Eating Patterns and Meal Planning

For people living with diabetes who want to learn more about how to make healthy food choices that fit their lifestyle and taste, it can be tough to make out fact from fiction with so much conflicting information in the media. The American Diabetes Association reviews the latest research looking at what is safe and works well for people at risk or living with diabetes. Studies show there are many different eating patterns that can be helpful in managing diabetes. In the long run, the eating pattern that you can follow and sustain that meets your own diabetes goals will be the best option for you.  

What is a Meal Plan?

It is a guide to help you plan:

  • Timing of your meals
  • How much to eat 
  • What foods to choose

A meal plan should take into account your likes, dislikes and lifestyle. It should be a guide that will help you meet your personal weight and blood glucose goals.

What is an Eating Pattern? 

An eating pattern is a term used to describe the foods or groups of foods that a person chooses to eat on a daily basis over time. The following eating patterns may help people living with or at risk for diabetes:  

Mediterranean 

The Mediterranean style eating pattern focuses on mostly plant-based foods like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, cereals, nuts, seeds, and beans, seasonally fresh, and locally grown foods. Olive oil is the main source of fat.  This eating pattern also includes a small amount of dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt, fish, and poultry. Red meat is limited. Wine can be consumed in small amounts (1-2 glasses of wine per day) with meals. 

The Mediterranean style eating pattern has been shown to protect against heart disease, stroke, and some cancers. Research shows it may also help you improve blood sugar and lose weight.  

Vegetarian or Vegan 

A vegetarian eating pattern is based on plant foods, such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans and meat substitutes with little or no animal products. The vegetarian diet is rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber, and lower in saturated fat and cholesterol. There are several types of vegetarian eating patterns, and they vary in terms of what is included:

Vegan:  This eating pattern includes many plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans. People following a vegan eating pattern avoid all meat, poultry, fish and seafood, eggs, and dairy products.

Lacto-vegetarian:  This eating pattern includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans, milk, cheese and yogurt. People following lacto-vegetarian eating pattern avoid all meat, poultry, eggs, fish and seafood. However, dairy products are included.

Lacto-ovo vegetarian:  This eating pattern includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans, milk, cheese, yogurt, and eggs.  People following a lacto-ovo vegetarian eating pattern avoid all meat, poultry, fish and seafood, but include dairy products and eggs.

Research in the general population has linked vegetarian eating patterns to a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.  

Low Carbohydrate

A low carbohydrate eating pattern focuses on non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli, green beans, kale, salad greens and protein foods like meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, cheese, nuts and seeds, fats (oils, butter, olives and avocado). Highly processed carbohydrate foods and grains are limited or avoided in this eating pattern.  There is no standard at this time for the grams of carbohydrate in a low-carb eating pattern and research continues to look at the effects of this eating pattern on diabetes. Work with a registered dietitian who can talk with you about your current eating habits and help you figure out the plan that will work best for you.  

Low Fat

A low-fat eating pattern includes vegetables, fruits, starches, lean protein, such as chicken and turkey without the skin, fish, and low-fat dairy products.  This eating pattern has been shown to improve heart health when overall calorie intake is reduced and weight loss occurs.  However, according to some studies, following a low fat diet did not always improve blood glucose or heart disease risk factors. 

DASH

DASH is an acronym for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension” and was designed to help lower blood pressure in people with hypertension (high blood pressure).  This eating pattern promotes eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and lower fat or fat-free dairy products, poultry and fish. This eating pattern also limits foods high in sodium (salt) saturated fat, red meat, sweets, added sugars and sugar sweetened drinks.  The DASH diet is also higher in fiber and is rich in nutrients, such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium, which may help to lower blood pressure.

Looking for a quick place to start? 

The Diabetes Plate Method is another option that uses many of the ideas from the eating patterns described above and can be a great place to start for many people with diabetes.  This method uses a 9 inch plate.  The first step for many people is to use a smaller plate than they have been eating from.  Once you have a smaller plate, the idea is to fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables, ¼ of your plate with protein foods and the last ¼ of your plate with carbohydrate foods. 

Key Takeaways

Choose a plan that you are likely to follow long-term that fits your diabetes goals and personal needs. Think about your likes and dislikes and how a change to your eating will affect your day to day life with family and friends as well as your personal weight loss goals. Budget also plays a part in choosing the right healthy eating plan that will meet your needs. 

  • There is not a “one size fits all” eating pattern for people with diabetes. 
  • Many different eating patterns are reasonable for managing diabetes. 
  • Work with a registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator on a meal plan that is right for you. 

How to find a registered dietitian:

Find a registered dietitian: eatright.org/find-an-expert  

Find an ADA recognized diabetes self-management education program in your area diabetes.org/findaprogram 


Looking for meal plans? Sign up for our Recipes for Healthy Living resource. It's free!

Did you find this content to be helpful? Want to talk and share tips with others who are figuring out meal plans themselves? Visit the American Diabetes Association Community today!

  • Last Reviewed: June 1, 2015
  • Last Edited: September 20, 2017

Articles from Diabetes Forecast® magazine:

Diabetes Forecast