Once you’ve been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and learned how to recognise the symptoms of high and low blood sugar levels and treat them, the next step is understanding how to live with your diabetes.
And it’s an important step.
Type 1 diabetes can cause several long-term complications, including problems in your eyes, kidneys, feet and heart. But by following a type 1 diabetes diet plan, exercising regularly, and sleeping right, you can help reduce your risk of complications.
Useful things to know include:
“Do I need to follow a diabetic diet?” and “What is a type 1 diabetes diet?” are common questions for newly diagnosed type 1 diabetics.
However, the truth is that as a type 1 diabetic you can actually still eat anything you want. You’ll simply need to adjust your insulin doses to match and counteract the amount of sugar and carbohydrates you eat.
It’s still a good idea to eat healthily and make smart food choices, though. Because making healthy food choices every day can have both immediate and long-term benefits.
It’s also a good idea to talk to a dietitian or a diabetes educator. With some education and practice, you can eat well and control your diabetes.
The best diet for type 1 diabetes is typically one that’s low in carbohydrates. This is because carbohydrates are converted by your digestive system in sugar, and are then absorbed into your bloodstream – They raise your blood sugar level faster than any other food (though this can be useful if your blood sugar level is low, and you need to increase it quickly).
The three types of carbohydrates are starches, sugars and fibre. These types of carbohydrates are found in rice, beans, starchy vegetables, fruits, pasta and bread.
Whole grains are nutritious and contain lots of fibre. They also contain ‘complex carbs’ that take your body longer to digest - This is good, because it means you won’t get sudden blood sugar level increases.
Brown rice is a whole grain and a great alternative to white rice. It has more fibre than white rice and more nutrients too. Other whole grains you should look to bring into your type 1 diabetes diet include:
Vegetables are a key part of a healthy diet, but some are better for a type 1 diabetes diet than others.
Starch is a type of carbohydrate, and starchy vegetables such as potatoes, corn and peas will increase your blood sugar level – You can still eat them, but in moderation.
Non-starchy vegetables are a good choice for a type 1 diabetes diet, and include:
Non-starchy vegetables have little effect on your blood sugar and are typically rich in vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytochemicals.
Fruits are high in natural sugar (another type of carbohydrate). So, if you eat a lot of fruits, you may find you’ll have a high blood sugar level. However, because most fruit is high in fibre, it takes longer for your body to digest – Again, this is good because it means you shouldn’t get sudden blood sugar level increases.
Fruits are also rich in vitamins and minerals, and so are a great addition to a type 1 diabetes diet.
Try to eat fresh, frozen or canned fruit. If you’re eating canned fruit, avoid any that have been packed in fruit syrup as this will have high levels of sugar in it.
Good fruits to include in a type 1 diabetes diet are:
You can also eat dried fruits like dates, figs, raisins, cherries, and cranberries.
Just remember to keep track of the number of carbohydrates in your fruits, and this will help you manage your insulin and blood glucose levels.
It’s important to include proteins in your type 1 diabetes diet, as well as healthy fats. This will help you build muscle, heal wounds, and lower the chance of developing heart disease.
Good sources of proteins include:
When it comes to healthy fats, you should look to include unsaturated fats in your type 1 diabetes diet. Saturated fats are high in cholesterol, and can increase your risk of heart disease, but unsaturated fats can lower cholesterol and help protect your heart.
You can find healthy fats in:
By keeping track and limiting the number of carbohydrates in your diet, you can avoid sudden changes in blood sugar level and make your diabetes easier to manage.
This is why many diabetics use a technique called ‘carb counting’. Carb counting involves calculating the number of carbohydrates in your meal, and then working out from that how much insulin you should take to match and counteract the carbs – It’s based on your unique insulin to carbohydrate ratio (ICR), which is the number of carbohydrates that would be covered if you took 1 unit of insulin.
Counting carbs is a great way to work out how much insulin you need to take to keep your blood sugar levels stable. However, not all carbohydrates are digested at the same rate. This means not only do you need to know how much insulin you have to take, you also need to know when you should take it.
This is where the glycemic index comes in.
The glycemic index (GI) is an internationally standardised way of reporting how carbohydrates are absorbed and broken down by your body. It’s measured between 0 and 100:
Foods with a low GI score contain carbohydrates that are absorbed and digested slowly, leading to a slow and gradual increase in blood sugar level.
Foods with a high GI score contain carbohydrates that are absorbed and digested quickly, which can lead to a sudden, sharp increase in blood sugar level.
Knowing whether the food you’re about to eat has a high or low GI will help you effectively plan how much insulin to take, and also better monitor and understand your blood sugar level.
Cows’ milk is a great source of energy and calcium, but it has been suggested that it could increase the risk of autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes.
Importantly though, this has not been proven and the research is inconclusive. There simply isn’t enough evidence to confirm that dairy and type 1 diabetes have any kind of connection.
