It’s January which means everyone is jumping on the New Year’s weight loss resolution bandwagon again…ugh. Before you start yet another fad diet and swear off eating carbs for life, I have some exciting news to share. 2021 is looking to be the ‘Year of the Carbs’ with low carb diets on their way out and plant-based eating the newest diet trend. So, what does that mean when it comes to choosing the best diet for diabetes prevention and management? Let’s take a look!
The Best Diet for Diabetes Prevention & Management 2021
US News and World Report just released their list of the Best Diets 2021. In addition to ranking diets on the best overall diet and the best weight loss diet, they also created a category for the ‘Best Diet for Diabetes’ and I was thrilled at the selection. The winner for the best diet for diabetes in 2021 is a tie between the Mediterranean Diet & the Flexitarian Diet. And I have to admit, I am not surprised. Both of these diets offer many benefits to people with diabetes, so I wanted to take this opportunity to break down each of these diets for you to explain how they work and why these are the best diets for diabetes prevention and management in 2021.
The Mediterranean Diet ranked Best Diet for Diabetes
I’m sure by now you have heard of the Mediterranean diet – or if not, you are probably familiar with the principles of it. This diet is based on the dietary habits observed in people who live in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Unlike people in the US who tend to eat a diet rich in processed foods high in added sugar, sodium, and saturated fat, people in this part of the world tend to eat a diet low in red meat and rich in produce, nuts, and other healthful foods. These dietary habits are thought to be the reason that this population lives longer and suffers less from ailments such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
What it the Mediterranean diet?
The one thing many people get confused by is the Mediterranean diet isn’t a ‘diet’ in the way many of us think. It isn’t a restrictive meal plan filled with rules and lists of do’s and don’ts. It is a way of eating that follows the general principles of food selection, but that’s it. And that’s part of the reason why it is so beneficial. The Mediterranean diet isn’t a ‘diet’ you go ‘on’ just to go back ‘off’ of it in a few weeks or months. Instead, it is a shift in your eating patterns and behaviors to more whole foods and less high fat animal products. A shift that can happen over time. And that gradual change is why it tends to be one of the easiest diets to follow and to stick with long term. And that consistency is what can bring about the biggest benefits.
The Mediterranean diet and diabetes
If you are wondering just how the Mediterranean diet can impact diabetes, then you are in the right place. For years I have been recommending many of the principles of this diet to my clients with diabetes for a number of reasons. Multiple studies have found following a Mediterranean diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats such as olive oil may improve waist circumference measurements. And you know I am a big advocate on paying attention to your waistline (I even wrote a book about it!) since it is a measurement of the amount of visceral fat (or belly fat) that you have. And the more visceral fat you have, the greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes, the higher your heart disease risk, the harder it can be to maintain healthy blood glucose levels, and the more your blood pressure can rise. So, your waistline is very important!
The healthy eating plan that the Mediterranean diet promotes allows you to eat a large variety of nutritious foods, in portions and times that work for your individual needs and lifestyle, while lowering blood sugar levels, promoting weight loss, and improving heart health.
Is the Mediterranean diet the best diet for diabetes?
Here’s the thing… no one ‘diet’ is best for everyone! Every person with diabetes is an individual and has to make dietary choices that work for their own individual needs, blood sugar goals, weight loss goals, and health goals. So there is no singular best diet for diabetes, but the Mediterranean diet in my option is a very good framework to follow if you are looking to prevent or manage diabetes. Because it is focused on overall eating principles and not a rigid eating plan, it can easily be adapted to meet your needs. And when a diet is easy to follow, you are more likely to stick with it. And that’s really the best diet for diabetes – whatever healthy eating plan you can stick with long term…that is what will bring lasting change and true health improvements.
The Flexitarian Diet ranked Best Diet for Diabetes
The Flexitarian Diet is another meal plan that has been popular for years and continues to rank high as one of the healthiest diet plans. And now the results are in and the Flexitarian Diet has tied as the best diet for diabetes. And here’s why:
I’m a little bias as to why I love this plan so much. It was developed by Dawn Jackson-Blatner, RD, my rockstar friend and fellow dietitian (who is also the dietitian for the Chicago Cubs) as a blending of the terms flexible and vegetarian. The premise of the diet is that you can eat a mostly plant-based diet while incorporating animal protein from time to time when you are in the mood for it. And any diet plan that allows for flexibility is a winner in my book. Because let’s face it, if it isn’t flexible, you won’t follow it.
