In an ideal world, there would be no such thing as a “diabetic diet.” While it is true that people with diabetes need to pay close attention to the types and amounts of foods they eat, diabetics can safely enjoy the same foods as everyone else.  In fact, a healthy diet for people with diabetes is a healthy diet for all of us, and it’s one that features whole grains, complex carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats in proportions that help keep your blood sugar under control.

What Is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a metabolic disorder that affects millions of Americans every year. This chronic disease develops when the cells of the body become resistant to the effects of insulin–the hormone needed to help our cells take up sugar (glucose) from the blood; and/or the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin– or any insulin at all. There are two types of diabetes, Type I and Type II. Type I, also known as juvenile diabetes because it often occurs in childhood, is an autoimmune condition that causes the pancreas to stop producing insulin altogether. Type II diabetes, more often striking people in adulthood, results from the body’s failure to respond to insulin properly, and eventually leads to complete inability to produce enough insulin. A third type of diabetes is known as gestational diabetes. It affects some women while they are pregnant and then resolves after the baby is born; however, having gestational diabetes is associated with an increased risk of developing Type II diabetes later on in life.

Regardless of what type of diabetes a person is dealing with, a proper diet is very important to restoring and maintaining good health. There are a number of factors that go into creating a healthy diet for people with diabetes, as well as a number of myths about what you can and cannot eat. The number one myth about diabetes and diet is that people with diabetes can never eat anything with sugar in it. While sugar is definitely something that you’ll need to monitor carefully, it’s not something that can never pass your lips again.

What about the Glycemic Index?

The glycemic index is a way to measure how much time it takes for foods to break down into simple sugar in the body. The Mayo Clinic states that the glycemic index was developed to help people with diabetes help control their blood sugar through their diet choices. Foods are rated according to the glycemic index, with those that take longer to break down into simple sugar being ranked lower than those that break down faster. Choosing foods that rank low on the glycemic index helps you maintain a steady blood sugar and avoid rapid changes in your sugar levels. A steady blood sugar level is the best way to prevent diabetes from causing complications and maintain good health.  Foods that are high in protein, fiber and/or contain some fat in addition to their carbohydrate content will be lower on the glycemic index, as these nutrients blunt the speed with which carbohydrate is digested and absorbed.  Conversely, foods high in simple sugars or starch but low in other nutrients–like cakes/cookies, white bread, juice, ice cream, soda, white potatoes/french fries and white rice–will have a high glycemic index, because they’re quickly broken down to sugar and cause a rapid spike in blood glucose levels.

Foods with a glycemic index of 55 or lower are considered low-glycemic, those ranked between 56 and 70 are medium, and those with a glycemic index over 71 are considered high-glycemic foods. Try to make up the bulk of your diet with lower glycemic-index foods and save those high-glycemic index foods for the very occasional treat.  To look up the glycemic index of your favorite foods, you can use the free, online GI Database from the University of Sydney.

Based in part on their glycemic indexes, the American Diabetic Association has dubbed certain foods–like beans, dark green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, tomatoes, berries, sweet potatoes, whole grains, nuts, fish, and low-fat milk and yogurt–as “superfoods.”  Including these superfoods in your diabetes-friendly meal plan can help you maintain steady blood sugar levels, as well as optimize your overall nutrition.  Popular diet plans such as the South Beach Diet and Nutrisystem are based on the glycemic index as well, based in part on credible science that shows how low-glycemic diets help improve blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.

Choosing your diabetic meal plan based on the glycemic index is a safe, healthy, evidence-based way to eat right, maintain your blood sugar levels and keep your diabetes from controlling your life—all without ever needing to eat a “diabetic diet.”