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Learning About Meal Planning for Diabetes

Sample meal plate showing 1/2 plate vegetables and fruit, 1/4 plate protein foods, and 1/4 plate whole grain foods, with water as drink.

Why plan your meals?

Meal planning can be a key part of managing diabetes. Planning meals and snacks with the right balance of carbohydrate, protein, and fat can help you keep your blood sugar at the target level you set with your doctor.

You don't have to eat special foods. You can eat what your family eats, including sweets once in a while. But you do have to pay attention to how often you eat and how much you eat of certain foods.

You may want to work with a dietitian or a certified diabetes educator. They can give you tips and meal ideas and can answer your questions about meal planning. They can also help you reach a healthy weight if that is one of your goals.

What plan is right for you?

Your dietitian or certified diabetes educator may suggest that you start with Canada's food guide or carbohydrate counting.

Canada's food guide

Canada's food guide is a simple way to help you manage how you eat. You plan meals by learning how much space each food should take on a plate. Using Canada's food guide helps you manage the amount of carbohydrate you eat. It can make it easier to keep your blood sugar level within your target range. It also helps you see if you're eating healthy portion sizes.

To use Canada's food guide, you put vegetables and fruits on half your plate. Add a protein food on one-quarter of the plate, and put a whole grain food on the final quarter of the plate.

Here are some tips for using Canada's food guide:

  • Make sure that you are not using an oversized plate. A 20-centimetre (9-inch) plate is best. Many restaurants use larger plates.
  • Get used to using Canada's food guide at home. Then you can use it when you eat out.
  • Write down your questions about using Canada's food guide. Talk to your doctor, a dietitian, or a certified diabetes educator about your concerns.

Carbohydrate counting

With carbohydrate counting, you plan meals based on the amount of carbohydrate in each food. Carbohydrate raises blood sugar higher and more quickly than any other nutrient. It is found in desserts, breads and cereals, and fruit. It's also found in starchy vegetables such as potatoes and corn, grains such as rice and pasta, and milk and yogurt. You can help keep your blood sugar levels within your target range by planning how much carbohydrate to have at meals and snacks.

The amount you need depends on several things. These include your weight, how active you are, which diabetes medicines you take, and what your goals are for your blood sugar levels. A registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator can help you plan how much carbohydrate to include in each meal and snack.

An example of a carbohydrate counting plan is:

  • 45 to 60 grams at each meal. That's about the same as 3 to 4 carbohydrate servings.
  • 15 to 20 grams at each snack. That's about the same as 1 carbohydrate serving.

The Nutrition Facts table on packaged foods tells you how much carbohydrate is in a serving of the food. First, look at the serving size on the food label. Is that the amount you eat in a serving? All of the nutrition information on a food label is based on that serving size. So if you eat more or less than that, you'll need to adjust the other numbers. Total carbohydrate is the next thing you need to look for on the label. If you count carbohydrate servings, one serving of carbohydrate is 15 grams.

For foods that don't come with labels, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, you'll need a guide that lists carbohydrate in these foods. Ask your doctor, dietitian, or certified diabetes educator about books or other nutrition guides you can use.

If you take insulin, you need to know how many grams of carbohydrate are in a meal. This lets you know how much rapid-acting insulin to take before you eat. If you use an insulin pump, you get a constant rate of insulin during the day. So the pump must be programmed at meals to give you extra insulin to cover the rise in blood sugar after meals.

When you know how much carbohydrate you will eat, you can take the right amount of insulin. Or, if you always use the same amount of insulin, you need to make sure that you eat the same amount of carbohydrate at meals.

If you need more help to understand carbohydrate counting and food labels, ask your doctor, dietitian, or certified diabetes educator.

How can you plan healthy meals?

Here are some tips to get started:

  • Plan your meals a week at a time. Don't forget to include snacks too.
  • Use cookbooks or online recipes to plan several main meals. Plan some quick meals for busy nights. You also can double some recipes that freeze well. Then you can save half for other busy nights when you don't have time to cook.
  • Make sure you have the ingredients you need for your recipes. If you're running low on basic items, put these items on your shopping list too.
  • List foods that you use to make breakfasts, lunches, and snacks. List plenty of fruits and vegetables.
  • Post this list on the refrigerator. Add to it as you think of more things you need.
  • Take the list to the store to do your weekly shopping.

Your doctor or diabetes educator can tell you about resources that can help you get the food you need. Make sure to talk to them if either of the next two statements have ever been "true" or "sometimes true."

  • "Within the past 12 months, we worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more."
  • "Within the past 12 months, the food we bought just didn't last, and we didn't have money to get more."

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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