According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 100 million Americans are living with diabetes or prediabetes, two conditions that affect how your body processes the sugars in the foods you eat.
Diabetes is a chronic, potentially life-threatening disease that tends to get worse over time. But it can be managed through exercise, diet and medications that control blood sugar levels. For many Americans, managing diabetes through food is critical to improved health outcomes.
"Diabetes is characterized by uncontrolled blood sugar levels, and because what we eat directly impacts our blood sugar levels, nutrition inherently plays a critical role in the management of diabetes," says Lindsey Kane,registered dietitian and director of nutrition with Sun Basket, a meal kit delivery service based in San Francisco.
To explain what's happening in the body, Kane uses an analogy. "In diabetes, the cells become unresponsive to insulin, which is also known as insulin resistance. You can think of this like an old rusty key that struggles to open the door. Because insulin is unable to open the door, sugar lingers in the blood and thus rises to abnormal levels."
Sugar levels that are too high can become dangerous, so the pancreas -- the organ that produces insulin -- "goes into overdrive, working extra hard to overcompensate for the exceptionally high blood sugar levels. As you can imagine, this can really wear down the pancreas over time," and lead to it being unable to produce enough insulin to control blood sugars, Kane says. When this happens, you've become diabetic and may need to take insulin in pill or injection form to maintain equilibrium in the body.
But food can also play a big role in helping you manage your blood sugars. "There are countless studies that demonstrate the power food and lifestyle changes can have on the management of diabetes. In fact, implementing both food and lifestyle changes in combination with medication proves to be significantly more effective in managing diabetes than medication alone, which is why this hybrid approach has become the gold standard treatment model for diabetes management," Kane explains.
This means, for a person with diabetes, there's a lot of power in their hands to eat and move in ways that will support their health for the long term. Kane says that by taking control and adopting health-promoting habits, you can "gain a competitive edge on the progression of diabetes."
Eating to Manage Diabetes
So how should you eat to manage your diabetes? "There is no specific 'diet' for people with diabetes," says Dr. Richard L. Seidman, chief medical officer of L.A. Care Health Plan. "A well-balanced healthy eating approach works well."
This approach would include:
-- Lean protein.
-- Sensible amounts of healthy fats, such as the kind of fats found in olive oil and avocados.
-- Plenty of non-starchy vegetables.
-- Adequate portions of carbohydrate foods, but preferably those that are also high in fiber.
The amount of carbohydrates someone with diabetes will need is based on many factors, including:
-- Level of physical activity.
-- Level of insulin resistance.
Kane notes that some diets that are intended to help manage diabetes drastically cut carbs. But "the latest science tells us that there's more to the story than just carb counts." The quality of a carbohydrates matters as much as the quantity, and food combinations can impact how your body processes macronutrients. "For example, a half cup brown rice alone versus a half cup of brown rice served with a protein, healthy fats and fiber-rich whole foods will elicit two very different effects on blood sugar levels," she explains. The right context for carbs can make them part of a healthy way of eating with diabetes.
In 2019, the Mediterranean diet topped U.S. News & World Report's Best Diabetes Diets ranking, followed by the DASH Diet and the Flexitarian Diet, which tied for second place. These three diets all prioritize vegetables and whole foods over processed foods, meat or sugar.
The key is to make sure that what you're eating addresses your specific dietary needs and that it's tasty and sustainable; otherwise, it'll be difficult for you to stick with a plan. For example, if you just don't like fish and olives, the Mediterranean diet might not be as easy for you to follow as another approach, like the DASH diet. Again, consider working with a dietitian to determine your needs and preferences.
Choosing a sustainable approach that emphasizes moderation is far more likely to help you better manage diabetes than a restrictive or limiting plan. "Restriction is linked to binge eating, weight cycling, depression and anxiety," Kane says. This is why restrictive diets are so hard to stick with. It's better to seek to make lasting, lifelong behavioral changes that will support a healthy lifestyle.
