Diabetes: Building Blocks of a Healthy Diet

Nutrition may seem like a complicated business. But in the big picture, every diet has just three main pieces: fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. As a person with diabetes, you should know how to use these building blocks to help manage your disease and maintain your health.

The three components

Fat. Despite its unhealthy reputation, fat is a crucial part of a healthy diet. Fat provides a big dose of energy — a single gram contains nine calories. Your body also needs a steady supply of fats to build cell membranes.

The trick is to get the right kinds of fats in the right amounts. Too much fat can encourage weight gain and make blood sugar harder to control. You should be especially wary of saturated fats found in red meats, full-fat dairy products, and some oils. These fats can clog your arteries and raise your risk of heart disease. The American Diabetes Association recommends getting no more than 7 percent of your daily calories from saturated fat. Instead, try to get most of your fats from healthier sources such as nuts, fish, and olive oil.

Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates — sugary substances found in starchy and sweet foods — are your main source of fuel. Each gram of carbs contains only four calories (less than half what you’d get from the same amount of fat), but your body can easily store and use that energy whenever it’s needed. Carbohydrates can also raise your blood sugar, so it’s helpful to keep track of the carbs that go in to your body. The American Diabetes Association recommends getting about 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrate in every meal, though you may need more or less than this number depending on how well your diabetes is controlled. Check with your health care team to determine the right number for you. You may have an easier time controlling your blood sugar if you mainly stick to foods that raise blood sugar relatively slowly, including apples, whole grains, and milk.

Proteins. Gram for gram, proteins pack as many calories as carbohydrates, but they aren’t a major source of energy. Their main job is building muscle and other tissues. Good sources of protein include soy, meat, poultry, beans, eggs, and dairy products. The proteins found in nuts, grains, and vegetables aren’t quite as useful for the body. The American Diabetes Association recommends getting about 15 to 20 percent of your calories from proteins. For a person who weighs 150 pounds, that would add up to about 54 grams of protein every day. If you have weak or damaged kidneys, your doctor or dietitian may suggest cutting back on protein even more to prevent further damage.


American Diabetes Association. Nutrition recommendations and interventions for diabetes care. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/31/Supplement_1/S61.full

American Diabetes Association. Carbohydrate counting. http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/planning-meals/carb-counting/

University of Illinois Extension. Food groups and diabetes: What are macronutrients? http://urbanext.illinois.edu/diabetes2/subsection.cfm?SubSectionID=15

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Macronutrients: The importance of carbohydrate, protein, and fat. http://www.mckinley.illinois.edu/Handouts/macronutrients.htm

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