Basics of the Diabetic Diet

Choosing healthier foods is beneficial in the diabetic diet.

With so many confusing fad diets and advice, it is not always easy to figure out an eating plan that is safe, healthy, and effective. A basic diet designed for diabetics, or those at risk for diabetes, is a healthy plan that teaches good nutrition habits you can follow for life. This easy plan takes the guesswork out of figuring out what and how much to eat.

Basic Principles of the Diet

Doctors at the Joslin Diabetes Center (the Joslin) recommend a basic diabetic diet for type 2 diabetics, as well as those who are at risk. Based on years of research on diabetes and nutrition, this is not a diet of deprivation because there is a long list of healthy foods you can choose from.

The diet focuses on:

Healthy Fruits and Vegetables
  • Teaching the basic principles of healthy eating that apply to everyone
  • Managing daily calories to meet weight and health goals
  • Managing macro-nutrients to maintain blood sugar and other essential functions

What You Eat

The basic diabetic diet balances the three important macro-nutrients to ensure adequate intake:

  • Carbohydrates: The primary source of energy and blood sugar
  • Proteins: Need adequate intake and exercise to maintain muscle mass
  • Fats: Controlled to manage weight, blood cholesterol, and other disease risks

How Much to Eat

This basic Joslin diabetic diet plan divides your total daily calories between the three nutrient groups as follows.

Nutrient Group Percent of Total Calories Choose Avoid or Limit


Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans and peas), and non-fat milk

Refined grains and sugar, white bread potato, pasta, cakes, candy, sweetened drinks, and alcohol
Protein 20-30%

Fish, skinless chicken or turkey, nonfat or low-fat dairy products, tofu and legumes (beans and peas)

Nuts and seeds (Although healthy and protein-dense, they are loaded with calories from fats and carbs.)

Fat 30-35% Mono and polyunsaturated fats, such as olive oil, canola oil, peanut, safflower, sesame seed oils, and fatty fish such as salmon and herring

Saturated oils such as palm and coconut oils, and butter, margarine, salad dressings, and trans fats

If you are on a reduced-calorie weight loss program, this percentage allocation ensures that you get enough protein to keep your muscles healthy. The choice of a higher-percent protein in this diabetic diet is based on research that indicates that even small decreases in the percent of carbohydrates with small increases in protein in your diet can lead to more effective weight control.

Special Note to Diabetics

Note that this example plan is not designed specifically for a type 1 diabetic or a type 2 diabetic who has difficulty controlling his or her blood sugar. Although the basic principles are the same, people who have those conditions must have their diets individually designed to control blood sugar. If you have diabetes, it's important that you consult your doctor about your specific eating plan. In addition, if you have kidney disease, talk to your doctor about the amount of protein that is right for you.

Choosing Your Calories

In order to decide the actual amount of the three nutrients to eat, you must first choose the amount of calories you want to eat per day. This is essential if you are trying to control your weight. How many calories a day you should eat is based on several factors, including your:

  • Current weight
  • Weight goals
  • Height
  • Level of activity
  • Age

You or your doctor can calculate your BMI, a measure of whether your current weight is in proportion to height. If your BMI is in the overweight or obese range, you can create a healthy, lower-calorie meal plan based on this diet.

A 1,200 Calorie Plan

If your goal is to lose weight, a diet based on the Joslin Diabetes Center's allocation of nutrients can be a healthy plan. If you eat fewer calories a day, you may not get enough micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals. A 1,200 calorie plan would benefit, for example, a 5' 2" woman who weighs 150 lbs with a BMI of 27.4, which is in the overweight range (18.5-29.9), who is moderately active and wants to lose weight.

To simplify the plan, choose 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein and 30% fat. The following table translates the percentages into calories and number of servings per day for each nutrient and an example of how to divide them between meals and snacks.

Calories per day Grams per day Serving size (gm) Servings per day Servings per meal Snack Servings
Carbohydrate 480 120 15 8 2 (30 gm) 2 (30 gm)
Protein 360 90 7 13 4 (ounces; 28 gm) 1 (ounce; 7 gm)
Fat 360 40 5 8 2 (10 gm)


You can choose to divide your meals differently. You are in control of how you want to divide your nutrient allowances between your meals and snacks. However, it is best if you combine some protein and carbs at each meal.

You and your doctor might decide that you need a different daily calorie plan based on your age and other factors, such as your activity level. Whichever number of daily calories you choose, just make sure to divide the nutrients as described to calculate the number of servings per day for each one. This is a low-calorie weight loss diet; once you reach your weight goal, you and your doctor can create a different calorie plan to maintain your weight.

A Sample Food Selection

This practical sample of a day's selection groups foods that are counted as carbs in one group. This includes starches, whole grains, starchy vegetables, and beans and peas. This example gives you an idea of how to keep your day's food selection and menus within your calorie and nutrient budget. Note that a serving of beans and peas (legumes), and a serving of milk each count as one carb and one protein.

Food Group Servings Carbohydrate Protein Fat
Starches, whole grains, starchy vegetables, legumes 4 60 gm 0 gm 0 gm
Fruits 2 30 0 0
Nonfat milk, other diary 2 30 10 0
Non-starchy vegetables 3 15 0 0
Fish, chicken, lean meats, protein substitutes 13 0 91 26
Fats 3 0 0 15
Totals 120 91 41
Calories (1213 total) 480 ( 120 x 4 ) 364 ( 91 x 4 ) 369 (41 x 9)

Note that non-starchy vegetables are not included in adding up the carbs and calories.

There are plenty of great recipes for main dishes, soups, salads and appetizers that follow the principles of a diabetic diet. There are also recipes for cakes and cookies, but be sure to limit these as part of your healthy diet.

Helpful Tips for Managing Your Diet

To help you manage your diet, record everything you eat to help you keep on track. There are also some important facts to know that will help you figure out serving sizes and calories for each food group.

Balanced Lunch
  • Starches (bread, pasta, potatoes, etc), whole grains, starchy vegetables, and fruits all have 15 grams of carbs and 80 calories per serving.
  • Legumes have 15 grams of carbs, 7 grams of protein and 80 calories per serving.
  • Fruits have 15 grams of carbs and 60 calories per serving.
  • Milk is counted as a carb and a protein. Non-fat milk has 12 grams of carbs, 10 grams protein, and 90 calories per serving. For convenience, you can round the carbs to 15. This will make it easier if you want to use carbohydrate counting or carbohydrate exchanges to manage your carbs.
  • Each equivalent other protein has 7 grams (1 ounce) of protein per serving. There are also 2 grams of fat per serving of lean protein.
  • One serving of fat ( 1 teaspoon or 5 grams oil or butter) has about 40 calories.

It's important to learn how to read food labels for any frozen meals or canned goods you buy, but keep canned goods to a minimum.

Also make sure you drink plenty of water or unsweetened drinks throughout the day.

Reaching Your Goals

There's no need to stress over deciding what and how much you need to eat to manage your weight and decrease your risk for diabetes and other diseases. Following this basic diabetic diet can help you reach your goals. If you have difficulty losing weight and keeping it off on other diets, or if you want to learn how to change your eating habits, this diet is an easy plan that is based on selecting healthy foods, and it teaches you how to manage your daily nutrients and calories for a lifetime.

Check With Your Doctor

A diabetic diet can be a healthy way of eating for anyone. Before making any major changes in your diet, it is always a good idea to check with your doctor first and research as much information as you can. Stay informed and healthy.

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Basics of the Diabetic Diet