A common misconception is that sugar causes diabetes. However, type 1 diabetes isn’t caused by diet – It’s generally believed to be caused by a genetic predisposition, other autoimmune conditions, or possibly viral infections.
As a type 1 diabetic, you can still eat sugar. You’ll need to take more insulin to counteract it and keep your blood sugar level stable, so you should eat sugar in moderation.
You can also try sugar substitutes, or artificial sweeteners, which will make your food sweeter without driving your blood sugar level up. Sugar substitutes available in India include:
It’s also important to remember that even if your food is sugar-free, it may still contain a lot of extra calories and carbohydrates which will increase your blood sugar level. Where possible, you should always check the labels on your meals and ingredients to see how many carbs you’re getting.
Once you understand how things like carbohydrates, fibre, sugar and starch can impact your blood sugar level, you can plan a diet that works for you and helps you manage your diabetes.
When you’re planning your type 1 diabetes diet it’s a good idea to include these 10 foods, which could be considered ‘diabetes superfoods’:
People fast for many reasons, ranging from religious beliefs to losing weight or detoxing.
If you have type 1 diabetes and intend to fast, it’s important to monitor your blood sugar level regularly. It’s also a good idea to discuss your fasting plan with your doctor.
The challenge with fasting as a type 1 diabetic is that if you’re not eating regularly your blood sugar level may go too low, resulting in hypoglycemia. Mild symptoms of hypoglycemia include hunger, headaches, dizziness, tiredness and shakes. Severe symptoms can include seizures and loss of consciousness.
Fasting for a long time can also cause ‘starvation ketoacidosis’. Starvation ketoacidosis is similar to diabetic ketoacidosis, but slightly different:
Ketoacidosis is a very serious condition, and can cause nausea, vomiting, disorientation, coma and potentially death.
To avoid both hypoglycemia and ketoacidosis, you should break your fast with warm and nutritious foods with a relatively low glycemic index. You should avoid foods that have a high glycemic index, or lots of sugar (e.g. junk food, chips, pasta, white rice, bread, etc.) – This helps you prevent sudden, sharp increases in your blood sugar level, and avoid serious metabolic and digestive issues.
Following a healthy diet is just one part of building a happy, healthy life with type 1 diabetes. You should also establish an exercise routine, and work out how your exercise and type 1 diabetes can fit together.
A regular exercise routine will help you maintain your weight, stabilise your mood, and improve your sleep patterns. These are just some of the reasons healthcare providers will strongly recommend you exercise regularly.
However, as a type 1 diabetic you will need to monitor your blood sugar level when exercising. A high-intensity workout may cause your blood sugar level to drop, leading to hypoglycemia. Or, intense rounds of exercise may cause your blood sugar levels to increase, causing hyperglycemia – How your body reacts to exercise is very subjective and personal.
To exercise safely as a type 1 diabetic, you should:
Generally speaking, there are four main types of workouts, and as a type 1 diabetic you should not have a problem including any of them in your exercise plan – as long as you monitor and manage your blood sugar level before, during, and after, take care of your body, and workout in moderation.
The four types of workout are:
It’s a good idea to mix and match your exercise program, and include all four types of workouts. As a type 1 diabetic, this will help you reach and maintain a healthy weight, reduce stress and lower blood pressure.
Practising yoga for type 1 diabetes is a good way to improve your diabetic health. This is because yoga is a very versatile exercise option, and can potentially include all four types of workout (aerobic, strength, flexibility and balance).
In particular, yoga includes a lot of stretching, which improves circulation through the muscles and increases blood supply to the body. This is important, because as a type 1 diabetic the insulin you inject to manage the disease needs to get to your body’s cells.
It’s not uncommon for people with type 1 diabetes to have trouble sleeping. This is because both high and low blood glucose levels can interrupt your sleep patterns, making it harder to sleep peacefully.
Here are some tips to help you get a better night’s sleep:
Travelling can be tiring and frustrating at the best of times. The idea of travelling when you also have to deal with type 1 diabetes can be even more off-putting.
However, travel can be a rewarding part of life, and even with type 1 diabetes you can definitely still head off on an adventure.
Here are some tips to help you manage your type 1 diabetes as you travel:
When you live with type 1 diabetes, it means making an extra 180 decisions a day just to stay healthy. At times, it can feel overwhelming and simply too much to deal with – a sensation referred to as diabetes burnout.
However, it’s definitely possible to live a long, healthy and happy life as a type 1 diabetic. And it starts with:
Diabetes tech is also worth exploring, as you may find something that helps make your life easier – For example, continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) allow diabetics to track their blood glucose levels regularly throughout the day, providing more data (and without the finger pricks).
And it’s a really good idea to reach out and connect with other type 1 diabetics. When you’re part of a community of type 1 diabetics, you’ll have access to a group of people who can:
To take the first step connecting with other type 1 diabetics, check out our collection of Your Stories.
And when you’re ready, Share Your Story with us too!