Living with type 1 diabetes can feel like you’re living on a rollercoaster, constantly chasing high and low blood sugars, day after day. Sometimes it seems easier to just ignore it, but that won’t work because when blood sugars are not balanced, you’ll end up feeling lethargic, irritable, and fears of complications will start to linger in the back of your mind.
There is a simple solution. Truly. It took me almost thirty years to finally learn how to eat healthily and feel great with type 1 diabetes, and you can too.
Diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in Childhood
I was diagnosed with type 1 at the age of seven. In 1980, I was put on the ‘exchange diet’ where I had to eat the exact same amounts of carbs and protein at every meal, at the exact same time, every day. I’d weigh my bread, count my pretzels, measure my milk — measuring spoons were used in my house as serving utensils.
For many years I was a very obedient little girl, taking sugar-free Jello to birthday parties, recording all meals in my logbook and noting any bite of sugar I put into my mouth, which was allowed twice per week.
In my teens, however, I started to rebel. As anyone with type 1 diabetes knows, following the ‘perfect’ diabetes diet is practically impossible. I ended up in a cycle of binging and over-exercising that lead me into a two-month, inpatient, eating disorder rehab center. I came out battered and bruised, but was ready to start a new way of eating.
Everyone Wants Stable Blood Sugars & To Feel Great
What I eventually realized was that I simply felt better when my blood sugar levels stayed stable. Keeping blood sugar levels balanced — through clean, lower-carb eating — will give you more energy, less irritability, less anxiety, clearer thinking… and you’ll feel happier too.
By eating a diet based mainly on vegetables, protein, healthy fats, low-glycemic fruit, and fewer carbs, it is much easier to achieve good blood sugar levels. Following this way of eating can be life-changing for those of us who were told we could eat as many carbs as we wanted and just take more insulin. This ineffective yet widely-used approach makes achieving stable blood sugars impossible.
What Do I Eat Now?
I have the freedom to enjoy so many delicious foods now without ever having to strictly weigh or measure them. I also love allowing myself to eat as many low-carb vegetables as I want. It helps me feel less restricted and curbs my old need to rebel. This is what works well for me. I always encourage my clients to eat as healthy as they can, but everyone ultimately has to find what works the best for them.
- Breakfast: I typically start the day with one of my amazing low-carb flaxseed muffins, plus a homemade, no-carb, coconut milk, matcha green tea latte. I also have many favorite ways to make chia seed pudding, which also makes for a satisfying morning meal.
- Lunch: A common lunch for me consists of a big salad with any veggies I have in the refrigerator, plus to make it feel like a meal I always add seeds or nuts, cheese, avocado, maybe some legumes, and then dress it with olive oil and salt. I also love making lettuce wraps with all the fixings normally found in a sandwich.
- Dinner: My guilt-free dinners tend to be quick and delicious vegetable-based dishes. A simple serving of baked, steamed or broiled vegetables covered in olive oil, rosemary and sea salt is always a go-to favorite. This usually includes at least two or three of the following: broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, green beans, spinach, kale and/or asparagus. If time permits, I’ll also include a piece of healthy protein, like wild salmon, free-range chicken or grass-fed beef. This Portobello Salmon Melt recipe is one of my favorites.
Fyi, you’ll likely still need a small dose of insulin for a big bowl of vegetables — depending on which veggies you eat — due to the small amount of carbs many veggies contain. Insulin is needed for protein at times too, especially when it is eaten in the absence of carbs.
The 80/20 Rule
What I suggest for most people living with or without diabetes is to eat a diet primarily of vegetables, nuts, seeds, low-glycemic fruit, and healthy proteins and fats — at least 80% of the time. The other 10–20% of the time, enjoy foods you love that are not part of your daily diet. Indulge and enjoy! (This rule can vary depending on your treatment goals).
There is no need to call your indulgence foods ‘bad’ or ‘cheat’ foods. I don’t suggest trying to follow a perfect diet nor having guilt when you indulge. Food is delicious and meant to be enjoyed! Moderation will save you, and is the key to feeling great with diabetes.
When You Indulge
When you do happen to indulge, for example, when you are about to enjoy your favorite bread, pasta, dessert, or other high carb food, here’s what to do to help keep your blood sugar level as steady as possible:
- Check your blood sugar to make sure you are not low. (Skip step #2 if you’re low).
- Dose at least 30 minutes in advance and until your BG is low-normal. Although insulin starts working within 15 minutes, it doesn’t reach its full power for at least 60 minutes after injecting. Assuming your treat is high-glycemic, it will likely spike you very quickly. Dosing insulin early helps minimize the chance of going high once you start eating your treat. Furthermore, the higher your BG is, the more time in advance you should dose.
- Fully enjoy your high-carb meal or treat! Let go of any guilt! You deserve a treat! If you have dosed correctly to cover the type of high-carb item you have eaten, you shouldn’t go too high. Now this is another topic of its own (I work with T1Ds on it all the time) which is very complex…knowing how to dose properly for a high-carb meal. Sometimes you need insulin up front as well as spread out over several hours.
- Once you finish, move your body for at least 10 minutes. This will make your insulin work faster (reducing the chance of a big spike) and aids in digestion. I get creative in order to move my body wherever needed — walking laps around parking lots, running up and down stairs, doing squats in a bathroom stall on an airplane or briskly walking up and down my driveway.
- High-carb meals and treats are very complex to dose for. You never know when the glucose will fully hit your bloodstream or when digestion is fully complete, or when the insulin will peak versus wear out. I suggest testing frequently for up to 4–8 hours after a high-carb indulgence to make any needed adjustments to your blood sugar.
Know the Timelines
Beware that food usually digests on a very different timeline than the action curve of insulin. If your food digests before the insulin works, your blood sugar level will go high until the insulin finally kicks in. Alternatively, if the meal is large and/or complex, containing carbs + fat + protein, the digestion could take hours, so the insulin could peak first (making you go low) but then wear off. If the food is still digesting after the insulin wears off, then you’ll go high hours later.
I suggest making rich, complex meals a rare exception to your normal daily diet. Also, having your indulgent meals or treats at lunch is a good idea since you’ll have time to watch your blood sugar and make any needed adjustments throughout the afternoon, thus avoiding the frustrating guesswork of what your sugar levels will do while asleep.
Understanding Correction Doses is Complex
What happens if your glucose level is 200 mg/dL (11 mmol/L) two hours after the meal? Do you take a correction dose or wait until your mealtime dose is fully out of your system? This topic is too complex to cover here. Every food, activity, and person requires a unique and individualized answer to this question. If you’d like to learn more, visit www.DrJodyND.com
Learning how to achieve healthy blood sugars is the most valuable tool for anyone with diabetes. When you stop the ‘count and cover’ way of eating, your blood sugar levels will dramatically improve, you may lose weight, and you’ll likely feel better mentally and physically than ever before! This has been true for countless of T1Ds all around the world who I’ve helped adopt this low-carb, whole-food diet.
Thank you for this amazing help
I’m a new diabetic 1 Due to pancreatic cancer. And the removal of my pancreas spleen and other
Iv been on a rollercoaster with highs and low BG
I will try the advise above.
Sorry to hear that Jennifer, and hope it helps. Take good care.
Are there any recommendations for T1D diet/meal planning? (Websites/services?) With a hectic family schedule, it would be helpful to find some weekly meal plans that can take the planning part out of the equation. Most things I find are focused toward T2D.
Many people living with type 1 will lean toward low carb meals, so here are some ideas for you:
You may also want to reach out to Dr. Stanislaw via her website to see if she has additional ideas or suggestions. There are also lots of home delivery meal prep services that offer options for low carb meals.