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How to Eat Healthier With Diabetes

Need a game plan for socializing through the holiday season? Follow along with this four-week guide to eat, drink, and keep your blood sugar steady.

What should I eat? That’s the puzzle we all have to solve on the daily.

And with the holidays almost here, if one thing’s for sure, it’s this: Making healthy choices is a whole lot tougher when you’re surrounded by mashed potatoes, rich gravy, sugar cookies, and eggnog. Plus, if you’re also managing type 2 diabetes, the juggle can feel especially real.

But having a plan helps.

That’s where this month’s Dream Big guide comes in: We’re being proactive by putting smart food habits into place before the festive eating begins—with simple, takeaway tips that you can use all year long to nourish your body right. Sure, you’ll perhaps steer off course for a splurge meal (look at you, pecan pie!), and that’s OK. When you’ve got a solid strategy for everyday eating that you can go back to, chances are you’ll be primed to keep your blood sugar levels humming in the healthy zone—not to mention your weight.

Research backs this up: Simply getting advice about making healthy choices can be helpful for preventing holiday weight gain, especially when you also keep an eye on the scale, found one British study.

During this month-long challenge, we’ll help you establish four basic but impactful healthy-eating habits to guide you through Thanksgiving (including leftovers) and all the December get-togethers while keeping your diabetes management firmly in check. You’ll come through the season feeling lighter and brighter—and will have established the ultimate goal of better eating for type 2 diabetes.

How do we know? We’ve listed two food pros who specialize in eating for diabetes management. Not only that, but they bring the magic touch for making healthy eating joyful. Read on to see for yourself—then let’s get cooking with our Week 1 kickoff!

Meet Your Coaches

Justine Chan, RD

Justine Chan, RD headshot

Justine Chan, RD

A Toronto-based nutrition expert and founder of Your Diabetes Dietitian, Chan works in private practice to help clients stay on top of their diabetes by learning how to make healthy food choices. She’s a firm believer that good nutrition is a cornerstone of maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, both during the holidays and year-round. “It’s possible to enjoy yourself during the holidays without letting your diabetes get off track. The key is having the right eating habits in place, so you always have a healthy foundation to come back to,” she says.

Shelby Kinnaird, Cookbook Author and Type 2 Diabetes Warrior

Shelby Kinnaird headshot

Shelby Kinnaird

Kinnaird was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 1999 and has made it her mission to eat well—and to help others do the same—ever since. “I lost 35 pounds within nine months of my diagnosis, mainly by picking better carb choices, watching my portion sizes, and cooking more at home,” she says. The author of three diabetes cookbooks, she’s also the founder of the digital healthy cooking class, Put On Your Apron; leads diabetes support groups around her home near Richmond, VA; and is a member of the American Diabetes Association’s Virginia Advocacy Council. Her #1 message for people figuring out their ideal diabetes diet: “Healthy eating doesn’t have to be hard,” she says. “But I do know I do better the more meals I cook at home.”

Week 1: Balance Your Plate

This week, we’re starting out with mastering an easy framework for building meals that offer ideal proportions of protein, carbs, and veggies. Balanced plates keep your blood sugar levels stable, according to the American Diabetes Association. They’ll also fill you up for fewer calories, which can help you avoid weight gain.

So what does that look like, exactly?

At each meal, you should aim to fill your plate with:

  • 1/4 complex carbohydrates: Think whole grains (like brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, whole wheat bread, or whole wheat pasta), starchy vegetables (like potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, or winter squash), beans, fruit or dried fruit, or low-fat dairy (like milk or plain yogurt).

  • 1/4 lean protein: Try chicken, turkey, eggs, fish (like salmon, cod, or tuna), shellfish (like shrimp or scallops), lean red meat (like sirloin steak or center loin pork chops), cheese, beans, tofu, or nuts or nut butters.

  • 1/2 non-starchy vegetables: Asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, celery, cucumber, eggplant, leafy greens, mushrooms, okra, peppers, tomato, and zucchini are all good choices.

This simple strategy won’t just serve you well at lunch on a typical Tuesday or dinner with the family on Sunday. It can help you make better choices at holiday meals without feeling deprived. “You won’t just fill up on carbs like mashed potatoes or stuffing. But you also know those foods will still be available, since they can take up a quarter of your plate,” Chan explains.

