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Introduction to healthy eating

Intro to healthy eating
Piece of roasted salmon fillet with grilled brussels cabbage and tomatoes. Indoors still-life.

If you have just been diagnosed with diabetes, you’re probably thinking, “Okay, now what do I eat?” Or, if you have had diabetes for a while and have decided that you want to make healthy eating a part of your management plan, you may be thinking, “Where do I start?”

A healthy diet is one of the best tools for managing diabetes. Healthy eating for people with diabetes is not much different than healthy eating for any other person. The truth of the matter is that although many people have an idea of what healthy eating is, where they struggle is making it a part of their regular routine. Changing your eating habits a little bit at a time is much easier than trying to make too many changes all at once. Read on to learn about healthy eating and decide which of the tips below fit into your life right now; then choose another goal when you are ready to change something else.

What does healthy eating mean?

Healthy eating is a plan for eating healthier over the long-term. It’s not a strict diet to be followed for a short time. A healthy eating plan requires no special foods. Instead, it includes foods that are available at any grocery store and that you’re likely already familiar with. Healthy eating means enjoying a variety of foods every day, and eating more of the foods that provide the energy and essential nutrients that our bodies need for an active healthy life, and fewer foods that have little nutrition or that can contribute to diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. A healthy eating plan focuses on adding healthy food instead of only taking away unhealthy food.

Healthy eating tips you can try

Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide and the DASH diet (DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) are two sources for healthy eating information. Both make similar general recommendations:

  1. Eat at least three meals every day. Eating at least three meals each day is important for healthy eating. Eating at regular times throughout the day helps people eat the right amount of food that they need for energy. Regular mealtimes also make it easier to get enough vitamins, minerals and other nutrients from each of the four food groups: Vegetables and Fruit, Grain Products, Milk and Alternatives, and Meat and Alternatives.

Some people choose to eat four or five small meals each day. This has the same benefit as eating at least three meals each day.

Tip: If you choose to eat more than three meals each day, choose smaller portions at each meal, to help control calories.

  1. Limit sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages. Soft drinks, fruit-flavoured drinks, sports and energy drinks, and other sweetened beverages are high in sugar, low in nutrition, can add a significant number of calories to your daily intake, and can lead to heart disease and diabetes.

Tip: Water is the best way to satisfy thirst and replace lost fluids.

  1. Choose fish, poultry, beans and nuts more often. The emphasis should be on small, lean portions of meat or poultry, and fish. Try to use meat alternatives such as pulses (dried beans and lentils) and tofu more often. The benefit of these foods over meats is that they are low in saturated fat and, in the case of pulses, are also very high in fibre. Eggs and nuts are also found in this food group, because they are excellent sources of protein and other nutrients. Seventy-five grams (2-½ ounces) is considered one serving and is appropriate for a meal. This is about the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand.

Tip: Treat meat as one part of the whole meal, instead of the main focus. Use the plate method to plan your portions: ¼ plate filled with fish, meat or poultry; ¼ plate filled with your choice of starch; and ½ plate filled with vegetables. For more information about the plate method, click here.  

  1. Eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Most vegetables and fruits are naturally low in fat and calories, and high in important nutrients such as vitamins A and C, potassium and fibre. Enjoy at least one dark green and one orange vegetable every day.

Whole-grain foods such as whole-grain breads and cereals, oatmeal, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, and products made with whole-grains have more nutrients and fibre than grain products made with refined flours. The fibre provided by whole-grain foods makes you feel full and helps keep blood sugars level.

Tip: If you currently only eat vegetables once a day at dinner, add another serving at lunch.

  1. Include fat-free or low-fat dairy products. Milk or a fortified alternative beverage such as a soy beverage is an important way to get protein, calcium, vitamin D, and many other vitamins and minerals. Choose low fat milk, such as skim or 1% milk fat (M.F.)

Tip: Low fat milk alternatives such as yogurt and cheese offer the same benefits if you prefer not to drink milk.

  1. Limit foods that are high in saturated fat. Fat is naturally present in many foods, including meat, fish, cheese and nuts. Most of the fat in meat and dairy products is saturated fat. Butter is also a major source of saturated fat. Aim to include a small amount of unsaturated fat each day (two to three tablespoons). This includes vegetable oils, salad dressings, soft margarine and nuts.

Tip: Replace two meat-based meals with fish each week and try to have one meal per week with pulses (dried beans or lentils) instead of meat, fish or poultry.

A healthy eating plan is a key part of a healthy lifestyle and should be combined with other lifestyle changes, such as physical activity, in order to get the best benefit. Be careful not to make too many changes at once, though. To ensure that healthy eating becomes a lifelong commitment, make changes gradually and choose healthy foods that you enjoy eating.

About Joanne Lewis

Joanne Lewis, Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator, is the manager of diabetes education with the Canadian Diabetes Association where she is responsible for the development of diabetes education tools for healthcare professionals and people living with diabetes. She has nearly 20 years of experience as a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator working in both hospital- and community-based programs. Ms Lewis has collaborated in the development and implementation of professional diabetes education programs and has presented at local, national and international conferences on a variety of diabetes and chronic disease related topics and has served as an advisor and reviewer for professional organizations and journals.

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