The grocery store can be a daunting place for anyone trying to eat healthier, especially if you’re managing a chronic disease such as diabetes. With so many options, lengthy ingredient lists, and confusing packaging, it can be hard to make heads or tails on what should go in your cart and what should stay on the shelf. We spoke with Joni Killen, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Texas Health Arlington, to learn how a little bit of planning can help make that grocery trip a walk in the park.
Know Before You Go
Eating healthy meals in addition to maintaining a healthy weight and being active is an integral part of managing your diabetes. But if you’re a newly diagnosed diabetic or you’ve fallen off track managing your disease for quite some time, heading into the grocery store can almost feel like a no-win scenario. That’s why Killen says planning your meals ahead of time with the family can help you narrow down exactly what ingredients you need.
Building Your Meal Plan
Not sure where to start? Killen suggests building meals based on The Diabetes Plate Method, a method you may be familiar with if you attended a diabetes education appointment.
After you’ve planned out a few meals over the course of a couple of weeks, the process will get a bit easier because you’ll have a great database of recipes you know you enjoy and can spend less time looking for new recipes to build out meal plans for a week.
Navigating the Grocery Store
“Starting with a weekly menu by following The Plate Method will not only guide you but your whole family on how to create balanced meals,” Killen says. “Then, making your grocery list will keep you from getting sidetracked once you get to the grocery store.”
Killen suggests always starting at the produce section first to bulk up on lots of non-starchy veggies since they will account for half of your plate every meal and will not throw off your glucose levels or body weight. Aim for four to five servings a day, choosing a mix of veggies with vibrant colors for an abundance of vitamins and minerals.
However, Killen adds that you will need to be mindful of fruits and starchy vegetables and count the carbs in these foods just as you would for any other carbohydrate food group. This doesn’t mean you need to avoid them. Just be sure the amount you’re eating fits into your overall meal plan and what works best with your personal blood sugar levels.
Non-starchy vegetables are the lowest in calories and carbohydrates. Some great non-starchy vegetables include:
- Brussels sprouts
- green beans
- salad greens, such as arugula, kale, or romaine lettuce
Remember, frozen and canned fruits and veggies are also great alternatives to fresh, especially if your favorites are out of season, but be mindful of added sugar in canned fruits and added sodium in canned vegetables.
When it comes to protein, try to plan at least two servings of a good fatty fish each week, such as salmon, tuna or mackerel. The omega-3 fatty acids in fatty fish can help support heart health and brain protection.
Also aim to fit three servings of lean meat into your meal plan every week. Shoot for 3-ounce serving sizes, which may not seem substantial but remember half of your plate will be full of hearty, fiber-rich veggies which will work to keep you feeling full and satisfied.
However, it’s best to avoid or substantially limit the number of processed meats you consume because these foods don’t offer a lot of protein and can be high in sodium and fat.
Dairy and Dairy Alternatives
Dairy is a great way to get calcium into your diet, but some dairy products can be high in carbs, fat and sugars. Some studies suggest that yogurt is good for diabetics and may help prevent it for those who are at risk, however, plain Greek yogurt may be a better option than other yogurts because it’s higher in protein and lower in carbs than traditional yogurt. Cottage cheese is another great low-carb option that’s also high in protein. Shoot for one to three low-fat servings per day.
Again, be mindful of added sugars in yogurts. They can hide in flavorings and add-ins, such as granola or cookie bits. Overall, options that are lower in calories, added sugar, and saturated fat are better for those with diabetes.
If you’ve been entertaining switching over to plant-based “milks” and related products, unsweetened soy, flax, almond, or hemp milk and yogurt made from them are great alternatives to dairy and provide protein while minimizing carbohydrate content.
Grains do still hold a valid spot in your diet, even if you have diabetes, however, you’ll want to be mindful of which kinds of starches you’re consuming and how much because too many carbs can cause blood sugar spikes.
Opt for whole grains when you can and read labels for serving sizes and total carbohydrates. At least half your grain intake should be whole, and you should have about two to three servings per day.
When choosing whole grains, consider these foods, which take longer to digest and help keep your cravings at bay:
Additionally, you might find that baked goods and products made from flour, even whole-wheat flour, cause your blood sugar to spike. In this instance, look for whole grains that are minimally processed, naturally higher in fiber, and in their whole food form. Pairing these whole grains with healthy fats or protein can also reduce blood sugar rises.
“As a diabetes educator specialist, we encourage balanced meals that include lean proteins, healthy fats and high fiber carbohydrates with each meal and snacks,” Killen explains. “It is very important to read the nutrition labels to know what is in your foods and beverages. The serving size at the top of the label will help guide you.”
Still need a helping hand? Try this diabetes-friendly grocery list to give you a good jumpstart.
At the end of the day, Killen knows how daunting or frustrating navigating mealtime and the grocery store can be while managing your diabetes, especially if you’re newly diagnosed. As with anything, it takes time and patience, and eventually, you’ll feel more and more comfortable discerning what’s appropriate for your blood sugar levels and treatment plan.
In simple terms, refined carbs and highly processed or sugary foods often equate to elevated blood sugars. Stick to a balanced diet, focusing on:
- plenty of non-starchy vegetables
- high-fiber foods, as in fruits and whole grains
- lean animal and plant proteins
- healthy fats, as in nuts, seeds and avocados
But if you find yourself needing some guidance, Killen suggests talking to your physician about a referral to a diabetes education center with Texas Health. These outpatient centers have qualified Diabetes Educator Specialists to assist with your meal planning needs and answer any questions you may have.
Additionally, Killen suggests visiting the American Diabetes Association website and their Diabetes Food Hub for helpful articles, guidance and recipes. The Diabetes Food Hub can even help you plan meals and create grocery lists.
For more information about diabetes and Texas Health’s diabetes outpatient centers, and to take a diabetes risk assessment, visit TexasHealth.org/Diabetes.