Top Meal Kits for Diabetes
"Getting diagnosed with diabetes can be a real life-changing moment that comes with a wave of emotions," Kane says. For starters, many folks "feel paralyzed with fear, not knowing what to eat or how to cook diabetes-friendly meals, let alone find the time and energy to meal plan, grocery shop and prepare meals."
If this is the case, you might want to consider trying a prepared meal or meal kit delivery service to help you get your bearings in adjusting to a more diabetes-friendly way of eating.
Seidman agrees that a meal delivery service can be very helpful, "if it is able to meet the specific needs of the person with diabetes. It can take the guesswork out of planning menus," that meet your specific needs and it can also help with "learning and adapting to a new way of eating."
In addition, for folks who've had diabetes for some time and have begun to experience complications of it, such as cognitive, mobility or sight problems, "a meal delivery service can be a lifesaver," he says. "It can also be helpful for older adults, for those with complicated diets and people with depression, transportation challenges or other difficulties that affect menu planning or food preparation."
There are several prepared meal and meal kit delivery services that offer diabetic-friendly meals and plans:
-- Magic Kitchen.
-- Sun Basket.
-- Fully prepared meals, just heat and eat.
-- Perfectly portioned to promote healthy weight loss or other health goals.
-- Menus designed by a bariatric doctor.
-- More than 150 meals to choose from weekly.
BistroMD was developed by a bariatric specialist to offer weight loss programs designed to fit a variety of different diet preferences and health needs.
The diabetic plan is billed as "an effortless diabetic weight loss program." All meals on the bistroMD diabetic program contain 25 grams or less of net carbohydrates and are designed to help maintain healthy blood glucose levels. The company offers four options:
-- Full program -- 7 days. Includes 7 breakfasts, 7 lunches, 6 dinners + My Night (a structured break to practice what you've learned in eating for health). Currently offered at a discount for $142.46 per week.
-- Full program -- 5 days. Includes 5 breakfasts, 5 lunches and 5 dinners. Currently offered at a discount for $119.96 per week.
-- Lunches and dinners -- 7 days. Includes 7 lunches and 7 dinners. Currently offered at a discount for $119.96 per week.
-- Lunches and dinners -- 5 days. Includes 5 lunches and 5 dinners. Currently offered at a discount for $97.46 per week.
Sample meal: jerk-spiced chicken with mango chutney and spinach. (Nutritional information not available.)
-- Fully-prepared, heat and eat meals.
-- Designed for weight loss.
-- Follows American Diabetes Association nutrient guidelines.
This prepared meal delivery service is designed for weight loss and caters to other special dietary needs, such as vegetarians and those who are trying to be carb-conscious. The company also offers the Balance-Diabetes plan, which is designed for people who have diabetes or pre-diabetes and are using food to help control their condition. It's suitable for most diabetics and follows American Diabetes Association nutrient recommendations.
Meals in the Balance-Diabetes plan contain less than 45 grams of carbs and more than 15 grams of protein.
The company offers several different options for the Balance-Diabetes plan:
-- 5 days per week, 2 meals per day (lunch, dinner and sides; excludes breakfast). Cost for 10 meals: $121.99/week or $12.20/meal.
-- 5 days per week, 3 meals per day (breakfast, lunch, dinner and sides). Cost for 15 meals: $143.59/week or $9/57/meal.
-- 7 days per week, 2 meals per day (lunch, dinner and sides; excludes breakfast). Cost for 14 meals: $162.99/week or $11.64/meal.
-- 7 days per week, 3 meals per day (breakfast, lunch, dinner and sides). Cost for 21 meals: $179.99/week or $8.57/meal.
Shipping costs are $19.98 for each weekly shipment.
Sample meal: baked salmon with pineapple salsa. (Nutritional information not available.)
-- Carb-controlled meals contain about 20 to 45 grams of carbohydrate per serving.
-- Calorie conscious portions clock in at about 350 to 550 calories per meal.
-- A la carte and complete meal options available.
-- Meals are flash frozen and delivered to your home.
