How meal planning fits into diabetes management

Diabetes educator, Tammy Jardine, offers 12 guidelines for healthy meal planning and explains why meal planning is important for diabetes management.

Diabetes is a condition where your body can’t properly use and store food for energy. The fuel that your body uses for energy is called glucose. Glucose is made in the blood from different types of carbohydrates, a nutrient found in food.

A high amount of this carbohydrate nutrient is found in foods, such as fruit, milk, some vegetables, starchy foods, and sugar. To control your blood glucose (blood sugar) you’ll need to choose healthy foods and limit the amount of the foods mentioned that are high in carbohydrate.

There is no perfect diet for people living with diabetes and you’ll find many contradictions as to which diet is best for diabetes. Instead of taking costly supplements and restricting food groups in your daily diet, it’s recommended that you eat foods that are high in nutrients and that you eat a variety of different foods. It’s always best to seek out a dietitian who has a special interest in diabetes to help you identify what foods are best for you as an individual.

Try these general guidelines for healthy meal planning:

  1. Monitor blood glucose

Always monitor your blood glucose to help determine whether you need fewer meals or whether you do better on smaller more frequent meals. Every person is individual and depending on how diabetes affects you will help to identify what type of eating routine is best for you.

  1. Eat vegetables

Although there is a lot of different information about what is the best diet for diabetes, the one consistent factor is that vegetables are important. Vegetables are high in fibre and high in vitamins and minerals. A variety of vegetables should make up 50% of your daily intake.

In addition to veggies like cauliflower, carrots, beans, and salad veg, be sure to include dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, and broccoli. These are high in magnesium. You may need to limit these if you are on warfarin; check with your dietitian. Vegetables don’t have to be raw but if you cook them, steam or stir-fry until still crispy as soggy veggies are never appetising.

Try to add at least ½ cup of beans into your weekly meals about three times a week. Beans are high in fibre which helps to control blood glucose. These can be canned but be sure to drain them and rinse them to get rid of most of the salt. Beans include kidney, pinto, black beans, butter beans, cannellini beans and chickpeas.

  1. Avoid processed foods

They are usually crammed with preservatives and additives. Clean, whole foods are a much better choice and if they are closer to the way they come from the earth, the better. For example, choose a mealie (corn on the cob) rather than mealie meal. Also, if you choose starches that are whole grain instead of the more processed versions (white versions), you’ll get more fibre, vitamin B, magnesium, omega 3 fatty acids and folate.

  1. Identify your tolerance for carbohydrates

You can do this by testing your blood glucose before (pre-meal) and two hours after (post meal) eating a meal of carbohydrates. Use an app like FatSecret or MyFitnessPal to determine the amount of carbohydrates you’re going to eat. If your blood glucose post meal is more than 2 above the pre-meal reading, then you know you need to eat less carbohydrate.

Once you’ve identified your individual tolerance level then use the apps to calculate the portion of meals you usually enjoy and help with meal planning.

  1. Eat berries

Berries are the best fruit to eat as they contain very little sugar and are high in antioxidants which help protect your body from everyday damage. Fruits are generally high in a sugar, called fructose, so watch the amount that you eat at a time and never have more than three portions a day.

  1. Palm size protein

Protein foods like meat, eggs, chicken and fish can be eaten daily. Try to keep your portion to the size of your palm at a meal. It doesn’t really matter how much is red meat but do try to have three portions of fish a week (about 180-270g per week). Fish that is naturally oily like mackerel, pilchards, salmon and trout are excellent choices as they are high in omega 3 which is heart healthy and good for your immune system.

Stay away from the breaded and deep fat fried variety. They don’t count in your goal of 60-90gportions three times a week and the crumb will add to your carbohydrate limit.

  1. Avoid non-nutritious foods like sugar and sweeteners

Sugar will increase blood glucose. This includes sucrose sugar (the one we use in beverages and cereal) as well as honey. Although sweeteners are generally safe for people with diabetes, they still don’t add value to your diet and water is still the number one recommended beverage. If your urine is dark, you need more water, and try to replace fluid if you have been to the loo.

  1. Calcium is important especially if you are on metformin

Calcium is found in green leafy veg, as well as the bones of fish (like pilchards and canned salmon), in nuts, and also in dairy products. Milk does contain its own carbohydrate, called lactose, so be sure to consider it in your individual tolerated carbohydrate limit. Limit cheese to three times a week as it’s high in salt.

  1. Limit salt

Try to use less salt added to foods and use more herbs, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, and chilli to flavour your foods. 

  1. Avoid processed and packaged snacks like crisps, sweets and chocolate

This is a guideline that everyone wanting to be healthier should follow and not only people with diabetes. Like the guideline number 3 and 7, they are packed with preservatives and additives and add no real nutritious value to a healthy diet. Also, they do seem to have an addictive quality and the less you eat of them, the less you will crave them.

  1. When eating out, remember your carbohydrate tolerance limit

If you know you can only tolerate a small amount of carbs then choose a meal with a protein and veg or salad and avoid the carb loaded pasta.

  1. Avoid alcohol

People tolerate alcohol differently but in general limit alcohol to one to two drinks since low blood glucose can often be mistaken for drunkenness. Also, avoid sweet drinks like mixers and the sweeter wines and spirits, like brandy and rum. Rather choose the dry wine and white spirits, like gin, vodka and cane. Avoid tonic as it has even more sugar than coke. Mix drinks with water, soda water or sugar-free sodas.


Tammy Jardine is a qualified diabetes educator and a registered dietitian. Living with diabetes for over 15 years means that she knows first-hand how difficult it can be to achieve and maintain optimal blood glucose control with good lifestyle habits. She believes that diabetes affects every person differently and takes the time to understand how it’s affecting the individual and to help them manage it effectively. With more than 20 years of experience working as a dietitian in the UK and SA, she has a passion for helping people live a better and happier life with good food. Tammy currently works from Wilgeheuwel hospital. Email: [email protected]

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