Nutrition and physical activity are important parts of a healthy lifestyle
when you have diabetes. Along with other benefits, following a healthy meal plan and being active can help you
keep your blood glucose level, also
called blood sugar, in your target range. To manage your blood glucose, you need to balance what you eat and
drink with physical activity and diabetes medicine, if you take any. What you choose to eat, how much you eat,
and when you eat are all important in keeping your blood glucose level in the range that your health care team
Becoming more active and making changes in what you eat and drink can seem
challenging at first. You may find it easier to start with small changes and get help from your family,
friends, and health care team.
Eating well and being physically active most days of the week can help
- keep your blood glucose level, blood pressure, and cholesterol in your
- lose weight or stay at a healthy
- prevent or delay diabetes
- feel good and have more energy
What foods can I eat if I have diabetes?
You may worry that having diabetes means going without foods you enjoy. The
good news is that you can still eat your favorite foods, but you might need to eat smaller portions or enjoy
them less often. Your health care team will help create a diabetes meal plan for you that meets your needs and
The key to eating with diabetes is to eat a variety of healthy foods from all
food groups, in the amounts your meal plan outlines.
The food groups are
- nonstarchy: includes broccoli, carrots, greens, peppers, and
- starchy: includes potatoes, corn, and green peas
oranges, melon, berries, apples, bananas, and grapes
- grains—at least
half of your grains for the day should be whole grains
- includes wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, and
- examples: bread, pasta, cereal, and tortillas
- lean meat
- chicken or turkey without the skin
- nuts and peanuts
- dried beans and certain peas, such as chickpeas and split
- meat substitutes, such as tofu
dairy—nonfat or low fat
- milk or lactose-free milk if you have lactose intolerance
Learn more about the food groups at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s
(USDA) ChooseMyPlate.gov .
Choose healthy fats, such as from nuts, seeds, and olive oil.
Eat foods with heart-healthy fats, which mainly come from these
- oils that are liquid at room temperature, such as canola and olive
- nuts and seeds
- heart-healthy fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel
Use oils when cooking food instead of butter, cream, shortening, lard, or
What foods and drinks should I limit if I have diabetes?
Foods and drinks to limit include
- fried foods and other foods high in saturated
fat and trans
- foods high in salt, also called sodium
- sweets, such as baked goods, candy, and ice cream
- beverages with added
sugars, such as juice, regular soda, and regular sports or
Drink water instead of sweetened beverages. Consider using a sugar substitute
in your coffee or tea.
If you drink alcohol, drink moderately—no more than one drink a day if you’re
a woman or two drinks a day if you’re a man. If you use insulin or diabetes medicines that increase the amount
of insulin your body makes, alcohol can make your blood glucose level drop too low. This is especially true if
you haven’t eaten in a while. It’s best to eat some food when you drink alcohol.
When should I eat if I have diabetes?
Some people with diabetes need to eat at about the same time each day. Others
can be more flexible with the timing of their meals. Depending on your diabetes medicines or type of insulin,
you may need to eat the same amount of carbohydrates at the same time each day. If you take “mealtime” insulin,
your eating schedule can be more flexible.
If you use certain diabetes medicines or insulin and you skip or delay a meal,
your blood glucose level can drop too low. Ask your health care team when you should eat and whether you should
eat before and after physical activity.
How much can I eat if I have diabetes?
Eating the right amount of food will also help you manage your blood glucose
level and your weight. Your health care team can help you figure out how much food and how many calories you
should eat each day. Look up how many calories are in what you eat and drink at the USDA’s Food-A-Pedia .
If you are overweight or obese, work with your health care team to create
a weight-loss plan.
These tools may help:
Body Weight Planner can help
you tailor your plans to reach and maintain your goal weight.
- The SuperTracker lets you track your food,
physical activity, and weight.
To lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories and replace less healthy foods
with foods lower in calories, fat, and sugar.
If you have diabetes, are overweight or obese, and are planning to have a
baby, you should try to lose any excess weight before you become pregnant. Learn
more about planning for pregnancy if you have diabetes.
Meal plan methods
Two common ways to help you plan how much to eat if you have diabetes are the
plate method and carbohydrate counting, also called carb counting. Check with your health care team about the
method that’s best for you.
The plate method helps you control your portion
sizes. You don’t need to count calories. The plate method shows the
amount of each food group you should eat. This method works best for lunch and dinner.
Use a 9-inch plate. Put nonstarchy vegetables on half of the plate; a meat or
other protein on one-fourth of the plate; and a grain or other starch on the last one-fourth. Starches include
starchy vegetables such as corn and peas. You also may eat a small bowl of fruit or a piece of fruit, and drink
a small glass of milk as included in your meal plan.
