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4 Systems for Diabetes Meal Planning

Meal plans can help you eat a balanced diabetes diet. It's the natural way to manage your blood sugar levels.

The Plate System

This easy trick lets you visually gauge each plate of food for nutritional balance -- even restaurant meals. Here's how it works: Pretend your plate is divided in half. Then divide one of those halves into two equal sections:

  • One-half plate = Non-starchy vegetables (spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, tomatoes, asparagus, romaine lettuce).
  • One-fourth plate = 1 serving meat or other protein (like egg or tofu).
  • One-fourth plate = Bread/Grain (bread, rice, tortillas, cereal) or Starchy Vegetables (potatoes, corn, beans, lentils).

Sample Dinner: 1 serving skinless chicken breast (protein); 1 small sweet potato (starch); 1 serving lettuce/tomato salad and 1 serving steamed broccoli (nonstarchy veggies).

The plate system won't be sufficiently accurate if you need very tight blood sugar control -- if you are pregnant, for instance, or if you have pre-meal insulin that needs to be adjusted, Davis says.

That's because the carb grams in various foods can vary substantially, she explains. "One slice of bread may have anywhere from 28 carb grams to 7 grams," says Davis. "If you're taking insulin, that difference is going to have a big affect on how much insulin you need."

The plate system is a great tool if you need to control portions and reduce calories, she adds. "I use it to encourage patients to substitute lots of nonstarchy vegetables, which are low in calories and carbs, and high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. If you eat lots of nonstarchy vegetables, you're going lose weight."

Carbohydrate Counting

Carbohydrate gram counting is the most accurate meal planning system for controlling blood sugar, says Davis, requiring you to closely read food labels to determine the carb grams in each serving size. For foods that don't have nutrition labels -- or combination foods like lasagna -- there are reference books that can help, including Calorie King: The Complete Book of Food Counts, Calories and Carbohydrates.

A dietitian will help you determine the right amount of carb grams you need at each meal, based on your current blood sugar, your target blood sugar, your physical activity level, and your weight loss goals, Davis tells WebMD. "A dietitian can also help you use a before- and 2-hour-after-meal blood glucose test to determine a carb gram target for each meal."

For example, these might be your goals:

  • Breakfast: 40 - 50 carb grams
  • Lunch: 55 - 65 carb grams
  • Dinner: 55 - 60 carb grams
  • Snacks: talk to your dietitian about this

You can choose any type of carbs –- starchy or not, breads or not –- as long as you stay within your goals, Davis explains. You and your dietitian will negotiate the amount of protein and fat you can eat. "If you're overweight, you'll need some limits," she says.

Sample breakfast: 1 cup orange juice (24 carb grams); 1/2 cup low-fat milk (6 carb grams); 1 cup plain Cheerios (23 carb grams). This menu is within your 40-50 carb gram breakfast limit. If you'd rather eat something else, you'll have to read the products' nutrition labels to see what fits your carb-gram-counting goals.

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