This meal plan focuses on what you should add to your diet, not what you need to avoid. Not only does the idea of adding more food versus taking food away make it mentally easier to follow, but the foods you focus on adding on the Flexitarian Diet offer a variety of health benefits. The plan focuses on adding non-meat protein sources such as beans, pulses, and even eggs along with low fat dairy products in combination with a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. And because it is a ‘flexible’ plan, no one food is ever completely off limits, which prevents any guilt associated with eating and allows you to enjoy what you are eating at all times- which is key if you want to stick with a diet plan!
Is the Flexitarian diet the best diet for diabetes?
As I mentioned before, in my opinion as a diabetes educator, there is no one best diet for diabetes since every individual will have their own unique needs. However, the principles of the Flexitarian Diet allow pretty much everyone to eat what they enjoy while adding in more of the foods that benefit diabetes. Since this plan prevents restriction and allows flexibility, there’s no down side to trying in. Following a semi-vegetarian meal plan rich in fiber has been associated with improvements in body weight and glycemic control, which is why the Flexitarian diet is rightfully selected as the best diet for diabetes.
Rethinking the best diet for diabetes prevention and management
When it comes to determining the best diet for diabetes prevention and management, I think it is important to remember what really matters. All too often, when we hear the word ‘diet’ we automatically think of weight loss. But diet is just a style of eating. An eating pattern…and how you choose to eat impacts much more than just body weight. Your dietary choices can lower blood pressure (or raise it), they can lower blood sugar (or raise it), they can impact energy, mood, and yes – they can help you lose weight (or gain it). But when you think about the goal of diabetes management – whether you choose to follow a Mediterranean diet, a Flexitarian Diet, track the glycemic index and glycemic load of your meals, or practice mindful eating – the most important thing is that you make changes that you can stick with.
Consistency is key. Think about it: If you decide to follow a keto diet to lose weight and lower blood sugar, it may work. In a few weeks, you may lose weight and achieve improved blood glucose levels. But if you can’t follow the keto plan because it’s too strict and you miss eating your favorite foods, you won’t stick with it. You go right back to your old habits. And what good did that do? What’s the benefit of having low blood sugar for a week if it spikes right back up when you ‘go off’ a plan? There isn’t one.
Instead, if you want to improve your health and manage diabetes, you have to focus on making lifestyle changes that work for you. And no…I’m not talking about overhauling your whole life. That’s overwhelming and impossible to stick with. What lifestyle change is really about is making a change that is so small, and so simplistic, it barely feels like a change at all. And when a change feels easy to make, you stick with it. And that consistency is what leads to true health improvements.
How to measure success of your diabetes diet
So, what is the best diet for diabetes? It’s following an eating plan that benefits your health and allows you to enjoy eating, so you can stick with it. You also what to pick the best diet for diabetes that gets you the results you want. Because remember, the success of a diabetic diet isn’t measured by the number of the scale.
To track if your diabetes meal plan is benefiting your health, you want to focus on much more than your weight. Track changes in your waist measurement. Did you lower your blood pressure levels? Did you lower blood sugar levels? Is your cholesterol improving? Has your energy level gone up? These are the measurements that matter. When you start seeing improvements in these areas, this means you have found the diabetes diet that works for you.
Debunking myths of the best diet for diabetes
The best diet for diabetes isn’t only about weight loss. The best diet for diabetes isn’t a fad…it’s a lifestyle. There’s no one size fits all diet for diabetes. The best diet for diabetes is the one that matches your individual goals, food preferences, and lifestyle. It’s the eating style that you know you can stick with. If you are considering following a diet to manage diabetes, ask yourself this question first ‘Can I envision myself following this eating plan a year from now?” If the answer is no, it’s too restrictive and not the right match for you. Keep adjusting until you know that the plan you are following will become part of your overall lifestyle to manage diabetes.
If you’d like additional information on managing type 2 diabetes, check out some of these resources as well:
- How to Manage Diabetes for Life: Top Tips from a Diabetes Educator
- How to Make Your Favorite Dessert Diabetes Friendly
- Create a Winning Diabetes Care Team
- American Diabetes Association
- Mayo Clinic
- Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics
This information is not to be mistaken as medical advice. It is provided for educational and informational purposes only. Always speak to your physician and healthcare team before making any changes to your diet, lifestyle, or diabetes management plan.