The plate method shows the amount of each food group you should eat.
You can find many different combinations of food and more details about using
the plate method from the American Diabetes Association’s Create Your Plate .
Your daily eating plan also may include small snacks between meals.
- You can use everyday objects or your hand to judge the size of a
- 1 serving of meat or poultry is the palm of your hand or a deck of
- 1 3-ounce serving of fish is a checkbook
- 1 serving of cheese is six dice
- 1/2 cup of cooked rice or pasta is a rounded handful or a tennis
- 1 serving of a pancake or waffle is a DVD
- 2 tablespoons of peanut butter is a ping-pong ball
Carbohydrate counting involves
keeping track of the amount of carbohydrates you eat and drink each day. Because carbohydrates turn into
glucose in your body, they affect your blood glucose level more than other foods do. Carb counting can help you
manage your blood glucose level. If you take insulin, counting carbohydrates can help you know
how much insulin to take.
The right amount of carbohydrates varies by how you manage your diabetes,
including how physically active you are and what medicines you take, if any. Your health care team can help you
create a personal eating plan based on carbohydrate counting.
The amount of carbohydrates in foods is measured in grams. To count
carbohydrate grams in what you eat, you’ll need to
- learn which foods have carbohydrates
- read the
Nutrition Facts food label, or learn
to estimate the number of grams of carbohydrate in the foods you eat
- add the grams of carbohydrate from each food you eat to get your total
for each meal and for the day
Most carbohydrates come from starches, fruits, milk, and sweets. Try to limit
carbohydrates with added sugars or those with refined grains, such as white bread and white rice. Instead, eat
carbohydrates from fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and low-fat or nonfat
Choose healthy carbohydrates, such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans,
and low-fat milk, as part of your diabetes meal plan.
In addition to using the plate method and carb counting, you may want to visit
dietitian (RD) for medical nutrition therapy.
What is medical nutrition therapy?
Medical nutrition therapy is a service provided by an RD to create personal
eating plans based on your needs and likes. For people with diabetes, medical nutrition therapy has been shown
to improve diabetes management. Medicare pays for medical nutrition therapy for people with
diabetes. If you have insurance other
than Medicare, ask if it covers medical nutrition therapy for diabetes.
Will supplements and vitamins help my diabetes?
No clear proof exists that taking dietary
supplements such as
vitamins, minerals, herbs, or spices can help manage diabetes.1 You may need supplements if you cannot
get enough vitamins and minerals from foods. Talk with your health care provider before you take any dietary
supplement since some can cause side effects or affect how your medicines work.2
Why should I be physically active if I have diabetes?
Physical activity is an important part of managing your blood glucose level
and staying healthy. Being active has many health benefits.
- lowers blood glucose levels
- lowers blood
- improves blood flow
- burns extra calories so you can keep your weight down if
- improves your mood
- can prevent falls and improve memory in older adults
- may help you sleep better
If you are overweight, combining physical activity with a reduced-calorie
eating plan can lead to even more benefits. In the
Look AHEAD: Action for Health in Diabetes study,1 overweight adults with type 2 diabetes who ate less and moved more had greater
long-term health benefits compared to those who didn’t make these changes. These benefits included improved
cholesterol levels, less sleep
apnea, and being able to move around more easily.
Even small amounts of physical activity can help. Experts suggest that you aim
for at least 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity 5 days of the
activity feels somewhat hard, and vigorous activity is intense and feels hard. If you want to lose weight
or maintain weight loss, you may need to do 60 minutes or more of physical activity 5 days of the
Be patient. It may take a few weeks of physical activity before you see
changes in your health.
How can I be physically active safely if I have diabetes?
Be sure to drink water before, during, and after exercise to stay well
hydrated. The following are some other tips for safe physical activity when you have
Drink water when you exercise to stay well hydrated.
Talk with your health care team before you start a new physical activity
routine, especially if you have other health problems. Your health care team will tell you a target range for
your blood glucose level and suggest how you can be active safely.
Your health care team also can help you decide the best time of day for you to
do physical activity based on your daily schedule, meal plan, and diabetes medicines. If you take insulin, you
need to balance the activity that you do with your insulin doses and meals so you don’t get low blood
Prevent low blood glucose
Because physical activity lowers your blood glucose, you should protect
yourself against low blood glucose levels, also called
hypoglycemia. You are most likely to
have hypoglycemia if you take insulin or certain other diabetes medicines, such as a sulfonylurea. Hypoglycemia also can occur after a
long intense workout or if you have skipped a meal before being active. Hypoglycemia can happen during or up
to 24 hours after physical activity.
