Whether you’ve just been diagnosed with diabetes or you’ve been managing it like a pro for years, chances are you always need new recipes to add to your repertoire. Or maybe you have a family member/friend/date who has diabetes, and want to cook dinner for them. Fear not. You don’t have to cook special, “diabetic” meals. Or, despite popular myths, obsessively avoid carbs.
Many people think that if you have diabeetus (as Wilford Brimley would say) that means you can’t eat carbohydrates. But, in fact, people with diabetes should get about 50% of their daily caloric intake from carbs — like anyone else looking to follow a healthy diet.
You just need to consider three things before chowing down: the type of carb, adding a protein, and portion sizes. These factors all impact blood sugar and can help keep sugars within normal range (aka glycemic control), which is the ultimate goal in diabetes management.
Here’s what’s going on: When you eat carbs, your body breaks them down into sugar (aka glucose) which is used for energy. Glucose is the ideal energy source for most bodily functions, including — most important — brain power. And insulin is a hormone that takes care of keeping your blood glucose in a safe range by transporting glucose from the blood into your body’s cells.
When a person has diabetes, their insulin is either not working effectively, is being produced inefficiently, or in some cases not being produced at all (depending on the type of diabetes). As a result, they have elevated levels of glucose in the blood. That’s likely where the whole no-carbs-or-sugar misconception came from. “Just don’t eat carbs or sugar and you’ll be fine,” right?
Nope. It’s not a carb thing, it’s an insulin thing. Your body does need some carbs to function. And, fortunately, a person with diabetes can manipulate their diet for better glycemic control by incorporating some of the recommendations below into their lifestyle.
How To Enjoy Carbs When You Have Diabetes:
1. Understand that not all carbs are created equal.
Sweet potatoes have carbs. So do chips. But there’s a small difference between them that’s actually kind of a BIG difference. Simple carbs found in most processed or refined foods, like white bread, rice, and chips, are digested quickly, thus causing a rapid rise in blood sugar. It’s almost like an injection of sugar; you don’t have to be a scientist to see that this isn’t the best choice for someone with diabetes.
But complex carbs found in natural foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains contain fiber which slows digestion — preventing that sugar spike — and also keeps you fuller longer. Check foods labels and reach for product with 3 grams of fiber or more per serving to keep that sugar in control.
2. Add a protein.
Protein + Carb = <3. Include a protein with meals and snacks. Like fiber, protein can prevent spikes in blood sugar by slowing digestion and serves to keep you fuller, longer too! Choose lean cuts of meat and seafood for animal protein. For meat-free options, you get protein from legumes, nuts, seeds, eggs, low-fat dairy, and soy products.
3. Practice portion control.
Pay attention to portion sizes. Check the nutrition facts panel for the serving size, maybe even invest in some measuring cups, and teach yourself to recognize portion sizes. Like, when you make a fist (pump) it’s about 1 cup. The point is portion size DOES matter.
You can also follow guidelines for creating your plate, an effective way to enjoy carbs while managing your diabetes:
Fill ½ your plate with vegetables (think dark greens), ¼ protein, and ¼ starch.
Based on the Create Your Plate healthy eating guideline recommended by the American Diabetes Association.
Instead of thinking “no carbs” to control your sugar levels, think about the source of the carbohydrate and choose meals and snacks that combine fiber and protein. Here are some examples:
1. Skillet-Baked Eggs with Spinach, Yogurt, and Chili Oil
2. Oatmeal Cottage Cheese Banana Pancakes
These are so good on their own that you don’t need syrup, but if you want, you can top with all natural peanut or almond butter for texture and extra credit protein. Recipe here.
3. Broiled Grapefruit with Yogurt and Granola
Instead of store-bought granola (which is often high in sugar), opt to top with a high-fiber cereal like Kashi Go Lean. You can also make this homemade granola that uses sugar substitute. Recipe here.
