Diabetes Meal Planning Options

Finding the Right Meal Management Approach

Photo: Photodisc / Getty Images

There are several diabetes meal planning options are available. To eat well with type 1 diabetes means eating nutritious foods in sensible portion sizes and timing it appropriately with your insulin. But there are different approaches to managing your meals. Here are the four most common:

Carbohydrate Counting

By far the most popular method of meal planning for those with diabetes is carbohydrate counting.

It is a relatively simple process that works by calculating the number of carbohydrates in any given food and then adding all of the carbohydrates in the meal you intend to eat. You have a predetermined number of carbohydrates per meal (usually worked out with a dietician) that is your target goal.

Some people find this approach a little cumbersome at first because they must look up the number of carbohydrates in each food. But, once you learn the number of carbs for your favorite foods it becomes less labor-intensive. Many people find the flexibility that carb counting provides is well worth the effort.

The Plate Method

Though not as accurate as carb counting, the plate method is one that many people use, especially when they are eating away from home. The plate method is a helpful way to gauge the quantity of food you put on your plate as well as a guide to the types of food that you should be eating at meals.

Using the plate method is easy. Take an average-sized dinner plate and divide it in half. In one-half place non-starchy vegetables, such as broccoli, lettuce or carrots. Divide the other half of your plate in half again. In one-quarter, place your protein sources, such as 3 oz. of lean meat, chicken or fish.

In the other quarter of your plate, place your starchy foods such as rice, beans or potatoes. When using the plate method, be mindful of the fact that the number of carbohydrates can vary widely in food that the same quantity of food. For example, a slice of bread may range between 7 to 30 grams of carbohydrates, depending on the type.

Diabetes Food Pyramid

The Diabetes Food Pyramid organizes food groups in a similar way to the USDA Food Pyramid model but changes the serving sizes so that each serving of a given food, regardless of category, is about the same number of carbohydrates. The Diabetes Food Pyramid acts as a visual guide to help you choose carbohydrates from six major food groups depicted in four levels. These levels are:

  • Breads, grains and other starches
  • Vegetables and fruits
  • Milk and meat/meat substitutes
  • Fats, oils, and sweets

The goal is to consume more of your carbohydrates from foods found in the lower half of the pyramid and fewer carbohydrates from foods in the upper half.

Exchange lists

When using the exchange system, foods are grouped into six basic types:

  • Starches
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Milk
  • Meat
  • Fats

The goal in using the exchange list is creating a proper balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats throughout the day based on your unique nutritional needs.

Most foods you eat during a day will consist of starches, fruits, and vegetables because these contain carbohydrates, your main source of energy. The exchange system also encourages the use of ​”free” foods, which contain less than 20 calories per serving and can be eaten in any amount spread throughout the day without significantly raising blood sugar.

When using the exchange system you typically design a daily meal plan with the help of a dietitian. This enables you to know the number of exchanges from each of the six categories you can have at any given meal. If you want more of one item on the menu, you simply "exchange" any food from one category and replace it with another, as long as the number of carbohydrates in both foods are generally same.

For example, if you wanted an extra handful of potato chips with your meal you might exchange it for the bun of your hot dog.

The exchange system encourages a good balance of nutrition and provides some flexibility to incorporate foods you like. Though the exchange system was popular years ago, most dietitians now advocate for carbohydrate counting because it is a more accurate approach to meal planning and provides greater flexibility.


Carb Counting. American Diabetes Association.  http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/what-can-i-eat/understanding-carbohydrates/

Create Your Plate. American Diabetes Association. http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/planning-meals/create-your-plate/

Diabetes Food Pyramid. American Diabetes Association. http://www.diabetes.org/food-nutrition-lifestyle/nutrition/meal-planning/diabetes-food-pyramid.jsp 404

Continue Reading