including all types of bread, potatoes, pasta, noodles and rice. All breakfast cereals

  • Any product made with flour including pastry, pizza, crackers and baked goods

  • Pulses such as lentils, peas and beans including baked beans, chickpeas and mushy peas

  • Sugary foods. Including cakes, chocolates, jams, squashes and fizzy drinks

  • Foods containing natural sugar. All fruit contains a natural sugar called fructose. Milk contains a natural sugar called lactose

Recent evidence suggests that unprocessed and wholegrain carbohydrates (vegetables, fruit, wholegrain cereals) are healthier than processed starches such as white bread, pasta, rice and potatoes. Including some of these wholegrain starchy foods is a useful way of providing your body with the essential energy that it needs. The challenge is to get the balance between meeting your energy needs and maintaining blood glucose levels.

Carbohydrate counting

Many people who have type 1 diabetes have adopted a system known as carbohydrate counting. This involves calculating the total amount of carbohydrate in a meal or snack and injecting insulin to match the amount eaten. Studies have shown that this system can improve blood glucose control and quality of life and is a primary strategy for those with type 1 diabetes. Most diabetes services in the UK offer structured education programmes. If you would like to take part, see your diabetes healthcare professional.

Glycaemic Index (GI)

The GI diet is based on the fact that some carbohydrate foods cause more fluctuations in blood glucose levels than others. Low GI diets are no longer recommended as a strategy for people with type 1 diabetes, although they may show limited benefit in people with type 2 diabetes.

What about sugar?

New guidelines recommend that sugar should be kept to a minimum in both the general population and people with diabetes. The maximum recommended amount for adults is approximately 6 teaspoonfuls a day. If you are attempting to lose weight you would be advised to keep sugary foods to a minimum.

Sugar substitutes and sweeteners

There are now six non-nutritive sweeteners licensed for use in the UK. Aspartame,saccharine, acesulfame K, cylamates and sucralose have been used forsome time, and a new sweetener called stevia gained EU approval in November2011. These sweeteners have little effect on blood glucose levels. There are sugar substitutes available of which the best known are sorbitol and fructose. These substitutes do raise blood glucose levels and they provide as many calories assugar, so are not recommended for weight loss. Sorbitol and similar sugars can cause a laxative effect if consumed in quantity.

Diabetic foods

Products labelled as 'suitable for diabetics' are generally not deemed necessary to use as they are usually more expensive and can have a laxative effect. If you like chocolate or cake, small amounts can be included as part of a healthy diet.

Top tips for healthy eating

Five a day

Many people are aware that they should be eating five or more portions of fruit and vegetables daily for good health.

There is growing evidence that people who eat plenty of fruit and vegetables have a reduced risk of heart disease and cancer. You should try to eat a variety of fruit and vegetables; aiming for at least five portions a day. Fresh, frozen, canned, juices and dried fruit and vegetables all count towards a portion. A portion is equivalent to 80 grams (about 3 ounces).

Potatoes are classed as starchy foods and do not contribute to fruit and vegetable intake. Remember fruit, and particularly fruit juices, contain natural sugar and will raise blood glucose levels, but most vegetables, especially green vegetables, will have a minimal effect on glucose levels.

Lower your risk of heart disease

People with diabetes have a higher risk of heart disease and stroke, and diet can play a part in reducing this risk. The main parts of the diet that affect heart health are fat and salt.


There has been much discussion and confusion about the role of fat in the development of heart disease. Low fat diets have been recommended in the past, but the current advice for people with diabetes is that saturated fat should be limited and replaced by unsaturated fat:

  • Saturated fat (mainly found in animal products such as meat and dairy foods) should be reduced

  • Unsaturated fat (found in olive oil, rapeseed oil, sunflower oil, corn oil and oily fish) should replace saturated fat

  • Trans fats (found in some processed foods containing hydrogenated vegetable oils) should be avoided

Low salt

In addition to high fat intake, high salt intake is also a risk factor for heart disease. People who have a lot of salt in their diet are more likely to have high blood pressure, whichincreases the risk of heart disease. The most effective way to reduce salt intake is to try to cut out as many processed foods as possible.


Up your omega 3 oils

Studies have shown that people who eat a lot of oily fish such as mackerel and sardines have lower rates of heart disease. It is the omega 3 found in fish that makes it good for the heart. Try to eat at least two servings of oily fish per week.

Adopting a healthy diet can help you manage your blood glucose levels, maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risks of cardiovascular disease and cancer. But remember, it's not all about the food you eat — activity can help with weight and diabetes management.

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