Changing your diet is a vital part of the successful treatment of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Healthy eating does not have to mean you don’t get to eat the food you like. If you make sensible choices, you can continue to enjoy a wide range of foods. You should plan for a diet that’s rich in nutrients and low in fat and calories. This means your meals should contain lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and moderate amounts of meat and dairy. This is not a diabetes diet per se; it is actually the best eating plan for everyone. Essentially, your goal is to control your blood sugar (glucose) level and manage your weight.

When you eat lots of calories and fat, your body creates an unwanted rise in blood glucose. If blood glucose isn’t kept in check, it can lead to serious problems, such as hyperglycaemia and chronic complications like kidney, nerve and heart damage. As the most common cause of type 2 diabetes is obesity, it’s important that you keep your weight within the normal range. Choosing the right foods can make a big difference, and eating regularly helps to ensure that blood sugar levels do not fluctuate too much. If you have to watch your weight, you should watch your portion size as well.

Here are some basic suggestions to help make healthy choices

Eat lots of fibre. It can slow the rate at which the sugar and starch in foods enter the bloodstream, and also help manage cholesterol levels. Examples include fruits, vegetables, dried beans and peas, oatmeal, and whole grain breads and cereals.

Take care with carbohydrates. During digestion, sugars (simple carbs) and starches (complex carbs) break down into blood glucose. Because carbs raise your blood glucose levels, you need to be careful with the amount of bread, rice, crackers, cereal, fruit, juice, milk, yoghurt, potatoes, corn, peas and sweets you consume. Try to focus more on the healthier carbs like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and low-fat dairy products.

Choose your fats with care. Go for foods low in saturated fat. Beware of most meats, butter, whole milk, cream, cheese, lard, many baked goods, and tropical oils such as palm and coconut oil. Trans fats are even worse than saturated fats – think of processed foods like crackers and crisps, some baked goods, and fast food items such as chips. Look for the term “hydrogenated” on labels of processed foods and avoid it whenever possible. So-called “good” fats can lower your bad (LDL) cholesterol. Choose the monounsaturated fats found in avocados, almonds and pecans, or the polyunsaturated fats found in walnuts and sunflower oil. Even with these, however, you’ll need to control your intake, as all fats are high in calories.

When selecting your vegetables, the nonstarchy varieties are the best. Go for leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower and carrots that are high in fibre and low in carbohydrates. If you are eating starchy vegetables such as corn, potatoes and peas, eat small portions. They are very nutritious, packed full of vitamin A and fibre, but should be eaten in moderation.

Choose lean proteins low in saturated fat. Best choices include plant-based proteins (like beans, peas, lentils and soy), fish, chicken and other poultry, low-fat cheese, eggs and nuts. Try to have seafood two or three times a week. Some fish (like salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines) are especially good as they contain heart-healthy omega-3 fats that lower blood fats (triglycerides). Steer clear of meat that is high in saturated fat (like red meat), fried, breaded or full of sodium (like processed meats).

Including dairy products in your diet gives you access to an easy source of calcium and high-quality protein. Go for fat-free or low-fat products, avoiding the full-fat versions. If you don’t like milk or are lactose intolerant, why not try fortified soy milk, rice milk or almond milk as a source of calcium and vitamin D? In the same way you need to watch what you eat, you also need to watch what you drink. So many drinks are full of sugar and can have an adverse effect on your weight and blood glucose. Go for zero-calorie or very low-calorie drinks, and avoid things like flavoured waters, flavoured teas, energy drinks and sodas

Best choices

You cannot go wrong with the following diabetes superfoods:

  • Dark green leafy vegetables. These are low in calories and carbs so you can eat as much as you want. They are high in fibre, calcium and folate.
  • Beans – pretty much any type. They are high in fibre, and a good source of protein, minerals, magnesium and potassium.
  • Whole grains. Your body needs carbs, but you need to choose carefully. Whole grains are full of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fibre.
  • Tuna. A protein source that’s high in omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Nuts. Another protein source that contains healthy fats, magnesium and fibre.
  • Tomatoes. These are great sources of vitamin C, iron and vitamin E.
  • Berries. These are full of antioxidants, vitamins and fibre.
  • Fat-free milk and yoghurt. These will help boost calcium and vitamin D in your diet