Managing Diabetes: The Role of Diet and Exercise

People with diabetes have nearly double the risk of heart disease and are at a greater risk of developing mental health disorders such as depression. But most cases of type 2 diabetes are preventable and some can even be reversed. Diet plays a contributing role in managing both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. The goal is to keep the blood sugar levels well-controlled and the right dietary choices can easily help achieve this. Read on as we discuss how diet and exercise can help in managing diabetes.

How can diet help in managing diabetes?

Having diabetes does not mean that one has to only eat sugar-free and bland food for the rest of their life. The good news for people living with diabetes is that the condition does not bar any particular type of food or require a special diet. Although the consumption of sugary foods can raise blood glucose levels, the diet does not have to be completely sugar-free. Dietary concerns vary slightly for people with different types of diabetes. For people with type 1 diabetes, diet is about managing the fluctuations in blood glucose levels while for people with type 2 diabetes, it is about losing weight and restricting calorie intake.

To know more about type 1 and type 2 diabetes, click here!

A healthy diet typically includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes and non-tropical vegetable oils. Following such a balanced diet can easily help with diabetes management and also prevention in certain cases. But, apart from diet, it is also important to lose some weight.

Researchers have found that losing just 5-10% of your total body weight can help you lower your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. Losing weight and eating healthier can also have an equally positive effect on your mood, energy, and overall well being.

Understanding how different foods affect the blood glucose levels will provide a deeper insight into the role of diet in managing diabetes.

riceCarbohydrate Intake

Sugars, starch are both different types of carbohydrates. Carbohydrate digestion produces glucose, which is absorbed into the bloodstream. The hormone insulin helps in glucose uptake that maintains normal blood sugar levels.

However, the lack of insulin production or the body’s inability to utilize the produced insulin effectively results in high blood sugar levels causing diabetes. Thus, people suffering from diabetes should monitor their carbohydrate intake effectively. Keeping track of the number of carbohydrates consumed throughout the day, also known as carbohydrate counting can help optimize blood sugar control.

Eating complex carbohydrates are beneficial as they are digested more slowly, which does not spike the blood sugar levels compared to refined carbohydrates (examples – white bread, pasta, and rice, as well as soda, candy, packaged meals, and snack foods).

Some high fibre foods that can be included in the diet are brown rice, cauliflower, whole-wheat pasta, yams, whole-wheat bread, peas and leafy greens. Carbohydrate content of the diet has to provide 50-60% of the calories. Also, most of this should be in the form of complex carbohydrates with a high fibre content and low glycemic index.

Glycemic Index (GI)

The glycemic index (GI)is a relative ranking of carbohydrate in foods according to how they affect blood glucose levels. High GI foods spike blood sugar levels rapidly whereas low GI foods produce the least fluctuations of blood sugar. Some low GI foods are – skim milk, soy products, sweet potato, lentils, oat bran bread and kidney beans. It is important to maintain the portion size as a higher portion size regardless of its GI rank, will cause sharp spikes in the blood glucose levels.

However, referring to GI tables every time we eat can be a hassle. Research suggests that following the guidelines of a heart-healthy diet, which recommends eating foods rich in high fibre and unsaturated fats and low in trans fats, saturated fats and refined carbohydrates can lower the glycemic load of the body and also improve the quality of the diet.

fish protein for diabetesProtein and Fat Intake

There is no unique recommendation for the protein and fat intake during diabetes. Focusing on the quality of the protein and fat consumed is most essential. Protein from vegetables and fish is preferred compared to animal protein as they are high in unsaturated fats. Lean meat also is a healthier choice. The protein content of the diet should provide 15-20 % of the calories.

Additionally, the amount of fat intake for diabetic people should be individualized. Monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) rich foods should be preferred as they help improve glycemic control and improve CVD (cardiovascular disease) risk factors in persons with type 2 diabetes. The amount of saturated fatty acids, cholesterol and trans fat recommended for people with diabetes are the same as for the general population.

Learn about monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats here!

Foods rich in monounsaturated fats include avocados, whole milk products, peanut butter, nuts, cheese and different seeds. Sources of polyunsaturated fats include soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil, fish oil, canola oil, fishes such as salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, cashews, walnuts and seeds such as sunflower seeds, flax seeds and chia seeds.

How can exercise help in managing diabetes?

Physical activity should be an integral part of the process of managing diabetes. Exercise helps all persons with diabetes improve insulin sensitivity, reduce cardiovascular risk factors, control weight, and improve well-being.

exercise for diabetesHowever, the blood glucose levels can decrease or increase for type 1 patients depending on several factors such as:

  1. Plasma glucose levels at the beginning of the exercise
  2. Intensity, duration and timing of exercise
  3. Food intake before exercise
  4. Plasma insulin levels before and after exercise

Thus, people with type 1 diabetes need to balance their insulin doses with diet and exercise accordingly to optimize their blood glucose levels. People with type 2 diabetes can also improve their blood glucose control such as an increased insulin sensitivity and decreased insulin resistance with some physical activities.

The American Diabetes Association recommends two types of physical activity for those with diabetes: aerobic exercise and strength training. Examples of aerobic exercise include walking, bicycling, jogging, swimming, and many sports. Examples of strength training include weight lifting and exercises using resistance providing machines.

Remember to be mindful of sugars

Being diabetic does not entail abandoning sugar altogether. The key to managing diabetes is moderation. Most of us are guilty of consuming more sugar than what is healthy. You can enjoy your favourite dessert now and then even if you are diabetic.

Here we list some of the ways you can control your sugar intake:

Balance the carbs – If you want to have dessert, cut down on other carb-rich foods such as rice or pasta for that meal. Remember not to over-indulge and truly savour each bite of your dessert!

Eat sweets with a meal – Eating sugary foods along with a healthy and balanced meal prevents a rapid spike in your blood sugar levels.

Add healthy fats – Fat slows down the digestive process, meaning blood sugar levels don’t spike as quickly. Some healthy fats which you can include with your dessert are peanut butter, ricotta cheese, yoghurt, or nuts.

Additionally, avoid packaged and processed foods as they often contain hidden sugars. Also avoid soft drinks, juice, soda or alcohol as much as possible. Reduce your sugar intake gradually to give your taste buds time to adjust.


Thus, the role of diet in managing diabetes remains crucial. The body is better able to regulate blood sugar levels and body weight when you maintain a regular meal schedule. Eating a moderate and consistent portion size of each meal can help achieve this. Sodium and alcohol consumption should be within limits as excess can affect blood glucose levels adversely. Even if you’ve already developed diabetes, or know someone who has, it’s not too late to make a positive change. By eating healthier, being more physically active, and losing weight, one can reduce the symptoms of diabetes.

Disclaimer: Seek professional help for diet and exercise recommendations if you’re suffering from diabetes. Consult your doctor or dietician before adopting any lifestyle modifications suggested here.

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