Diet: Key Information for Healthy Eating
- Regular meals
- Starchy carbohydrates
- Sugary carbohydrates
- Fruit and vegetables
- Omega 3 fatty acids
- Healthy weight
- Diabetic products
- Useful resources
Whether you are living with diabetes or not, a healthy, well-balanced approach to eating and drinking is important.
The foods you choose to eat will not only help you manage your diabetes but will also play an important role in helping you control your weight and reducing the risk of long-term conditions such as heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.
The following tips are a guide to healthy food choices to help you manage your diabetes.
Key message: aim for three meals each day and avoid skipping meals
Your food and drink intake should be based around regular meals with a good mix of nutrients and sensible portion sizes. If you follow this, it will help you to keep your blood glucose steady and you should be less tempted to snack on high-calorie foods, which should be limited in a healthy diet.
Key message: include a starchy carbohydrate at each meal, especially ones that are rich in fibre and whole grains
Starchy carbohydrates are foods such as pasta, rice, potato, bread, chapatis and plantains. Although these are healthy foods, they will affect your blood glucose levels. The larger the portion of carbohydrate you eat, the higher your blood glucose levels will be. Likewise, if you eat smaller amounts, the effect on your blood glucose levels will be less.
You should choose starchy carbohydrates which contain higher levels of fibre and whole grains and have a lower glycaemic index. These will have less of an effect on your blood glucose levels as they are digested more slowly. They can also help to keep you feeling fuller for longer, so they can help you with weight loss too.
Key message: limit added sugar to 30 g (6 tsp a day) a day
Having diabetes does not mean that you have to cut sugar out completely. It is possible to enjoy a small amount as part of an overall balanced approach to eating, but it is best to limit sugary foods and drinks where possible. Switching to artificial sweeteners and sugar-free options can really help to manage your blood glucose levels.
Fruit and vegetables
Key message: aim for at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day
Fruit and vegetables are a good source of fibre and are packed with essential vitamins and minerals. You should eat a wide variety and aim for a minimum of five portions each day – two or three fruit and at least two or three vegetables. This can help to reduce your risk of developing many health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, obesity and certain cancers.
An added bonus is that most fruit and vegetables are naturally low in calories and high in fibre, which will help you to maintain a healthy weight.
Fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables (canned in fruit juice or water and with no added sugar and salt) all count.
Do remember, however, that although fruit has a high vitamin and mineral content, if you eat very large portions of it or drink too much fruit juice it can cause high blood glucose levels.
Key message: aim for no more than 6 g (1 tsp) salt each day
Eating too much salt can raise your blood pressure, particularly if you are overweight or if high blood pressure runs in your family. This is concerning, as high blood pressure increases the risk of developing heart disease.
Avoid adding salt to your meals and reduce the amount of salt you use in cooking. Choose fresh foods where possible as processed foods usually have a high salt content. Soups, crisps, savoury snacks, soy sauce, Marmite, gravy granules and stock cubes are all high in salt. Experiment with flavouring foods using herbs and spices, vinegar or lemon juice instead of salt and stock cubes.
Key message: drink no more than 14 units per week, with alcohol-free days
The risk of developing a range of health problems, including high blood pressure and diseases such as certain cancers, increases if you consistently drink more alcohol than the recommended amounts.
However, having diabetes does not mean that you need to avoid drinking alcohol altogether. In fact, government guidelines for sensible drinking are the same whether or not you have diabetes. Remember, though, that alcohol is high in calories, can contribute to weight gain.
Alcohol can also both increase and decrease blood glucose levels. If you have a drink that contains carbohydrate, such as real ale, cider, alcopops, a liqueur or a dessert wine, it is likely that you will initially notice an increase in your blood glucose level.
Risk of hypoglycaemia
When alcohol is processed in the liver, it can contribute to a drop in blood glucose levels. This is because alcohol interferes with the normal release of stored glucose from the liver, and so blood glucose levels can fall, even if you eat extra carbohydrate.
For people with type 1 diabetes, this could result in low blood glucose, causing a hypoglycaemic episode (a ‘hypo’). The risk of hypoglycaemia can persist for a number of hours after drinking particularly if large amounts of alcohol have been consumed.
If you are concerned about the impact of alcohol on your blood glucose, speak with your diabetes care team who will be able to give you advice based on your personal circumstances.
Omega 3 fatty acids
Key message: aim to eat two portions of oily fish each week
Omega 3 fats are a type of healthy fat called an essential fatty acid. Your body cannot make these in sufficient amounts, so you have to get them through food. They can lower blood triglycerides (a type of fat found in the blood) and help protect against heart disease.
Omega 3 fats are found mostly in oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, herring and sardines, so you should try to eat these twice a week.
Key message: aim to reduce total fat intake, whilst also replacing saturated fats with unsaturated equivalents
To achieve or maintain a healthy weight, it is important that you reduce the total amount of fat you eat, as all oil has the same number of calories, whether it is a healthy type or not. You should always measure the oil you use in cooking with a teaspoon rather than pouring it straight from the bottle, or use an oil spray instead.
You should try to replace saturated fats with moderate amounts of healthier fats:
- Monounsaturated fats, found in olive and rapeseed oils and spreads
- Polyunsaturated fats, found in soya, sunflower and corn oils and spreads, and nuts, seeds and oily fish
Eating these types of fat can help reduce your risk of developing heart disease.
Key message: staying at a healthy weight will help you manage your blood glucose and will help to reduce your risk of developing many health conditions
If you are overweight, you may need to reduce the size of the portions of food you eat and aim for a better overall balance between the different food groups. Almost two in every three adults in the UK are overweight or obese, which can cause significant health problems.
Key message: diabetic products are not recommended
Diabetic products have no health benefits, can be just as high in calories and fat, are more expensive, have a laxative effect and can still impact on blood glucose levels. They are no substitute for eating a healthy balanced diet.
Key message: aim to increase your daily activity levels
To stay healthy, you should aim for 30 minutes of active exercise five times a week. This should include moderate aerobic exercise (such as cycling or brisk walking) and strength exercises that work most of the major muscle groups (such as Pilates or weights) at least twice a week.
The Eatwell Guide is a really useful guide to what proportions of different food groups should be eaten every day.
More specific information on the individual food groups can be found in the following pages:
Diabetes UK Enjoy Food is an excellent resource to help guide you to improve your eating habits:
For more information on exercise, click here.