Whether you’re one of the 3 million people in the UK with diabetes or not, having a balanced, heart-friendly diet is important. So, how do you kick start better eating habits? To help out, we’ve put together some tips below that can be recommended to anyone who wants to follow a healthy, balanced diet, including people with diabetes.
Before we start, a note on diabetes and diet
When it comes to managing diabetes, diet is no substitute for medication. And advice-wise, there’s no substitute for the guidance of a healthcare professional. You can use the tips below to learn more about a balanced diet, but it’s best go to your GP for the final say on what you can do to manage diabetes. For answers to questions like “What is a healthy diet for diabetes?”, they should also always be the first port of call.
So: how can you get a heart-healthy, balanced diet? Here are our top tips.
1. Get your five-a-day
If you’d like to have a better, healthier diet, this is usually a great place to start. We’ve all heard it a lot, but fruit and vegetables are key in healthy eating, making up around a third of a well-balanced diet. Despite this, only 27% of Brits aged 19 to 64 years and 35% of those aged 65 years and over actually get their five-a-day.
If you’d like to improve this, it’s good to remember that tinned, cooked, frozen, and fresh fruit and veg all count. Something to watch, though, is the sugar content in fruit – especially fruit juices. Choose whole fruit over fruit juices, as the latter can raise blood glucose levels quickly. Find out more about balancing your diet here.
2. Eat wholegrain starchy foods
Another important part of a well-balanced diet is starchy foods, like bread, rice, pasta, and potatoes. The NHS EatWell plate suggests that these foods should make up about a third of your diet overall. They should ideally be wholegrain, as well – things like wholegrain bread, whole wheat pasta, and brown and wild rice.
When it comes to a healthy diet for people with diabetes, the charity Diabetes UK recommends being aware of the amount of carbohydrates in your meals, and eating fewer starchy foods with a high glycaemic index – foods that the body breaks down into glucose quickly. These include white bread, rice, and pasta, and potatoes. Wholegrains are better, since they break down more slowly.
3. Get enough fibre
The good news about eating more wholegrain starchy foods is that they have more fibre (which aids digestion and helps to control your blood glucose), but that's not to say that you should neglect other sources of fibre in your diet: there are other slow burning options you can try. There’s fibre in fresh vegetables and fruit (leave the skin on for extra), peas, lentils, grains, and beans too. Pop them into stews, soups, curries, and casseroles – they’re both tasty and versatile.
4. Cut sugary foods out of your diet
NHS guidelines state that foods that are high in sugar, like chocolate, cakes, sweets, and biscuits, are best eaten only in small amounts, and not often. It’s a healthy eating tip that many of us struggle with: Brits eat the equivalent of about 140 teaspoons of sugar per person every week. When it comes to sugar in your diet and diabetes, the recommendation is that foods that are high in sugar are best enjoyed as a rare treat, as they can raise blood glucose levels.
Eating less sugar means more than just avoiding the foods you know to be high in sugar (cakes, and so on). If you tend to add sugar, syrups, or honey to your food or drinks, you’ll want to avoid this too. Finally, try checking the labels on foods where you’re not quite sure of the sugar content – a lot of pre-prepared meals have sugar snuck in to heighten the flavour.
5. A diet for diabetes and cholesterol means making fat swaps
Fat is high in energy, so if you’re trying to maintain a healthy weight, it’s a good idea to make sure you eat no more than the recommended daily intake of fat which for adults is 70g per day.
But that’s not the whole story: not all fat is bad, and in fact some fats are genuinely good. If you want to help maintain a normal cholesterol, replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat in the diet can help, which is good news for your heart**.
So, what can you do?
Try swapping full fat milk and cheese for skimmed milk and low fat cheese.
Swap butter for vegetable oils if you use it for frying. Vegetable oil based soft spreads are great on bread, toast, and melted on food, and if your cholesterol is elevated, an option with added plant sterols, like Flora ProActiv, can actively lower your levels***.
Swap meat for oily fish once a week, and go for lean cuts and white fish the rest of the time.
Avoid biscuits, cakes, and other snacks that tend to be high in saturated fat and snack on a handful of unsalted nuts instead.
Foods high in ‘good’ unsaturated fat include vegetable oils, oily fish, nuts, seeds, spreads, and liquid margarines.
6. Eating less salt is simple…
…and it’s important. Eating less salt can help maintain normal blood pressure levels. The recommended amount is less than 6g a day, or 2.4g of sodium. When you buy food, check the label to see how much salt is in each portion, and avoid adding it to food during or after preparation. You’d be surprised how often it’s not really needed.
These are just a few of our favourite tips to help you plan a healthy diet. Sign up to our e-newsletter for more tips on a healthy, balanced diet, and remember: if you’re ever unsure what to eat or how to change your diet for diabetes, speak to a healthcare professional. They’ll be happy to help you out.