Diabetes is a common and serious chronic illness and when poorly controlled, leads to multiple complications. “Although there are many medications available, nutritional therapy or dietary modification remains paramount to good diabetes control”, says Dr Daphne Gardner Su-Lyn, associate consultant at the Department of Endocrinology, Singapore General Hospital (SGH).
"Learning to eat regular meals, controlling the amount you eat and making healthy food choices can help you manage your diabetes better and help prevent other health complications", adds Dr Gardner.
The best person to advise you on nutrition matters remains a dietitian. Here is some advice by the Department of Dietetics at SGH.
Do I need a special diabetic diet
"The good news is that people with diabetes do not need to go on a special diet. You may have to modify your diet, rather than overhaul it", says Kala Adaikan, Principal Dietitian, Singapore General Hospital.
What’s important is that you understand how different foods, especially carbohydrates, affect your blood sugar (glucose) levels. Then, you can modify your diet by choosing healthier alternatives.
Should I reduce or even avoid carbohydrates?
"Carbohydrates are foods that give you energy and should be included as part of a healthy meal plan. In fact, they should provide half of your energy needs", says Ms Adaikan.
However, not all carbohydrates affect your blood sugar levels the same way. Carbohydrates can be divided into sugars (simple carbohydrates) and starches (complex carbohydrates).
Examples of sugars (simple carbohydrates):
Examples of starches (complex carbohydrates):
- Pasta and noodles
- Starchy vegetables
The more refined the carbohydrate, such as sugar, the faster the glucose is released into your bloodstream. This can cause a surge in blood sugar levels, says Ms Adaikan. Thus, you have to watch out for simple carbohydrates.
Complex carbohydrates (or starchy foods) release glucose into the bloodstream at a slower rate compared to sugary foods, thus providing more stable and sustainable energy levels. This is better for appetite control.
Should I switch to brown rice?
Brown and white rice contain the same amount of carbohydrates, but brown rice provides more fibre. Fibre can slow down the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream, thus improving your blood sugar levels, says Ms Adaikan.
Besides brown rice, try to include whole grain breads and high-fibre cereals in your diet, as these contain more helpful fibre too.
What about fruits and vegetables?
Fruits do contain sugar, but they are a good source of vitamins, minerals and fibre so they ought to be included as part of your meal plan and part of your carbohydrate intake. In general, most vegetables, particularly leafy vegetables, are recommended as they provide fibre.
No food is off limits. The important thing is to watch the portions of carbohydrates you eat in a day, says Ms Adaikan. For instance, make sure you count starchy vegetables such as potatoes as part of your carbohydrate requirements.
Carbohydrate requirements will vary from one person to the next. A dietitian can calculate your individual requirements and teach you carbohydrate-counting techniques for more flexibility in your diet.
Can I take more protein foods to fill up?
Protein foods like chicken and fish do not contain carbohydrates, so they will not raise blood sugar levels.
Some foods contain a combination of protein and carbohydrates. These include milk and dairy products and plant-based protein foods, such as beans, dhal and lentils. These should be counted as part of your carbohydrate intake.
Tip #1: Distribute your carbohydrate intake evenly throughout the day.
Tip #2: Do not skip meals, as this could cause dips in your blood sugar levels and you may be at risk of hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar).
Tip #3: Reduce your intake of sugars and sugary foods, and replace them with whole grain starches, such as whole grain bread, flour or pasta
Watch our video on: Healthy eating guide for diabetic
Read our doctor Q&A: Diabetes and diet