Striking a balance might seem complicated or fussy if you’re used to piling your plate willy-nilly. But the more you do it, the more it will start to become second nature. Follow the four steps below this week to get into the swing of things.

Step 1: Try a Practice Exercise

Consider the meals you eat most often. Are they balanced as is, or do you need to shift the scales a little bit? If a typical dinner is a big slice of meat loaf and a scoop of mashed potatoes, you can balance it by adjusting the portion sizes and adding some veggies: Have a smaller slice of meat loaf that takes up just a quarter of your plate, fill another quarter with a small scoop of mashed potatoes, and fill the other half of your plate with roasted broccoli or sautéed green beans.

Let’s try one more example: Jerk chicken and white rice. You could put a moderate helping of chicken on one quarter of your plate and fill another quarter with brown rice, which has more fiber than white. Then save the other half of your plate for a veggie, like stewed zucchini and bell peppers.

Step 2: Ease Decision Fatigue

Settling on balanced meals for every day of the week takes more effort than just grabbing what’s around or figuring food out on the fly. Instead of starting from scratch, set dedicated meal categories for different days of the week. “You could have Taco Tuesdays, Fish Fridays, or Soup Saturdays,” Chan suggests. And while alliterations are fun, they’re obviously not required. Pasta Mondays or Stir-Fry Thursdays might not roll off the tongue, but they’re still easy, satisfying, and delicious.

Step 3: Map Out Your Meals

Planning specific meals ahead of time is another way to win at the balance game. Before the start of each week, write out a menu to decide what you’ll be eating each day. This gives you a chance to check and make sure your plates will be balanced ahead of time, so there’s less to think about when it’s actually time to eat. With your complex carb, protein, and non-starchy veggie ready to go, all you need to do is add each item to your plate in the right proportion.

You can make your map in a flash, by the way, if you’ve already assigned meal categories to different days: Pasta night might be whole wheat spaghetti with tomato sauce and white beans plus a green salad. Stir-fry night might be shrimp, broccoli, and cashews over brown rice.

Step 4: Learn How to Improvise

Not every meal can be neatly divided into separate carb/protein/veggie components on your plate. (Hello, pizza, burgers, and casseroles!) But you can still divvy them up mentally to keep things balanced. “Just pick out the individual components and decide what part of the plate they’d fit on,” Kinnaird recommends.

For a slice of pizza, the crust would be the carbs, the cheese would be the protein, and the sauce plus any vegetable toppings would be non-starchy veggie. For a sandwich, the whole wheat bread would be the carbs, the meat or cheese would be the protein, and the lettuce and tomato would be the veggies.

If it seems like you’ve got too many carbs or protein and not enough veggies, think about how you might be able to shift the proportions. Have half the sandwich and fill the other side of your plate with sliced ​​raw veggies and some salad dressing for dipping, for instance.

More Pro Tips to Eat By

The clothes you’re baking in are truly best practices for anyone looking to eat healthfully. And the beauty of having two diabetes experts by your side is that they are not only minding your nutrients but looking out for your blood sugar levels at the same time—without making it feel like you’re missing out. Chan’s motto? “Find your sweet spot and focus on what you can eat.” As for Kinnaird, she notes that her Cook & Chat With Shelby virtual cooking club is not just diabetes-friendly fare: “Anyone who appreciates tasty, healthy food will enjoy the dishes we make.”

Here, are a couple of their go-to strategies for helping ensure your success on this plan:

Keep Healthy Staples on Hand

Doing so makes it easy to build balanced meals even when you haven’t had time to plan. “I stock the freezer with shrimp, lean steaks, or pork tenderloin so we always have a lean protein,” Kinnaird says. Ditto for frozen veggies like broccoli or spinach, which stay good almost indefinitely and can be tossed into soups or stir-fries, or just sautéed with some olive oil and garlic for a fast side dish.

Eat Your Protein First

Try to get into the habit of eating your protein and vegetable before your carbs, recommends Chan. Sticking with that order (rather than the other way around) can keep your blood sugar levels lower after meals, research shows.

Now you’ve got some guidance on what to shop for as you’re filling out your grocery list for the week. Remember to throw in a few lean proteins you know you’ll enjoy, try a brand or two of whole-grain pasta to see which you like best, and don’t forget to load up on your favorite seasonal veggies. Happy eating and we’ll be back with more great tips for you next week!

Marygrace Taylor