Diabetes: Importance of Nutrition

To manage diabetes most people find they must make complete lifestyle changes. One of the keys to managing diabetes is acknowledging the importance of nutrition. Anyone with diabetes must become an avid caretaker of the food that enters their body.

If you have recently been diagnosed with diabetes, or are hoping to improve your condition with good nutrition, you must learn to follow diabetic nutritional guidelines and faithfully monitor the carbs that enter your body.

Why Good Nutrition?

Why do you have to change the way you eat? The core of managing your diabetes is good nutrition. You can no longer process glucose efficiently on a cellular level. Chemicals alter themselves in different ways in diabetics than in people who are not diabetics. These chemical reactions occur every time you put food in your mouth.

Is Dieting New to You?

If you have never been on a diet it may be difficult at first to learn to follow healthy nutritional guidelines for diabetics. Luckily, you will quickly pick up on this ‘new’ way to eat. You will not be missing out on delicious meals. In fact, you can learn to eat healthy and delicious meals every day that help control your diabetes and help you achieve good health.

Your new goal must be to reach a healthy weight and maintain that weight. You must reach this weight using good, nutritional choices. A healthy weight is important for so many reasons. For example, for type 2 diabetics a healthy weight makes it easier for insulin to be produced in the pancreas. For an overweight person, losing up to 20 pounds can improve the insulin production in your pancreas and may even allow for the reduction of diabetic medications.

Medical Nutritional Therapy

‘Medical nutritional therapy’ is the key term for learning to manage diabetes or maintain diabetes with nutrition. Goals for good nutrition for diabetics have been developed over the years. However, it is important to remember that you are an individual. Every person’s treatment goals and medical nutritional therapy management must be individualized. It is necessary to account for a person’s ethnic background, age, weight, and overall health among other factors.

The Diabetes Food Pyramid and the Plate Method

You may be familiar with the USDA Food Pyramid. For many years, nutritionists and other health professionals recommended diabetics follow a diabetic Food Pyramid based on the USDA Food Pyramid to plan their meals and aid in keeping healthy.

Recently, health professionals, doctors, and nutritionists are telling patients to consider another plan besides the Diabetic Food Pyramid as a meal planner. The new plan is called the Plate Method.

The Plate Method is a quick and trouble-free method to plan your meals. This meal planning method for diabetics will allow you to choose great foods for any meal. You control what you eat by portion size. For example, you may get bigger fractions of non-starchy foods on your plate for a meal along with smaller selections of starches.

Here is how it works:

  1. Use your dinner plate as your food map. Draw an imaginary line down the middle of the plate. On one side of the plate draw an imaginary horizontal line across the middle of the plate. Your completed plate map should have 3 sections.
  1. The large section of the plate is reserved for non-starchy vegetables:
  • Spinach
  • Carrots
  • Lettuce
  • Green beans
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Tomatoes
  • Salsa
  • Onion
  • Cucumber
  • Okra
  • Mushrooms
  • Turnips
  • Peppers
  1. One small section is reserved for starches:
  • Whole grains
  • High fiber cereals
  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Tortillas
  • Oatmeal
  • Grits
  • Cooked beans
  • Cooked peas
  • Corn
  • Lima beans
  • Potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Low fat chips and snack crackers
  1. One small section is reserved for protein (meat):
  • Lean, skinless chicken or turkey
  • Lean meat
  • Tuna
  • Salmon
  • Catfish
  • Eggs
  • Low fat cheese
  • Tofu

The Plate Method makes it easy to visualize your meal plate without going through a lot of food weighing or measuring.  Eat healthy portions of non-starchy vegetables, starches and proteins and use the 3 divisions of the plate as a guide.

Why is Nutrition Important?

In a study by the University of Idaho Extension Service in conjunction with nutritionists and dieticians, the health of diabetics was studied in relation to what they eat. The study proposed that a proper and easy meal planning tool would aid diabetics in understanding the importance of nutrition and practicing good nutrition.

The study into the importance of nutrition began due to the fact that over 21 million Americans have diabetes.[1] This is 7 percent of all Americans. A survey of the literature found that around 157,000 of these diabetics with Type 2 diabetes did not have their disease under control and were at a high risk to lose a limb, experience kidney failure, die from heart problems, or have a stroke.

The study played a huge part in the development of the plate method. In addition, it helped people understand the importance of nutrition and gave them an accessible tool to use when planning meals and when dining out.

Participants in the program learned about meal planning, shopping for groceries, and eating in restaurants.

An interesting factor to emerge from the Idaho study on the importance of nutrition is that most diabetics do not consume the recommended daily allowances of certain foods, such as the recommended 5 to 9 servings of fruits and veggies.[2]

Because healthy nutrition is so important for diabetics who have just been diagnosed or for any diabetic attempting to improve their nutrition, the Healthy Plate curriculum, a four class study, was developed based on the Idaho Extension service. The curriculum can be covered by health professionals or can be assimilated by individuals through self-learning:[3]

  • The importance of nutrition
  • Planning meals at home
  • Planning meals at a restaurant
  • Learning to shop in a supermarket

The University of Idaho study is one of many studying the effects of nutrition and diabetes. The National Institute of Nutrition is hoping to discover fortified milk may help lower the number of people diagnosed with diabetes. In their studies, milk has been seen to delay and prevent the onset of diabetes.[4]

Understanding the importance of nutrition for diabetics is mandatory to managing their disease. If you have been diagnosed with diabetes you can begin to manage your diet using the new guidelines from the plate method. The foods you choose will help your body control and utilize insulin properly.

Another study, from the American Diabetes Association, discusses new dietary guidelines and states that diabetics may be allowed a few spoonfuls of sugar.[5] The study notes that the intake of sucrose and sucrose containing foods may not need to be limited as strictly as before. Dietary sucrose is not shown to raise levels of blood glucose any more than some starches. For this reason, some sucrose may become a substitute for carbs in the healthy plate meal plan.[6

The importance of nutrition for diabetics can make the care of their disease easier. In some cases it can mean that they do not need to depend on medicine or can lessen their dependence on medicines. The Plate Method is an exciting way to control what you eat for diabetic health and overall health.


[1] Raidl M, S. K. (n.d.). The HealthyDiabetes Plate. Retrieved from Center for Disease Control: http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2007/jan/06_0050.htm

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Raidl M, S. K. (n.d.). The HealthyDiabetes Plate. Retrieved from Center for Disease Control: http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2007/jan/06_0050.htm


[5] Tucker, M. (2002). Evidence Guidelines for Diabetes. Internal Medicine News , 25.

[6] Ibid

[7] This article was originally published July 12, 2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/10/2015.