10 Easy Changes to Make Your Diet More Diabetes-Friendly, According to Dietitians

These small adjustments can have a major impact on your insulin resistance.

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Lunchbox with quinoa salad with tomato and cucumber, blue berry and trail mix
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Recently diagnosed with prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, or have a family history of either? The standard American diet (SAD) isn't your best bet moving forward. But that doesn't mean your menu needs to massively shift.

"The overall goal of a meal plan for a person with type 2 diabetes should be one that addresses insulin resistance, the root cause of type 2 diabetes — and not one that focuses only on controlling blood sugars," explains Diana Licalzi, MS, RD, the co-founder of Reversing T2D in Boulder, Colorado. "A meal plan should be primarily plant-based, high in fiber, low in saturated fat, and very nutrient-dense."

According to Mary Stewart, RD, LD, a registered dietitian and the founder of Cultivate Nutrition in Dallas, your top three focus areas should be to:

  • Create meals that focus on whole, minimally-processed foods
  • Shoot for a nice balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat, and protein)
  • Eat at a regular cadence throughout the day

To make these diabetes-friendly changes a lifestyle, we asked Licalzi, Stewart, and Ashley Reaver, RD, an Oakland, Calif.-based registered dietitian and the creator of the Lower Cholesterol Longer Life Method to break things down into 10 simple steps that we can tackle one at a time.

10 Totally Doable Ways to Adjust Your Daily Menu to Be More Diabetes-Friendly, According to Dietitians

Aim to add one of these adjustments to your eating agenda each week. Master it, then add another. Pretty soon eating to lower your risk for diabetes symptoms will feel natural — and your insulin resistance may actually improve.

"Keep in mind that diet alone shouldn't be the focus," Reaver admits: "Taking a walk after meals can significantly increase insulin sensitivity as muscle cells will help to remove glucose from the bloodstream while in use. A 10- to 15-minute walk after at least one meal per day is recommended, or try going for a 30-minute walk after the largest meal."

Read on for the small plate pivots, then discover some sample menus to help you kick things off.

1. Prioritize plant-based proteins.

As a stellar starting place, swap beans for animal meat in two meals a week, Reaver recommends. Consider replacing red meat with beans, lentils, or tofu, Licalzi adds. After you've aced that, add Meatless Mondays to the agenda to guarantee at least three more completely plant-based meals per week.

2. Enjoy meat on the side.

Keep the protein focus going by reframing what you define as dinner, lunch, or breakfast. "Treat animal proteins as a side dish instead of the main entrée; instead, make fruits or veggies the foundation of every plate," Licalzi says. "These foods are nutrient-dense, meaning they are rich in phytonutrients, antioxidants, and fiber yet low in calories." Try to add as much (all-natural) color to every plate as you can, which will naturally mean you're amping up the antioxidant quotient.

3. Time it right.

Each meal and snack should include a mix of carbohydrates, fats, protein, and fiber. Fuel up with breakfast shortly after waking up. Three to four hours later, sit down for lunch. Reach for an afternoon snack three hours after lunch, then finish the day with dinner at least two hours before bed, Reaver suggests.

4. Plot out your plate.

About 90 percent of those with type 2 diabetes fall under the diagnostic criteria for overweight or obesity, Stewart says, so the number of calories consumed does impact the progression of diabetes.

"We also know that not all calories are created equal and the profile of each meal will influence blood sugar management, so the most practical way to create a diabetes-friendly meal is by using the plate method," she adds. The plate method will allow you to visually plan a well-balanced macronutrient breakdown without tabulating every calorie. Picturing your plate, fill:

5. Replace refined grains with whole grains—or mix and match.

Can't imagine giving up your white rice right away? Take small steps by combining half whole grain and half of your usual pick (say, ¼ cup white rice and ¼ cup brown rice or ¼ cup quinoa). "Adjust the ratios until your palate has adjusted to eating whole grains," Stewart says.

6. Choose your fats wisely.

High intake of saturated fats, which are found in high-fat animal products like butter, bacon, sausage, and cheese, can decrease insulin sensitivity in cells, Reaver explains. (Not to mention, they can also increase your blood cholesterol and affect other heart disease risk factors.) "This results in glucose from foods remaining in your bloodstream for extended periods," she says. When possible, opt for unsaturated fat sources like olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds.

7. Choose fruit for dessert.

Fruit is naturally sweet, packed with fiber, water, vitamins, and minerals. "I highly recommend stocking up on your favorite frozen fruit so you are ready when you crave something sweet," Stewart says. "Frozen fruit is just as — if not more — nutrient-dense than its fresh counterpart. Add a dollop of Greek yogurt or sprinkle of dark chocolate chips and you have yourself a delicious, healthy treat!"

8. Ditch sugar-sweetened beverages.

"Getting into the habit of drinking water throughout the day instead of beverages with added or artificial sweeteners will do wonders for managing your blood sugar," Stewart says. Consider replacing your sweet tea with unsweetened tea and soda with sparkling water. If you're craving flavor, consider using fresh or frozen fruit along with herbs to make infused water. (A pitcher like this Glass Pitcher with Stainless Steel Infuser can make it easy — and fun! Buy it: $29.95; Crate & Barrel)

9. Cut back on the booze.

Since it can impact your blood sugar, blood pressure, calorie and carb intake, and lower your inhibitions — not to mention decrease the quality of your sleep — limit your intake of alcoholic beverages, Reaver suggests. If you do choose to drink, sip on no more than one drink per day. (One alcoholic drink equals 5 ounces of wine with 12 percent alcohol, 12 ounces of beer with 5 percent alcohol, or 1 ½ ounces of a hard spirit with 40 percent alcohol, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.)

10. Substitute herbs and spices for salt.

Instead of grabbing the salt shaker to boost the flavor in your meal, try fresh herbs, dried herbs, spices, or spice blends. "Too much salt in the diet can impact diabetes complications like cardiovascular disease," Stewart says. "Oregano, dill, thyme, rosemary and chili powder are my favorites to use in place of salt." Citrus juice and vinegars can also perk up many dishes.

Your 3-Day Diabetes-Friendly Jumpstart

"As more evidence points to the effectiveness of a more whole-food, plant-based diet for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes, more and more organizations are recognizing and supporting this style of eating," Licalzi says. "This way of eating is nutrient-dense and very effective at helping individuals reach a healthy body weight without having to worry about calorie or carb counting."

Here's how to put this advice into action.

Diabetes-Friendly Menu Day 1

Diabetes-Friendly Menu Day 2

Diabetes-Friendly Menu Day 3

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