9 Dos and Don'ts of Dieting With Diabetes

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 18, 2016
4 min read

Slimming down can help get your blood sugar levels back into the normal range. It might even cut down on or get rid of your need for medication. Easier said than done? Boost your odds of long-term success by following these expert tips.

"Losing weight is more like a marathon than a sprint; you can't go as hard as you can for a short period and then stop," says Michael Dansinger, MD, director of lifestyle coaching for diabetes weight loss at Tufts Medical Center and nutrition doctor for NBC's The Biggest Loser . "If you're not ready, any changes you make aren't going to be sustainable."

To get the push you need to keep going and going, Dansinger suggests comparing where your current habits are taking you to where you'd rather be in 5 years. Will you have diabetes-related complications? Or will you be healthier than you are today? The decisions you make now can shape your future.

You're more likely to stick with it if you start small, says Carolyn Brown, RD, a nutritionist at Foodtrainers in New York.

"Your first step might be aiming for an extra 15 minutes of exercise, or skipping the after-dinner treats," she says. "Commit to two new things per week, and build on them."

Tracking everything you eat and drink for at least a week is the best way to spot patterns.

"You might find that you graze a lot more throughout the day than you realized, or that you often forget to eat breakfast," Brown says. You can use an app or pen and paper, whichever you prefer.

It backfires. "When you skip meals, you're setting yourself up for a poor eating pattern for the day, as you'll probably be hungrier later on," says Jaclyn London, RD, senior clinical dietitian at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

She explains why meal skipping is risky for people with diabetes. First, it makes you more likely to have low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia. Also, not eating regularly can prevent diabetes medications from working like they should.

Eat breakfast. If you don't, "you're essentially asking your body to run on no fuel," London says.

She recommends starting the day with a high-protein ingredient, like an egg or Greek yogurt, so you stay full longer.

Many people overeat when they're worried or depressed. "Stress is a huge factor. It actually raises your blood sugar levels," Brown says. She often tells her clients to meet with a therapist to learn other ways to handle stress.

Having a strong support system can make all the difference. That can include friends, family, co-workers, or people who are working toward the same goal.

You can also team up with experts. "I'm a big believer in working with a lifestyle coach, whether it's in person, over the telephone, or via the Internet," Dansinger says. You'll get the advice, structure, and people to hold you accountable. That can make you five times more likely to lose 10% of your body weight.

Recent guidelines (issued jointly by the American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, and The Obesity Society) urge doctors to refer overweight and obese people to a comprehensive lifestyle program that lasts at least 6 months.

Watching what you eat is a good start. Exercise also matters a lot. Besides cardio, you should also do strength training. Lifting weights or working with resistance bands will help you build muscle and, in turn, curb insulin resistance -- when your body doesn’t respond to the insulin it makes.

"Your muscles play a large role in using and storing sugar, so keeping them strong is really important for maintaining healthy blood sugar levels," says Wayne Westcott, PhD, an instructor of exercise science at Quincy College. Aim to do some strength training at least twice a week.

Be active as much as possible throughout the day.

Research links long periods of sitting to a bigger chance of getting certain diseases, including diabetes. Brown suggests small bursts of activity every hour. Get up and refill your water bottle, walk to the farthest bathroom, or go chat with someone in person instead of sending an email or a text.

You can, and should, keep carbs in your diet. "Our brains run on carbs!" Brown says.

The key is to watch portion sizes. A serving is about the size of your fist.

You should also aim to cut back on the refined stuff (like white bread and pasta) in favor of healthier, less processed options. Whole-grain pasta, brown rice, quinoa, and sweet potatoes are good choices.

"Everyone falls off the wagon at some point by having a bad day, week, or even month," Dansinger says. "The difference between those who turn their health around and those who don't is persistence and perseverance."