Magic Kitchen offers a wide variety of diet-specific prepared meal plans including dialysis-friendly, low sodium, gluten-free and senior diet options. Its diabetic-friendly meals are fresh cooked and delivered to your home -- all you have to do is heat and eat.
You can order one meal at a time or enroll in a discounted meal package plan. Currently, the diabetic program for one person options are:
-- 1 complete meal per day (your choice of breakfast, lunch or dinner) -- $82 to $90 per 7 days.
-- 2 complete meals per day (your choice of breakfast, lunch and/or dinner) -- $164 to $180 per 7 days.
-- 3 complete meals per day (breakfast, lunch and dinner) -- $246 to $275 per 7 days.
Meals average $11.70 to $14 per meal.
Sample meal: BBQ chicken drummies, Brussels sprouts, black beans and corn.
-- Calories: 300.
-- Fat: 7 grams.
-- Protein: 30 grams.
-- Carbohydrates: 33 grams (7 grams fiber, 11 grams sugars).
-- Cholesterol: 55 milligrams.
-- Sodium: 430 milligrams.
-- Fully prepared heat-and-eat meals and snacks designed for weight loss and diabetes management.
-- Free delivery.
-- Plans tailored for men and women.
-- Counselor support and access to diabetes educators.
If you're looking to lose some weight in addition to managing your diabetes, Nutrisystem might be a good option. The well-established diet company has several plans and programs that are specifically tailored to the needs of diabetic members.
There are several options for the diabetes plan:
-- Diabetes Basic Plan for Men: $9.20 per day, a 4-week price of $257.68.
-- Diabetes Basic Plan for Women: $8.10 per day, a 4-week price of $226.92.
Basic plans include pre-selected, ready-to-go foods and free FedEx shipping.
-- Diabetes Core Plan for Men: $9.89 per day, a 4-week price of $276.91.
-- Diabetes Core Plan for Women: $8.79 per day, a 4-week price of $246.15.
Core plans include a choice of over 100 foods or the Chef's Choice Pack, free FedEx shipping and unlimited support and access to certified diabetes educators, dietitians, tools and trackers.
-- Diabetes Uniquely Yours for Men: $10.99 per day, a 4-week price of $307.68.
-- Diabetes Uniquely Yours for Women: $9.89 per day, a 4-week price of $276.92.
Uniquely Yours plans include everything in the Core plan plus an even bigger selection of meals and snacks, unlimited frozen foods and total menu freedom.
Sample meal: Nutrisystem roasted turkey medallions and steamed veggies. (Nutritional information not available.)
-- Organic produce and clean ingredients.
-- Most meals between 550 and 800 calories.
-- Quick recipes for busy people.
Sun Basket offers a wide range of meal kit options in its subscription-based delivery programs. The diabetes-friendly plan can help you manage diabetes "deliciously." Carb- and calorie-conscious dishes are high in fiber and contain 15 grams or more of protein per serving from lean meats and seafood. Each dish clocks in at 700 calories or less per serving.
Sample meal: seared pork with blueberry-apricot sauce and sauteed greens.
-- Menu: dairy-free, gluten-free, diabetes-friendly, paleo, soy-free.
-- Prep: 20 minutes.
-- Calories: 400.
-- Protein: 24 grams.
-- Total Fat: 21 grams.
-- Carbohydrates: 32 grams (8 grams fiber, 17 grams sugars, 6 grams added sugars).
-- Cholesterol: 60 milligrams.
-- Sodium: 105 milligrams.
Seidman says "it's important to work with a health professional to figure out what changes would be of the greatest benefit for you and your family, and to help you make a plan to make it happen." A tailored approach can help you navigate any specific challenges you might be facing and see more lasting results.
Similarly, he says "it's best to make gradual changes towards a healthier lifestyle versus 'dieting.'" Finding a moderate, sustainable approach will pay bigger dividends than an endless cycle of binge and purge.
Lastly, Seidman says it's important to consider the source when you're getting information about nutrition. "In the age of the internet, there is a lot of misinformation out there." Working with a registered dietitian or doctor who understands your health challenges and goals is a good way to protect yourself from fad diets or bad information.