When it comes to managing diabetes, the first place to start is with your eating habits. That’s because the foods you eat directly affect your blood sugar level: Simple and processed carbohydrates like sugary foods, white bread, white pasta or white rice are most quickly broken down by the body into glucose, a type of sugar cells use for energy, and cause spikes and crashes in your blood sugar level. On the other hand, foods that the body takes longer to break down—like whole grains, fiber-filled fruits and vegetables or lean protein—provide a more steady release of glucose and more stable levels over time. Overall, your diet should include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish, and less processed food, red meat and high-fat dairy. Start by making healthier substitutions for your standard fare, which will allow you to build habits that will last. Here are seven everyday swaps from Peggy Doyle, RD, LD, a certified diabetes educator and outpatient dietitian at Cleveland Clinic’s Fairview Hospital Wellness Center.
Soft drinks or juices → Water and unsweetened tea
Unlike sugar-filled sodas, sports drinks and juices, water doesn’t raise your blood glucose levels and, at zero calories, doesn’t increase your waistline either. Staying hydrated also helps stave off fatigue. Keep a refillable bottle on your desk or in your bag and sip regularly. Add a slice of fresh lemon or cucumber if you’re not a fan of plain water. As for diet sodas and other calorie-free beverages? “Water is the best choice,” advises Doyle, pointing out that some studies indicate that diet sodas may stimulate appetite.
Whole milk or eat full-fat cheese → Skim or 1% milk and reduced-fat cheese
Dining for diabetes means eating heart-smart as well, so cutting sources of saturated fat—which increase LDL (“lousy”) cholesterol—is important for overall health. “There’s a strong link between heart disease and diabetes,” notes Doyle. Choosing lighter versions of dairy products, which contain less saturated fat, not only cuts down on calories (extra weight increases your risk of heart disease), but it helps control that artery-clogging LDL.
Plain bagel with cream cheese →Whole-grain bagel (try just half) or English muffin topped with trans-fat-free peanut butter with no added sugar
The extra fiber in the whole grain and protein in the peanut butter slow the release of glucose, keeping your blood sugar more even and helping you feel full longer. Look for the word whole in the first ingredients, or keep your eye out for the Whole Grain Council’s “100% Whole Grain” stamp on the package. Other options for a healthy start: A stick of low-fat string cheese and a piece of fruit or a whole-grain pita filled with low-fat cheese and veggies. “There’s no reason breakfast has to be ‘breakfast food,’” says Doyle.
Sandwich for lunch → Half a sandwich with a side salad or piece of fruit
Thanks to large portion sizes, a takeout sandwich might actually contain two meals’ worth of calories, offsetting an otherwise healthy choice like turkey on whole wheat, explains Doyle. Ordering just half a sandwich and adding a salad or fruit (yes, you can eat fruit with diabetes!) on the side can bring your meal into a reasonable calorie range, helping you to better manage your blood sugar and your weight.
Veggies on the side (or not at all) → Veggies as the star of your plate
An easy and effective way to control your carb and calorie intake is to fill half your plate with veggies, one quarter with protein and the other quarter with 100% whole grains. Besides filling your plate with vibrant color, the vegetables’ extra fiber helps you feel full and keeps your blood sugar more even.
Meat → Fish twice a week
Reel in some serious health benefits by swapping artery-clogging saturated fats found in red meat for heart-healthy omega-3 fats found in fish, particularly oily fish like salmon, albacore tuna, trout and herring. Aim for two servings of fish a week. Be inventive: Try fish tacos, for instance, instead of your typical beef-and-cheese ones.
Chips or pretzels → Raw veggies or fruit
Along with providing more nutrients, not to mention blood-sugar-balancing fiber, fueling up with whole foods instead of processed items helps slash your intake of sodium, which can cause high blood pressure, another risk factor for heart disease. Unsalted nuts also make a healthy snack, due to their heart-healthy fats. But all fat is high in calories, so Doyle reminds you to watch your portion sizes. Count out just 12 nuts—and put the jar or bag away.
Changing your eating habits isn’t just about cutting down or cutting out—it’s about adding in healthier choices as well. In the process, a new world of delicious flavors can open for you. Try one of our delicious and healthful recipes to get started or visit the American Diabetes Association and check out their recipes.
For more ways to live well with Diabetes, visit ClevelandClinicWellness.com.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.