What can a diabetic patient eat? A layman's guide

A diabetic diet is no longer restricted to tasteless food. Diabetics can now eat a variety of foods just like everyone else. If you are still in doubt about which foods are permissible then you need to read this article. Make use of the information to switch to healthy diabetic meals.

Dieticians and nutritionists now recommend wide-ranging diabetic menu plans that allow diabetic patients to consume regular, flavoursome foods, to their taste - with the exclusion of course of foodstuffs that are high in fat and contain added sugar, honey and jaggery. Dieticians and nutritionists, in fact, suggest diabetic patients eat whatever the rest of the family is eating, provided the food is nutritious, low in sugar and fat and comprises mainly of vegetables, fruits and whole grains. The recommended diet allows for low protein foods and restricts alcohol consumption.

Food groups and diabetes diet

For ease of understanding, nutritionists classify the diabetic diet into three broad groups. These groups act as a guide to what can be eaten, what must be avoided and what should be eaten in limited quantities.
  • Carbohydrates
  • Proteins
  • Fats

Diabetes and carbohydrates

It was previously thought that carbohydrate-rich foods aggravated diabetes and diabetic patients were restricted from eating foods containing carbohydrates. However, new research reveals that carbohydrates, from high-fibre foods, are actually good for controlling diabetes. Nutritionists suggest that roughly 45% - 50% calories in a diabetic menu plan must come from complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are slow to digest, are more filling, have a high-fibre content and packed with healthy nutrients.

However, diabetic patients must learn to differentiate between good and bad carbohydrates. Bad carbohydrates, also known as simple carbohydrates, are present in foods that are processed and refined. These foods are stripped of the fibre and have hardly any nutrients. Polished rice, white flour (maida) and sugar are examples of foods rich in simple carbohydrates. Foods with simple carbohydrates are bad because they are quick to release sugar, enabling blood sugar to surge, rapidly, to dangerously high levels. Sugary foods also fall into this category.

Once eaten, all carbohydrates automatically transform into glucose in the digestive tract, but complex carbohydrates, which are the good carbohydrates, are rich in both nutrients and fibre are slow to change. The body takes some time to break down complex carbohydrates into glucose, which inevitably slows down the release of glucose into the blood stream. Blood sugar levels go up steadily, in a healthy fashion, thereby enabling the body to adjust to the new levels.

Identifying good carbohydrates

Good carbohydrates as mentioned earlier have a high fibre content. Fibre is of 2 types – soluble and insoluble – while both kinds of fibre are good, it is suggested that more of the soluble variety is consumed. Foods that have high soluble fibre include oats, fruits, barley and dried beans. These foods should be included in the diabetic diet as they help in reducing blood sugar level. Edible items made of whole grains like whole wheat flour, oats, wheat porridge, beans, lentils, unpolished brown rice or peas etcetera, have both types of fibre and are beneficial. Most vegetables and fruits also contain good carbohydrates and fibre and can be eaten without guilt.

Identifying bad carbohydrates

Not all foods sourced from plants are good. Some vegetables are classified as bad carbohydrates based on their glycemic index. Glycemic index of foods is represented by a number. All foods have their own glycemic index. The figure indicates how quickly or slowly the carbohydrates present in it turn into glucose. Foods with a high glycemic index are known to raise blood sugar levels almost instantaneously and must therefore not be part of the diabetic diet. Vegetables such as yam, potatoes, turnips, corn and arbi and fruits like banana, pineapple, melons and raisins have a very high glycemic index and are hence bad for diabetic patients.

Proteins in the diabetic diet

Proteins are essential because they help in the building of muscles. Not just that, proteins are also required for growth and for the formation of enzymes. They also normalize osmotic pressure and the water balance in the body.

Proteins from animal sources are complete, while protein found in foods sourced from plants is incomplete. Soy bean is the only vegetable source that is a complete protein. All other vegetable sources need to be combined to make up the deficiency. Vegetarian meals must comprise of a pulse and a cereal to make a complete protein. So, the humble dal-chawal becomes a complete protein. Vegetarians can get their protein from paneer and milk. Other sources are pulses, peanuts and other nuts, legumes and beans.

Oil and diabetes

Diabetic patients must cut down their oil intake. They should opt for healthy oils because unhealthy oils up the risk of diabetes and heart disease. However, fat of any kind, good or bad, and in excess, is bad for diabetes, as it hampers the way insulin works. Excess oil in the food puts a strain on the pancreas, which affects the production of insulin. When the diet includes saturated fats then the condition worsens.

Diabetic patients must abstain from eating butter, cream, ghee, and fatty meat etcetera. Lean meat, egg white and toned milk must replace all saturated animal fats. Baked goods which contain transfats must be avoided as well.

Diabetic diet in a nutshell

  1. Include a lot of vegetables, fruits and whole meal foods in your diet. Whole meal foods are made from whole-grain flour that is unprocessed. These three food groups will increase your fibre intake. Fibre controls diabetes as well as complications associated with the disease. Have a wide variety of fibre rich foods such as:
    • Papaya
    • Guava
    • Melon
    • Amla
    • Orange
    • Jamun
    • Grapefruit
    • Soy beans
    • Tofu
    • Soy nuggets and granules
    • Oats
    • Whole wheat
    • Barley
    • Bitter gourd
    • Methi greens and seeds
  2. Avoid foods containing sugar. Learn to read labels of packaged food to know the sugar content in the food. Sugar is found in not just chocolates, methai, cakes, pasteries, soft drinks etcetera, but it is also added to tinned foods as a flavor enhancer.
  3. Eat small, but frequent meals. Doing so prevents blood sugar levels from fluctuating too much. Your meals must be balanced and nutritious.
  4. Cut down on the amount of fat you consume. Follow simple tricks to bring down oil intake:
    • Cook food in non-stick or enamel or stone cookware and reduce the amount of oil
    • Use various techniques for cooking such as grilling, steaming, boiling or pan frying food
    • Always measure the oil for cooking to ensure you do not use too much
    • Vegetables chopped into big pieces absorb less oil and lose fewer nutrients
    • Use toned milk for making paneer or curd
    • Many foods are loaded with fat, even though it is not visible to the naked eye, so be vary of what you eat
    • Animal fats are really bad for you, as they are mostly saturated – no ghee, no butter
    • Restrict meat to lean cuts, avoid red meat and switch to fish and poultry – have eggs not more than 2-3 times a week

    Diabetes is a dreadful disease, but the good thing is it can be controlled and also avoided if certain lifestyle improvements are incorporated early in life. Understand what diabetes is and what you can do to control diabetes.


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