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Meal Planning for Diabetics: Understanding Different Meal Planning Tools

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Enjoying meals while maintaining balanced nutrient and blood glucose levels is probably one of the biggest challenges that diabetes patients have to overcome
  • There are several meal planning methods that can help you determine the right type and amount of food that you should consume

Enjoying meals while still maintaining balanced nutrient and blood glucose levels is probably one of the biggest challenges that diabetes patients have to overcome. Fortunately, there are several meal planning methods that can help you determine the right type and amount of food that you should consume.

The Plate Method May Help Promote Healthy Eating Habits

According to the American Diabetes Association, the plate method is a simple meal planning tool that's usually recommended for children, adolescents and newly diagnosed diabetic adults. It's designed to help patients eat a variety of foods in proper proportions. There are seven steps involved in this meal planning tool:1,2

  1. Put a line down the middle of a 9-inch plate, then divide one side into two equal parts so you'll have three sections on your plate.
  2. Fill the largest section with nonstarchy vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, spinach, broccoli, asparagus and artichoke.3
  3. Fill one of the smaller sections with starchy foods, particularly those that contain digestive-resistant starches, such as unripe banana, seeds and tapioca starch.
  4. Fill the other small section with high-quality protein. Some of the good sources of protein include wild-caught Alaskan salmon, grass fed meat and organic eggs.
  5. Add a serving of fruit, preferably those that contain only small amounts of fructose.
  6. Add sources of healthy fats, such as avocado, coconut oil, olives and grass fed butter.
  7. Round up your meal with a drink that doesn't contain sugar, such as water or unsweetened tea.

While the plate method can take the guesswork out of meal planning, it's important to note that this method is not entirely focused on the specific needs of a patient. If your condition requires you to monitor every nutrient that you digest, then the plate method may not be the best meal planning tool for you.4

Avoiding Fluctuating Blood Sugar Levels With Carbohydrate Counting

The carbohydrate counting method involves calculating the grams of carbohydrates in every food or meal. This method is aimed to help patients take better control of their blood sugar levels and include different foods into their meal plan without exceeding their carb allotment.5

Carbohydrate counting is particularly useful for people with Type 1 diabetes, since they need to balance their medication or insulin dosage according to their carb intake.6 Here are some tips to keep in mind when using this method:

Read the Nutrition Facts labels — This label will tell you all the nutrients that you can get per serving. When counting carbohydrates using this label, you should look at the serving size, the number of servings per container and the grams of total carbohydrate per serving.

Keep in mind that there can be more than one serving in every package of food, so read the label carefully. If you're planning to eat more than one serving, multiply the total amount of carbohydrates accordingly.7,8

Be accurate with the portion sizes of your food — In order to calculate the exact amount of carbohydrates in your meal, you need to accurately measure the portion sizes of your foods.

Consuming more than the correct portion size may cause you to exceed your daily carbohydrate requirement. You should invest in measuring tools, such as food scales and measuring cups.9

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Add Variety to Your Meals Using the Exchange List System

The exchange list system is a classic meal planning technique, which groups together foods that contain almost the same amount of calories, fats, proteins and carbs. You can exchange any food from the same group, as long as you follow the proper portion size. The three main categories of food in this system are:10

  • Carbohydrates — The carbohydrates group include starches, fruits, milk and vegetables
  • Meat — This includes beef, pork, chicken and seafood. These different meats are further subdivided according to the amount of fat that they contain. The subcategories include very lean, lean, medium-fat and high-fat meats.
  • Fats — This group includes three categories of fat: saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated.

Foods in the carbohydrate group contain around 80 calories, whereas those in the fat group have 45 calories. The four subcategories of the meat group contain around 35 to 100 calories. The exchange list system also indicates if a particular food is high in fiber or sodium.11

This meal planning method can be complicated, especially if you're not used to the concept of exchanging foods. You may need to practice and undergo several educational sessions before you can efficiently put this method into use.12

The Glycemic Index May Help Improve Your Glycemic Control

The glycemic index (GI) ranks carbohydrate-containing foods depending on how they increase your blood sugar level. The GI scale ranges from zero to 100, with pure glucose having the highest GI value of 100. Foods that have high GI value can raise your blood glucose higher than those that are ranked low.

This meal-planning method can help you control your glucose levels by following a low-GI diet. Some of the foods with low GI value include non-starchy vegetables, carrots, quinoa and plain yogurt. Those that have a GI value of 70 or higher are considered high-GI food — these include processed cereals, snack foods, potatoes and white rice.13,14

Processed foods tend to have higher GI value, while those that contain fiber and fat have a low GI. However, it's important to remember that  there are a variety of factors that can affect the GI level of a meal, including the storage time, portion size and cooking method.

Using only the glycemic index to keep your blood sugar level in check can be difficult, which is why it's usually applied together with other meal planning tools, like carbohydrate counting, to give patients better control of their blood glucose.15

There Is No Single Meal Planning Technique for Diabetics

The needs of every diabetic patient are different, so there isn't a universal  meal planning technique to control this disease. Some meal planning tools may not suit you even though they work perfectly for other patients. Don't let this discourage you, since it may take a few trials before you finally find the right meal planning method that works for your needs.

You should work with a registered dietitian to find out the best way to control your blood sugar level while still enjoying the foods you eat. It's also best to consult your dietitian regularly to ensure that your meal planning tool is still suitable for your condition.16

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