The Basics of Nutrition

Getting proper nutrition is an important part of healthy living for every person. This is especially true for people with diabetes. Our bodies require a balanced diet to get all the nutrients and calories we need to function at our best. Knowing the basics of nutrition will help you meet your goals for blood pressure, blood glucose, and weight.

What are the nutrition goals for type 2 diabetes?

Every person is different, but there are some general guidelines about what you should eat when you have type 2 diabetes. In general, most doctors believe that:1-4

  • Half of your plate should be filled with non-starchy vegetables, one quarter with a low-fat protein, and one quarter with carbohydrate-rich foods.
  • Reduce the amount of foods you eat that are high in saturated fat, salt, and sugars or other carbohydrates.
  • Drink plenty of water and other no-calorie beverages.
  • Eat vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish and seafood, lean meats, eggs, beans, peas, and nuts and seeds. These foods are dense with nutrition you need.
  • Avoid highly processed, packaged foods as much as possible. These foods tend to be light on nutrition but high in calories, salt, and fat.
  • Pay attention to fiber. Fiber helps your body process carbohydrates and fat.

What is a calorie?

Calories are a way to measure the amount of energy found in a particular food. Carbohydrates and protein have 4 calories per gram. Other sources of calories include:4

  • Fat – 9 calories per gram
  • Alcohol – 7 calories per gram
  • Fiber – 4 calories per gram

There are some important facts about calories to remember. First, fats have nearly double the amount of calories per gram. This is why so many people are told to reduce the amount of fat they eat if they need to lose weight.4

Another fact: If you eat more calories than your body can use right away, your body will store that extra energy in the form of fat. This is why if you eat more calories than you burn, you will gain weight no matter how nutritious your foods are. This is also why you burn fat (stored calories) when you limit how many calories you eat.4

Types of nutrition

All foods contain basic types of nutrition, which are:1-4

  • Carbohydrates
  • Protein
  • Fat
  • Vitamins and minerals

Whole milk includes carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Fruits are mostly carbohydrates. Vegetables are mostly carbohydrates, but some also have some protein. Margarine or butter is nearly all fat. The vitamins and minerals in these foods vary widely.

How much you need to eat of carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals is highly personal. However, nearly everyone with pre-diabetes or diabetes should eat a diet heavy in non-starchy vegetables, few added sugars or refined grains, and lean protein.1-3

More about carbohydrates

Carbohydrates (carbs) include starches, sugars, and fiber. They are found in vegetables, fruits, bread, pasta, beans, and dairy products. Carbs are the main nutrient the body uses to make glucose, which powers the body.1,2

Blood glucose rises quickly after you eat food rich in carbohydrates. However, not all carb-rich foods are equal. Some have more nutritional value, including fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Foods are ranked by their glycemic index, which is a measure of how many carbs each food has.1,2

More about protein

Protein is the body’s main building block to make cells and tissue, but proteins can be used for energy too. Protein is found in meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, beans and peas, nuts, seeds, and dairy products.

More about fat

Fat has a bad reputation. It is true that eating too much fat is unhealthy. However, it is also true that the body needs a certain amount of fat to fuel the body.

There are 2 basic groups of fats in foods: saturated fats and unsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are considered “good fats.” Omega-3 fatty acids are one type of polyunsaturated fat found in fatty fish and nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils. Saturated fatty acids come mostly from animal products, such as red meat, bacon and cheese, are considered “bad fats.”2

Other “bad fats” include trans fats, a type of saturated fat that occurs naturally in some foods, such as animal products. Some trans fats are man-made in a process called hydrogenation. Trans fats are found in many processed foods.2

Where to find guidelines for healthy eating

There is no “diabetes diet.” The foods that work for one person may not for another. A diabetes educator or dietitian can help you learn more about how to eat well when you have diabetes. Other good sources of information about healthy eating include:

  • The American Diabetes Association offers information on nutrition and cooking
  • You can also find more information about general nutrition by visiting www.choosemyplate.gov, a website run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
  • Food Heaven, a website and podcast focused on culturally sensitive food information.
  • AliceinFoodieLand, a website that provides advice in Spanish as well as English
  • Type2Diabetes.com and its large recipe database and nutritional guidance

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Written by: Jessica Johns Pool | Last reviewed: February 2021.