4. Carrot Cake Overnight Protein Oatmeal
It looks naughty, but it’s actually nice. High protein, high fiber. Make it breakfast or dessert, your choice. Recipe here.
5. Spring Carrot, Radish, and Quinoa Salad with Herbed Avocado
Quinoa is a superfood, because it contains both protein and fiber – 2 in 1. Load up on UNLIMITED non-starchy vegetables with a tasty lemony dressing and a savory herbed avocado. Recipe here.
6. Sheet Pan Roast Chicken Dinner
Take notes, this is the perfect example of the protein + green veg + starchy veg formula. Plus, roasted Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes are pure magic, AND this is a one-pan cleanup. Recipe here.
7. No-Noodle Zucchini Lasagna
Clever noodle subs are great, like this zucchini “lasagna” ( you could also do this trick with eggplant). The cottage cheese in this recipe gives it the protein boost. Recipe here.
8. Summer Vegetables with Chicken Sausage and Potatoes
Don’t be deterred by the carb content. This recipe is high in fiber and protein, which CAN prevent blood sugar spikes. GO ahead! Recipe here.
9. Stuffed Eggplant with Lentils and Millet
Lentils contain both protein and fiber, and millet is a brilliant source of whole grains. Check, check, and check. Recipe here.
10. Roasted Shrimp with Spaghetti Squash
Replace pasta with spaghetti squash! Trusty trick that satisfies every time. Recipe here.
11. Slow Cooker White Turkey Chili
Perfect way to use leftover turkey or even chicken. Recipe here.
12. Baked Salmon with Creamy Lemon Dill Zucchini “Pasta”
Make Zucchini “pasta” your friend. Recipe here.
13. Chili con Tofu
Spice makes healthy eating so much more fun. Recipe here.
14. Fish Tacos with Mango Avocado Salsa
Swap corn tortillas for whole wheat tortillas for added fiber and fullness. Recipe here.
15. Cauliflower Fried “Rice”
FOOLED YA. This “rice” is made from shredded cauliflower. Recipe here.
16. Slow Cooker Chicken and Wild Rice Soup
Another perfect plate (or rather bowl) model — packed with fiber, protein, and greens. Recipe here.
17. Chipotle Turkey Burger
Any whole grain bun will do. Recipe here.
18. Brown Rice Bowl with Ginger-Lime Chicken and Bok Choy
19. Pork with Squash and Apples
Sweet-savory combo meets carb-protein combo in the best way possible. Recipe here.
20. One-Pot Moroccan Chicken and Chickpeas with Pistachio Couscous and Goat Cheese
Couscous, friendly carb! Chicken, friendly pro! Recipe here.
21. Whole-Wheat Crackers with Cheese Spread and Cucumbers
The snack attack made for you! Full details here.
22. Roasted Beet Hummus
Can’t BEAT it, hummus is always a solid choice. Scoop with vegetables or whole grain pita chips. Recipe here.
23. Pico Guacamole
Snack on guacamole? Don’t have to ask twice. Scoop with veggies and whole grain tortilla chips. Recipe here.
25. A Cheese Plate
Especially at parties or out to dinner with friends, you can always count on a trusty cheese plate for carb control. Just remember cheese can be high in fat, so keep in mind portion sizes, and eat with whole grain crackers and nuts for fiber. How to make the perfect cheese plate here.
26. Heavenly Cheesecake
Vote cheesecake for dessert/president — high protein and lower carb sweet treat for the win. Recipe here.
27. Strawberry Cucumber Salad Cups
Get your protein by adding a dollop of plain low-fat Greek yogurt. Recipe here.
28. Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Blondies
These are gluten-free and sugar-free blondies. Recipe here.
29. Easy Greek Yogurt Parfaits
Sprinkle sugar substitute on top of this parfait in place of honey to cut some sugar for a guilt-free indulgence. Recipe here. (Scroll down.)
30. Brownie Batter Overnight Protein Oatmeal
What you can eat something that’s called brownie batter…? Yup. Recipe here.