From the moment you are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes you are likely to be faced with what seems like an endless list of new tasks that need to become part of everyday life – injections, testing, treating a hypo, monitoring and eating a healthy, balanced diet. No wonder it can all seem so daunting and overwhelming.
One of your first questions is likely to be “what can I eat?” But, with so much to take in, you could still come away from appointments feeling unsure about the answer. Plus, there are lots of myths about diabetes and food that you will need to navigate too. If you’ve just been diagnosed and aren’t sure about what you can and can’t eat, here’s what you need to know.
I've just been diagnosed with Type 1 – what can I eat?
In one word... anything. It may come as a surprise, but all kinds of food are fine for people with Type 1 diabetes to eat. In the past, people were sent away after their diagnosis with a very restrictive diet plan. This was because the availability of insulin was limited and the type of insulin treatment was very restrictive. As insulin treatments have been developed to be much more flexible, the days of “do's and don'ts” are long gone. The way to go nowadays is to try and fit the diabetes and insulin around the same healthy, balanced diet that is recommended for everyone, with lots of fruit and veg and some food from all the food groups.
Is there anything I should avoid?
Before your diagnosis of diabetes, it is likely that you experienced an unquenchable thirst. It is a good idea to avoid sugary drinks and fruit juices as a way of quenching thirst. They usually put blood glucose levels up very high and very quickly – which is why they can be a useful treatment for a hypo (low blood glucose levels). Instead, drink water, sugar-free and diet soft drinks. Tea and coffee are still OK to include, too.
Avoid foods labelled ‘diabetic’ or ‘suitable for diabetics’. These foods contain similar amounts of calories and fat, and they can affect your blood glucose levels. They are usually more expensive and can have a laxative effect. Stick to your usual foods. If you want to have an occasional treat, go for your normal treats and watch your portion sizes.
Is there anything I should definitely eat or have at mealtimes?
It is a good idea to include some carbs with your meals as, without carbohydrate, your insulin may cause blood glucose levels to drop too low. Healthier sources of carbohydrate include fruit and vegetables, pulses and wholegrain starchy foods, especially those that do not contain added salt, sugar and saturated fats.
It is very important to eat at roughly the same times when using a twice-daily insulin regime – your diabetes team can advise when this is best for you. It is less important to eat at the same times when using a basal bolus insulin regime because recommendations are usually to inject just before, during or just after eating.
What’s good to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner?
What do you normally eat? If the answer includes some carbohydrate at each meal then really there is nothing more to consider for now – just try to eat as normally as possible. If you are stuck for ideas, choose one of these:
- a bowl of cereal with semi-skimmed milk
- wholegrain toast with spread and/or jam
- yogurt and fruit
- a cereal bar and a glass of milk.
- a chicken or ham salad sandwich...
- a small pasta salad...
- soup and a roll...
...with a piece of fruit and a yogurt.
- lasagne and salad
- roast chicken with potatoes and vegetables
- beef stir fry, vegetables and rice
- chicken tortillas and salad
- salmon and noodles
- curry and rice
What sort of snacks do I need to eat?
Sometimes, you might need to eat a small snack between meals, to help keep blood glucose levels up. Regular snacks can make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight so check with the diabetes team for specific advice that is tailored for your diabetes management.
The healthiest snack choice is definitely a piece of fruit, but rice cakes, crackers, a couple of biscuits, a small bag of crisps, a cereal bar, or a yogurt are good snack choices too.
What is recommended in the long term?
Extra education and training can help you understand how to manage the amount of carbohydrate you eat and the insulin you take to help control blood glucose levels more effectively. It can take some time and effort but, in the long run, things become much easier.
If you are taking fixed amounts of insulin twice a day, it may be beneficial to have consistent amounts of carbohydrates on a day-to-day basis, and eat roughly the same amount of carbohydrate at similar times each day. More carbohydrate than usual can cause blood glucose levels to go too high, and less than usual can cause a hypo (low blood glucose levels).
If you are using a basal bolus insulin regime then it's possible to be much more flexible in when to eat and how much insulin to take. Most people following this regimen will count the carbohydrates that they eat and drink and then calculate how much insulin they need to take. The amount of insulin will change depending on how much carbohydrate they are eating and other factors. It can offer people much greater flexibility with food choices and timings of meals without compromising blood glucose control.
A healthy diet
A healthy, balanced diet is also important for people with Type 1 diabetes. Apart from managing blood glucose levels with insulin and carbohydrates, people with Type 1 diabetes are also encouraged to make healthier food choices that are lower in saturated fat, sugar and salt. Doing these will help to:
- control blood fats
- control blood pressure
- maintain a healthy weight.
In turn, this can help to reduce your risk of diabetes complications including heart disease and stroke. As with any lifestyle changes, making gradual and realistic changes over a longer period of time is more likely to lead to success. See a registered dietitian for specific advice and an eating plan that is tailored to your needs.