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Tips for a healthy diet

Eating a balanced diet is a crucial part of leading a healthy lifestyle and is important for everyone – it can help you maintain a healthy weight and can reduce your risk of chronic disease.

A family having lunch
A healthy meal plan is very important for people with diabetes.

If you have type 1 diabetes, following a healthy meal plan is particularly important because it can help you manage your blood glucose level, keeping it within your target range. By balancing your diet with physical activity and any diabetes medication you may be taking, you can improve the management of your blood glucose level and, in turn, your diabetes.

What foods can I eat if I have type 1 diabetes?

The simple answer is anything! This may surprise you, but people with type 1 diabetes are permitted to eat all foods. In the past, people who were diagnosed with diabetes were given a very strict diet plan, but recent improvements in diabetes treatments mean that it’s now possible to have a much more varied diet.

A healthy diet for people with diabetes is the same as what is recommended for everyone – eat a variety of nutritious foods from all food groups, including lots of fruit and vegetables. It’s important to be aware that the type of food you eat, how much you eat, and the time of day you eat can all affect your blood glucose. But this does not necessarily mean you cannot eat the foods you love!

What is ‘carbohydrate counting’ and is it necessary?

Carbohydrates or ‘carbs’ are the main source of energy for your body and can come from a variety of foods, like fruits and vegetables, grains (bread, biscuits, pasta, cereals), dairy, and sugars. The amount of carbohydrate in a meal has the greatest impact on blood glucose level after that meal – this is because, during digestion, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is absorbed into your bloodstream.

Counting carbs can help you manage your carbohydrate intake and, in turn, your blood glucose. It involves keeping track of the amount of carbohydrates in the foods you eat each day, which can take time and practice. Your doctor can refer you to a diabetes educator or dietitian who can give you advice on carbohydrate counting and develop a healthy eating plan to help you manage your type 1 diabetes.

What does ‘glycaemic index’ mean, and why is it important?

Different carbohydrate-containing foods can have different effects on blood glucose – some are broken down and released into the bloodstream very quickly and others much more slowly.

Glycaemic index (GI) measures the rate at which carbohydrate foods are released into the bloodstream. GI is a score from 0 to 100, representing how quickly blood glucose rises after eating that food. Carbohydrates with a low GI score are more slowly digested and absorbed, causing a slower rise in blood glucose and generally a need for less insulin.

If you have type 1 diabetes, you may know that it is best to avoid peaks in your blood sugar level. Eating lots of low GI foods that are absorbed slowly and produce a gradual increase in blood sugar can help with this. Examples of lower GI foods include wholegrain bread, cereals, rolled oats, quinoa, yoghurt and sweet potato. Higher GI foods include white bread, quick oats, rice, couscous, oat milk and potato. Just because they are high GI does not mean you need to completely eliminate them from your diet – just eat them in smaller amounts.

What role does insulin play?

Insulin is released from the pancreas to help the body store and use the glucose from carbohydrates. In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas does not produce enough insulin, meaning that cells in the body can’t access glucose – this leads to a build-up of glucose in the blood.

There are two types of insulin:

  1. Basal – regulates blood glucose levels between meals and is released 24 hours a day, irrespective of whether you eat (sometimes referred to as ‘background’ insulin).
  2. Bolus – is released by the pancreas in direct response to consumption of food.

Taking insulin to manage your diabetes can be daunting, but your doctor can work closely with you to help you manage your insulin treatment to align with your diet and lifestyle.

The takeaway

Living with type 1 diabetes means that you have to be mindful of what you eat and the impact of certain foods on your body. However, there is no single ‘diabetes diet’ and all of our bodies are different. Your dietitian, diabetes educator or doctor can help you develop an appropriate meal plan for your body and your lifestyle.

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