How to plan the right meals for those with diabetes

Are you worried because you have a diabetic friend coming over for dinner? Here's some sound advice that will help you plan a healthful meal

Couple preparing diabetes safe meals in the kitchen

Simon has diabetes. That means he can’t eat sugar, potatoes, bread, fruit, rice, or pasta, right? Wrong.

As you are finalising the menu for the dinner party you have planned next week, you learn that your guest Simon has diabetes. After you mentally scratch off the kheer you planned for dessert and assume you can’t serve your homemade naan, the panic subsides and you start to think about what you can offer your guest. Cooking for someone who has diabetes really isn’t that complicated, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

There is no such thing as a “diabetic” diet

Diabetics eat the same proteins, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, dairy products, and whole grains that should be part of any healthy diet. They don’t need to eat special “diabetic” foods. They don’t necessarily use artificial sweeteners instead of natural sugars. Foods like bread and rice aren’t completely off-limits.

Diabetics do, however, need to control their portion sizes of foods that are high in carbohydrates such as rice, bread, potatoes, pasta, and foods containing sugar. So, if Simon only eats a few bites of your naan, don’t be offended. It isn’t that he doesn’t like it, it’s that he can only consume a small amount at a time.

People with diabetes can eat dessert

One of the biggest myths regarding diabetes is that people who have it must totally give up eating sugar and desserts as soon as they are diagnosed. There’s also the [false] belief that people with diabetes got the disease because they couldn’t control themselves and ate too much sugar in the first place.

Cutting back on sugar consumption is a good idea for everyone, including people with diabetes. However, having diabetes doesn’t prevent someone from enjoying sweets in moderation if they so choose.

Simon allows himself a set amount of carbohydrate choices per meal. If he wants to have some of your rice pudding or kheer for dessert, he’ll plan to eat fewer carbohydrates during earlier courses. He may completely skip certain dishes or just taste each one. Don’t worry if he doesn’t try everything and don’t try to push foods on him that you notice he isn’t eating. It would be nice to let him know the dessert plan ahead of time so he can plan accordingly.

Meat and fat should be eaten in moderation

There is a common conception that since people with diabetes can’t eat many carbohydrates, they can eat unlimited amounts of protein and fat. While it is true that proteins and fats don’t immediately raise blood glucose the way carbohydrates do, eating too much “bad” fat at a meal can hinder the body’s use of insulin.

Beneficial food swaps for people with diabetes

  • Brown rice or quinoa instead of white rice
  • Sweet potato instead of white potato
  • Roti made with whole wheat flour instead of white flour
  • Fruit instead of fruit juice or soda
  • Extra-virgin olive oil instead of butter
  • Fish instead of lamb
  • Plain lassi instead of sweetened lassi
  • Methi paratha instead of aloo paratha

Insulin, produced by the pancreas or injected by some people with diabetes if their bodies don’t produce enough naturally, converts glucose into energy for muscles, organs, and cells in the body. Several hours after a fatty meal, blood glucose can rise if insulin isn’t doing its job.

Just like everyone else, people with diabetes should eat protein and fat in moderation. Simon will probably prefer your vegetable dishes to high-fat foods such as lamb.

Low-fat and non-fat foods aren’t necessarily better

Next time you are tempted to purchase a low-fat or non-fat version of something, compare its nutrition label and ingredient list to the full-fat version of the product. Frequently, when companies remove fat, they replace it with other things including sugar.

While adults with diabetes are up to four times more likely to have heart-related ailments and should watch their intake of unhealthy fats, foods labeled “low-fat” and “non-fat” may not always be the optimal choice.

Fibre is a friend

Some people think that if you have diabetes, you can’t ever eat starchy foods or fruit. It’s true that these foods are generally high in carbohydrates and should be eaten in moderation, but some of them contain lots of fibre. Fibre reduces the effect of those carbohydrates in the body. The more fibre a high-carbohydrate food contains, the better.

Fibre is listed as a carbohydrate on nutrition labels, but unlike other carbohydrates, it doesn’t raise blood glucose. Instead, it makes you feel full and keeps your digestive tract in good working order. When Simon eats fruit or starchy foods, he tends to select those with more fibre such as apples [instead of apple juice], chickpeas, and sweet potatoes. For this reason, he may eat more of your dal than your rice.

An eating plan that works today may not work forever

Diabetes is a progressive disease. When Simon was first diagnosed, he was probably able to maintain good blood glucose levels simply by eating a healthy diet and exercising. Over time, that plan may no longer have produced the desired results. Simon may have added medications to his daily regime or he may have reduced the number of carbohydrates he allows himself at mealtime.

Someone with diabetes can be “good” and “follow the rules,” yet still find themselves with less than optimal blood glucose readings down the road. Simon may eat dessert at this dinner party, but if he returns a few years from now, he may not.

The next time you find out someone with diabetes is coming to dinner, don’t panic. They eat the same foods that you do. They just eat less of some of them.

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