Planning is key to preventing hypoglycemia. For instance, if you take insulin,
your health care provider might suggest you take less insulin or eat a small snack with carbohydrates before,
during, or after physical activity, especially intense activity.5
You may need to check your blood glucose level before, during, and right after
you are physically active.
Stay safe when blood glucose is high
If you have type 1 diabetes, avoid vigorous physical activity when you have
ketones in your blood or urine. Ketones are chemicals your body might make when your blood glucose level is too
high, a condition called hyperglycemia, and your insulin level is too low. If you are physically active when
you have ketones in your blood or urine, your blood glucose level may go even higher. Ask your health care team
what level of ketones are dangerous for you and how to test for them. Ketones are uncommon in people with type
Take care of your feet
People with diabetes may have problems with their feet because of poor blood
flow and nerve damage that can result from high blood glucose levels. To help prevent foot problems, you should
wear comfortable, supportive shoes and
take care of your feet before, during, and after physical
What physical activities should I do if I have diabetes?
Most kinds of physical activity can help you take care of your diabetes.
Certain activities may be unsafe for some people, such as those with low vision or nerve damage to their feet.
Ask your health care team what physical activities are safe for you. Many people choose walking with friends or
family members for their activity.
Doing different types of physical activity each week will give you the most
health benefits. Mixing it up also helps reduce boredom and lower your chance of getting hurt. Try these
options for physical activity.
Add extra activity to your daily routine
If you have been inactive or you are trying a new activity, start slowly, with
5 to 10 minutes a day. Then add a little more time each week. Increase daily activity by spending less time in
front of a TV or other screen. Try these simple ways to add physical activities in your life each
- Walk around while you talk on the phone or during TV
- Do chores, such as work in the garden, rake leaves, clean the house, or
wash the car.
- Park at the far end of the shopping center parking lot and walk to the
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Make your family outings active, such as a family bike ride or a walk in
If you are sitting for a long time, such as working at a desk or watching TV,
do some light activity for 3 minutes or more every half hour.6 Light activities include
- leg lifts or extensions
- overhead arm stretches
- desk chair swivels
- torso twists
- side lunges
- walking in place
Do aerobic exercise
Aerobic exercise is activity that makes your heart beat faster and makes you
breathe harder. You should aim for doing aerobic exercise for 30 minutes a day most days of the week. You do
not have to do all the activity at one time. You can split up these minutes into a few times throughout the
To get the most out of your activity, exercise at a moderate to vigorous
- walking briskly or hiking
- climbing stairs
- swimming or a water-aerobics class
- riding a bicycle or a stationary bicycle
- taking an exercise class
- playing basketball, tennis, or other sports
Talk with your health care team about how to warm up and cool down before and
after you exercise.
Do strength training to build muscle
You can do strength training with hand weights, elastic bands, or weight
Strength training is a light or moderate physical activity that builds muscle
and helps keep your bones healthy. Strength training is important for both men and women. When you have more
muscle and less body fat, you’ll burn more calories. Burning more calories can help you lose and keep off extra
You can do strength training with hand weights, elastic bands, or weight
machines. Try to do strength training two to three times a week. Start with a light weight. Slowly increase the
size of your weights as your muscles become stronger.
Do stretching exercises
Stretching exercises are light or moderate physical activity. When you
stretch, you increase your flexibility, lower your stress, and help prevent sore muscles.
You can choose from many types of stretching exercises. Yoga is a type of
stretching that focuses on your breathing and helps you relax. Even if you have problems moving or balancing,
certain types of yoga can help. For instance, chair yoga has stretches you can do when sitting in a chair or
holding onto a chair while standing. Your health care team can suggest whether yoga is right for
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1 American Diabetes Association. Foundations of care and comprehensive medical evaluation.
Diabetes Care. 2016;39(suppl 1):S26 (Table 3.3).
2 National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. Dietary supplements: what you
need to know. ods.od.nih.gov/HealthInformation/DS_WhatYouNeedToKnow.aspx .
Reviewed June 17, 2011. Accessed June 21, 2016.
3 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health
Promotion. 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans summary. http://health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/summary.aspx . Updated June 21, 2016. Accessed June 21, 2016.
4 Yardley JE, Stapleton JM, Sigal RJ, Kenny GP. Do heat events pose a greater health risk for
individuals with type 2 diabetes? Diabetes Technol Ther. 2013;15(6):520–529.
5 Yardley JE, Sigal RJ. Exercise strategies for hypoglycemia prevention in individuals with type
1 diabetes. Diabetes Spectrum. 2015;28(1):32–38.
6 Colberg SR, Sigal RJ, Yardley JE, et al. Physical activity/exercise and diabetes: a position
statement of the American Diabetes Association. Diabetes Care. 2016;39(11):2065–2079.