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    Managing Diabetes When You're on a Special Diet


    If you have dietary restrictions for diabetes, cooking healthy meals can help you stick to your diabetes meal plan.

    When you're following a special diet, managing diabetes can seem like even more of a challenge. However, it is possible to juggle gluten-free, kosher, vegetarian, vegan, or lactose-free eating with your dietary restrictions for diabetes. Here's how to manage diabetes and get the nutrients you need to feel your very best.




    Gluten is a protein found in certain grains, namely wheat, barley, and rye. Although most people can eat gluten without a problem, it can spell digestive misery for people with celiac disease. It's easy to assume that gluten-free packaged foods, such as bread, crackers, and bagels, are healthy choices. However, these products often contain added sugar and starch, so they frequently supply more carbohydrates than their gluten-containing counterparts. Instead, get your carbs from minimally processed gluten-free whole grains, vegetables, and beans. If you're managing diabetes on a gluten-free diet, whether by choice or because of a condition, try these swaps:


    • Certified gluten-free oatmeal instead of cold cereal
    • Quinoa- or rice-based pasta instead of wheat pasta
    • Whole-grain corn tortillas for wheat tortillas
    • Lettuce leaves as sandwich wraps instead of bread or buns




    A kosher diet requires separate meals for meat and dairy. If you keep a kosher kitchen, you may find that meat meals are easy to plan but that dairy meals are a little more challenging, as dairy meals can be low in protein yet heavy in carbohydrates. One way to bump up the protein in dairy meals is by strategically adding some pareve ingredients. Pareve foods contain no meat or dairy ingredients and can be eaten alongside either meal.


    Eggs. Eggs are considered pareve as long as they are free of blood spots. Scramble one whole egg with two whites for breakfast and serve with a side of fresh fruit (try this egg-to-egg-white ratio for egg salad and omelets, too).


    Tofu. Made from soybeans, tofu serves up the same complete, high-quality protein that you'd get from meat or fish. Blend it into smoothies, marinate and sear it for sandwiches, or sauté it in stir-fries.


    Fish. A tuna sandwich on whole-wheat for lunch or a salmon fillet over brown rice at dinner delivers loads of lean protein plus heart-healthy omega-3 fats.


    Whether your meals are meat or dairy, it's important to keep an eye on saturated fat, which can boost cholesterol levels. To limit saturated fat, choose white meat chicken, fish, or low-fat dairy instead of red meat whenever possible. For those special times when you do eat red meat, stick with extra lean cuts such as top sirloin and eye round and keep servings small, about the size of a deck of cards.


    Vegetarian and Vegan


    A carefully planned vegetarian diet can be packed with healthful vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. However, if you've ever known a vegetarian who lived on macaroni and cheese and French fries, you know that one can also be filled with fat and carbs. To keep your plant-based diet balanced, focus on whole, minimally processed foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. Also, bear in mind that plant-based diets can be low in calcium, iron, omega-3 fats, and vitamins D and B12. You can work more of these nutrients into your meal plan for diabetes with these foods:


    • Leafy greens, such as kale, broccoli, and bok choy for calcium
    • Fortified soy milk for calciumvitamin D, and vitamin B12
    • Fortified whole-grain cereals for iron and B12
    • Beans, tofu, and leafy green vegetables for iron
    • Walnuts, canola oil, flaxseed, and hempseed for omega-3 fats


    Nutrient-wise, vegan diets can be even more of a challenge because they exclude all animal-derivative foods. In addition to nutrients that may be lacking in a vegetarian diet, vegans also need to focus on protein. Eating tofu, edamame, beans, and protein-rich whole grains like bulgur, spelt, and quinoa can help fill the gap.




    If you're one of the millions of people who has trouble digesting lactose, the sugar in milk, it's easy to assume you should swear off dairy entirely. However, milk products contain important nutrients like potassium for healthy blood pressure and calcium for strong bones. If lactose doesn't agree with you, you might be surprised to learn that many people with lactose intolerance can eat natural cheeses such as cheddar and Swiss without a problem. When cheese is made, nearly all of its lactose is removed. Yogurt can also be a good choice, as its live and active cultures help break down and digest its lactose. If you're especially lactose-sensitive, there are products that can make dairy easier to stomach, such as lactose-free milk and tablets that supply lactase, the enzyme our bodies use to digest lactose, such as Lactaid Fast Act Enzyme Supplement.


    No matter which type of special diet you follow, remember to keep an eye on the amount—and quality—of carbohydrates in your diabetes meal plan for the very best blood sugar control.


    By Karen Ansel, MS, RDN




    American Diabetes Association, What Foods Have Gluten


    OK Kosher Certification, Meat, Dairy, & Pareve


    Orthodox Union, The Power of Pareve


    Diabetic Living, Should You Go Vegetarian? The Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet for People with Diabetes


    American Diabetes Association, Key Nutrients


    American Heart Association, How Potassium Can Help Control High Blood Pressure


    Cattlemen's Beef Board and Cattlemen's Beef Association, Many of America's Favorite Cuts are Lean


    National Dairy Council, Cheese and Healthy Eating - General Audience


    Midwest Dairy Association, Yogurt Facts

    These articles are not a substitute for medical advice, and are not intended to treat or cure any disease. Advances in medicine may cause this information to become outdated, invalid, or subject to debate. Professional opinions and interpretations of scientific literature may vary. Consult your healthcare professional before making changes to your diet, exercise, or medication regime.