As researchers have learned more about diabetes and how different types of foods affect normal glucose levels, they have placed more emphasis on diet as a component of diabetes management. Scientists and dietitians have developed various meal planning methods, sometimes called medical nutritional therapy or MNT, designed to help you maintain normal glucose levels. One of these plans, referred to by a number of names including Food Lists for Diabetes and the Food Exchange List, was first developed in the 1950s as a collaborative effort by the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the U.S. Public Health Service. The list has been updated and modified over the years and adapted by other organizations, taking on new names along the way, but the essential idea is the same. It is now known as the diabetic food list.
Food Categories for the Diabetic Food List
Because the diabetic food list is user-friendly and accurate, many people have opted to use it for weight management in addition to diabetes management. Most diabetic food lists divide foods into the following categories:
- Nonstarchy vegetables
- Sweets, desserts, and other carbohydrates
- Protein sources
- “Free” foods
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Diabetic Food List: Digging In
The categories shown above are further broken down such that, for example, fats are divided into unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) and saturated fats and proteins are divided into lean protein sources, medium-fat protein sources, and high-fat protein sources.
Within each category, specific food choices and their associated serving sizes containing the same carbohydrate, protein, fat, and calorie content are listed. For instance, all lean meat and protein sources are listed by portion sizes that contain 0 grams of carbohydrates, 7 grams of protein, 0 to 3 grams of fat, and 45 calories.
Watch That Serving Size
The serving size to achieve this nutritional profile, however, may differ from food choice to food choice. One ounce of skinless poultry would meet this profile as would ¼ cup of cottage cheese and 2 egg whites. Similarly, in the fruit category, where portions are based on a profile of 15 grams of carbohydrate, 0 grams of fat, 0 grams of protein, and 60 calories, one 4-ounce apple would be the equivalent of 2 tablespoons of dried cranberries or 1/3 cup of grape juice.
Recent additions to the diabetic food list include information about alcohol, combination foods (e.g., casseroles), and fast foods. Additionally, information about sodium content, which can contribute to high blood pressure and heart disease when consumed in excess, has been added.
Understanding Diabetes Diet Goals
The goal of a diabetic food list is to help you choose foods based on their macro-nutrient and calorie content and to be accountable for your diet while at the same time providing you the opportunity to add variety to your diet. The list provides recommendations within each category designed to encourage you to make the healthiest choices.
For example, under the starch category, you are encouraged to choose whole grains whenever possible; under the fruit category, you are encouraged to choose whole fruits over fruit juices or canned fruit packed in the fruit’s own juice (as opposed to sugary syrups).
Nonetheless, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) encourages people to work with a registered dietitian when first using the list in order to ensure that you’re meeting your individual metabolic and nutritional needs and eating a balanced diet.
There are many versions of diabetic food lists available and your dietitian will provide you with one if this is the meal planning method you choose to follow. You can also access a list through the National Institutes of Health.
For further reading, see these University Health News posts:
- “Diabetic Breakfasts: How to Plan Your Morning Meal“
- “Diabetic Snacks: How to Make Healthy Choices“
- “Can Diabetics Eat Fruit?“
- “Glycemic Index Chart: GI Ratings for Hundreds of Foods“
Originally published in May 2016 and updated.