Diabetes – a healthy eating and activity guide

By Lynn Roblin MSc.RD.


Diabetes in a significant health concern in Canada affecting over 2 million or 1 in 13 Canadians. More than 60,000 cases of diabetes are diagnosed each year.

Diabetes that isn’t well controlled can cause blood vessel damage leading to complications such as heart and kidney disease, nerve damage, and vision problems.

The majority of people with diabetes, about 90 per cent, have type 2 diabetes (formerly referred to as adult-onset, or non-insulin dependent diabetes). This type of diabetes occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or when the body does not effectively use the insulin that is produced. Type 2 diabetes is typically diagnosed in adults after the age of 40 but has also been seen in children with marked obesity. About 10 per cent of people with diabetes have type 1 diabetes. People with type 1 diabetes need to balance their carbohydrate intake with insulin to control their blood sugar levels. This type of diabetes is usually diagnosed in children and occurs when the pancreas is unable to produce insulin. A third type of diabetes is gestational diabetes which is a temporary condition which affects a small proportion of women who are pregnant.

The main goal for people with diabetes is to keep blood sugar levels in control by eating regular balanced meals, keeping active and maintaining a healthy weight. Good control is important to reduce the severity of complications.

Normally, foods (particularly those high in carbohydrates, such as bread, pasta, fruit, vegetables, juice and sweets) are digested and broken down into blood sugar or glucose in your body. Glucose is the fuel your body and brain uses for energy. In order to use blood glucose, your body needs insulin, which is produced by a gland called the pancreas.

People with diabetes are unable to use glucose properly. The unused glucose builds up in the blood stream. Higher than normal blood sugar levels is the main concern with diabetes.

Careful meal planning is the cornerstone of good diabetes control. Individuals who have been diagnosed with diabetes or high blood sugar levels should visit a registered dietitian to work out a healthy eating plan that suits their particular needs and lifestyle.

People with diabetes generally can enjoy a wide variety of foods. The foods that they can eat are not much different that what is recommended for individuals who don’t have diabetes. Knowing how much to eat and when to eat is what matters most.

Contrary to popular belief, eating sugar is not linked to the development of diabetes. Diabetes is a complex disease, in which heredity plays a role. However, whether they eat sugar or not, overweight people have an increased chance of developing type 2 diabetes, especially if diabetes is in the family.

Careful meal planning is critical for controlling diabetes. The Canadian Diabetic Association has developed healthy eating guidelines to help people with diabetes make the right food choices. Here are some tips to help you until you see a registered dietitian:

  • Eat three meals per day at regular times and space meals no more than six hours apart. You may benefit from a healthy snack. Eating at regular times can help you control your blood glucose levels.
  • Limit sugars and sweets such as sugar, regular pop, desserts, candies, jam and honey. Sugars increase blood glucose levels.
  • Limit the amount of high fat foods you eat such as fried or deep-fried foods, high fat snack crackers and chips, pastries and other baked goods. These foods contain saturated fat which can increase blood cholesterol levels. Eating a lot of high fat foods can also contribute to weight gain.
  • Eat more high fibre foods such as whole grain breads and cereals (e.g. wheat bran, whole wheat, oat bran, oatmeal, rye flour); vegetables and fruit; dried beans (soybeans, black beans, kidney beans, chick peas), peas (green and split), and lentils. High fibre foods may help you feel full longer and may help lower blood glucose and blood cholesterol levels.
  • If you are thirsty, drink water. Beverages such as regular pop and fruit juice will raise your blood glucose.
  • Make physical activity part of your every day routines. Regular physical activity helps improve blood glucose control.
  • Achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. Even a moderate weight loss of five to ten pounds can improve diabetes control significantly in people who are overweight.



    If you have diabetes or are cooking for someone who has diabetes the following cookbooks are a tremendous source of helpful advice and recipes. These books have been published in cooperation with the Canadian Diabetes Association.

Choice Menus: An Easy Guide with Recipes for Healthy Everyday Meal Planning
(Macmillan, 2000) by Marjorie Hollands RD and Margaret Howard RD.

More Choice Menus: Another Easy Guide with Recipes for Healthy Everyday Meal Planning
(Macmillan, 1996) by Marjorie Hollands RD and Margaret Howard RD.

Choice Menus Presents: Meal Planning with Recipes for One or Two People
(CDG books, 2000) by Marjorie Hollands RD and Margaret Howard RD.

Meals for Good Health
(Paper Birch Publishing, 1998) by Karen Graham RD. Includes actual-size photographs of fifty meals with recipes.


For additional information on diabetes contact your local branch of the Canadian Diabetes Association or your local diabetes education centre.