Type 1 Diabetes Diet: How To Control Your Blood Sugar Levels

The aim is not to restrict food, just to make sure blood sugar levels are controlled.

Lifestyle issues are the foundation of living with any kind of diabetes, including type 1 diabetes. That means that nutrition, exercise, and managing stress, are at the top of the list of ways to successfully manage type 1 diabetes.

The aim is not to restrict food but to make sure blood sugar levels are controlled. And food does play a role: "Diet may help in managing type 1 diabetes because it allows better control over blood sugars," said Deena Adimoolam, MD, a specialist in endocrinology and preventative medicine at Summit Health in New Jersey.

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What Is Type 1 Diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is a condition in which your pancreas doesn't make enough insulin—a hormone that helps sugar enter your body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). When there isn't enough insulin, blood sugar will build up in your bloodstream. Over time, this can lead to serious complications, including neuropathy, blindness, as well as heart and kidney diseases.

Formerly called juvenile-onset diabetes, Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. According to the CDC, the body's own immune system mistakenly destroys the insulin-producing islet cells in your pancreas. Lack of insulin leads to dangerously high blood sugar levels.

Treatment

The goal of managing type 1 diabetes is to keep blood sugar at normal levels to ward off future problems, according to the CDC. "Taking control of your blood sugar is the only way that you're going to save yourself from a lot of trouble later on," said Sandra J. Arevalo, RDN, national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

All people with type 1 diabetes will need to take insulin every day, but diabetes is a highly individual disease, according to the CDC. Every person will need different amounts of insulin at different times, and the insulin must be carefully calibrated with not just food but also sleep, stress, and sickness—all of which can affect blood sugar, according to the CDC.

The Plate Method

In the beginning, there's a trial-and-error period to find the right combinations of insulin and diet (as well as exercise and other factors). "It takes time to find that magic number," said Arevalo. Type 1 diabetes is also not static, Arevalo added. It will change as time goes on. For this reason and others, there is no one "diabetes diet."

One way to start a dietary plan is with the diabetes plate method from the American Diabetes Association: You start with a nine-inch plate and fill half of the plate with non-starchy vegetables. This can include asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and more. "The more colors, the better," said Arevalo. Non-starchy vegetables have a lot of vitamins and minerals and don't affect blood sugar a whole lot.

The next step is to fill a quarter of your plate with protein. This can be fish, chicken, lean beef, or cheese. Try to keep the proteins lean because they are lower in fat.

The last quarter of your plate can be filled with carbohydrate foods such as beans, fruit, yogurt, milk, and grains. Carbohydrates can affect blood sugar, so keeping it to a quarter of the plate helps to manage blood sugar levels.

"When it comes to maintaining diabetes control, certain carbohydrates may be better than others," said Dr. Adimoolam. "For example, complex carbohydrates are typically better than simple carbohydrates."

Last, for a beverage, go for water or something that is low in calories, like unsweetened tea or flavored water. Consulting with a registered dietitian or diabetes educator will help you come up with a plan that suits your personal needs.

Foods To Avoid

If you have type 1 diabetes, you should stay away from refined carbohydrates, including white rice, chips, candy, and cake, as well as sugary drinks, juice, and sweet tea, according to the American Diabetes Association. People with type 1 diabetes may need certain high-sugar foods if their blood sugar dips too low, but otherwise, these items will spike your blood sugar levels to unhealthy highs.

Type 1 Diabetes and Low-carb Diet

Carbohydrates are often made out to be the bad guy in managing type 1 diabetes, but it would be a mistake to think you should avoid them entirely. "That's a misconception because the main source of energy for humans is carbohydrates," said Arevalo.

Carbohydrates provide most of the sugar in your bloodstream, according to MedlinePlus. The quantity and quality of the carbs you ingest matter.

"We advise our patients with type 1 diabetes to carb count, which means learning to calculate the total number of carbohydrates in their meal and providing themselves insulin based on this carb amount," said Dr. Adimoolam.

"The less simple sugars a person living with type 1 diabetes has in their meal, the more stable their blood sugar values will be," Dr. Adimoolam said. "In general, we encourage our patients with type 1 diabetes to not restrict or limit carbohydrates, but to follow a healthy, balanced diet."

Type 1 Diabetes and the Keto Diet

There has been considerable interest in using the high-fat, very low-carb ketogenic ("keto") diet to control diabetes, including type 1 diabetes. Normally, our bodies get energy from sugar, which comes from carbohydrate-rich foods. By restricting carbs and loading up on fat, the keto diet makes your body rely on ketones, which your liver produces from stored fat, according to Harvard Health.

The subject is a controversial one. This small study from 2018 in Diabetic Medicine found that adults with type 1 diabetes who followed a keto diet had well-controlled blood-sugar levels but that the diet may have increased cholesterol levels as well as episodes of low blood sugar, which can be serious. It is important to consult a specialist before making any major changes in your diet.

Summary

Type 1 diabetes is a condition that requires management. What you eat plays an important role in how well you manage your diabetes, but a healthy lifestyle also includes exercise, adequate sleep, and as little stress as possible. All of these factors need to be balanced with how much insulin you take. As someone with type 1 diabetes, you will have to consider insulin, diet, exercise, stress, and more in order to stay healthy.

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