Designing a diabetic diet for seniors initially seems tricky since some tasty foods may cause a dangerous spike in blood sugar. The good news is that a senior diabetic meal plan doesn’t mean cutting out all of your favorite foods!
Plenty of delicious diabetic meals for seniors can satisfy cravings while providing plenty of nutrition. Read on for tips on how to build meals for diabetic seniors, and learn how to integrate time-saving options like diabetic meal delivery for seniors.
What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease that impacts many older adults. People with diabetes struggle to produce enough insulin or to produce it efficiently and may develop a related condition called insulin resistance. Since insulin is a key hormone used to balance blood sugar in the body, a lack of sufficient insulin levels can cause serious issues in organs from head to toe.
Fortunately, nutrition is a key part of keeping blood sugars balanced. Diabetes-friendly foods are a crucial part of diabetes management because they ensure that there isn’t too much sugar lingering in the bloodstream.
Senior Diet Challenges to Overcome
Although living with diabetes isn’t all doom and gloom, there are some unique challenges to overcome. Successfully managing diabetes can enhance quality of life and even extend life expectancy, so it’s worth taking the time to understand barriers and pursue solutions.
Engrained Hard Habits
By reaching your senior season of life, you’re likely set in your ways—for better or worse. While some positive habits may result from past patterns, being diagnosed with diabetes may require a mindset shift—as opposed to preparing meals on “autopilot.”
Working with a healthcare team that includes a diabetes educator or counselor can help you navigate these big life changes in a positive way. Additionally, adding a dietitian (nutrition expert) to your team can help ensure your meals meet optimal nutrient levels while balancing blood sugar.
Not everyone with diabetes needs the exact same diet, so working with an expert can help individualize and personalize your care.
Age-Related Nutritional Challenges
Seniors also face some unique nutritional challenges. Aging bodies become less efficient at digesting, absorbing, and metabolizing food.
Seniors may also experience a difference in sensory experience, meaning the senses or taste or smell may change and affect the eating experience. Add that to any additional issues that get in the way—like decaying teeth or gums—and it’s easy to see how seniors with diabetes could feel overwhelmed.
If you’re newly diagnosed or in a busy or stressful season of life, it may be worth getting diabetic meals delivered. Many meal programs, especially those designed for seniors, offer carb-conscious meal plans with glycemic control in mind. For example, Silver Cuisine can get you started with a diabetic-friendly eating routine.
Important Foods and Nutrients for a Diabetic Diet
Balancing blood sugar levels while providing adequate nutrition is the ultimate goal of a diabetic diet. Some vitamins and minerals are especially important and can make all the difference in enriching a diabetes-friendly meal.
Fiber is a unique nutrient; technically a carbohydrate (carb), fibers can’t be properly digested by the body. Because they take longer to move through the digestive system, they help promote a feeling of fullness in the body.
In addition, fiber has other benefits, especially for diabetic individuals. Fiber slows down the rate of digestion of foods it’s consumed with. In other words, eating fiber with a meal can stabilize blood sugar. It’s also linked with preventing heart disease, lowering cholesterol, and assisting with weight management—all of which are associated with diabetes development.
Fiber-filled carbohydrates—sometimes called complex carbs or quality carbs—offer a variety of nutrients while also taking longer to digest, which is best for blood sugar balance. Some foods high in fiber even do “double duty.”
Beans, for example, count as both a vegetable and a protein food. Since they are fiber-rich, they are less likely to increase blood sugars than other types of carbs that are digested more quickly. Plus, the protein can help to slow blood sugar spikes.
Like fiber, protein takes longer to digest and helps to balance blood sugar. Lean protein, in particular, has lower saturated (“unhealthy”) fats. Beyond benefiting diabetics, lean plant proteins and meats can help maintain muscle mass in the elderly.
Popular lean protein picks include:
- Beans, peas, lentils, and legumes
- Fish and seafood
- Low-fat dairy
- Poultry (such as chicken)
- Soy products (such as tofu, tempeh, or soy milk)
- Nuts and seeds
As a senior, you may have heard that “fat is bad.” On the contrary, bodies need plenty of healthy fats to thrive, especially as they age. Consuming enough fat daily is crucial for body functions, including brain and hormone health.
When you have diabetes, healthy fats can also contribute to curbing cravings. Fats account for more calories than the other macronutrients, clocking in at 9 calories per gram compared to the 4 calories per gram contributed by proteins or carbs. Basically, healthy fats can help you feel full, which can reduce sugar cravings and help you control your sweet tooth.
Cooking with healthy (unsaturated fats)—like olive oil—can help you manage your diabetes. Plus, healthy fats are known to lower “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and are more likely to contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Other common healthy fat favorites include fatty fish, nuts, seeds, nut and seed butters blends, and avocados.
Ingredients to Use Less Often
To keep blood glucose in your target range, avoid the following foods.
Refined carbs are stripped of nutrients, which are then added back in as forms that aren’t necessarily easily absorbed by the body. Products made of these ingredients often have the word “white,” “refined,” or “enriched” in front of them—such as enriched white bread.
These types of grains can raise blood sugars too quickly and are even called simple carbs or fast carbs because of the impact they have on blood glucose. Due to the effect that refined grains have on diabetics, some seniors opt to go entirely gluten-free just to avoid trouble.
Like refined grains, refined or added sugars cause a swift rise in blood sugar. Added sugars are sneaky and can lurk under names like “nectar” or “syrup,” so it’s important to look at nutrition labels closely. They are commonly spotted in sugar-sweetened drinks and highly-processed baked goods, such as muffins or cookies.
When reaching for a beverage, it’s best to avoid or moderate alcohol intake. Ingesting too much alcohol can mess with digestion, and excess intake can damage vital organs over time. Plus, alcoholic drinks (especially cocktails) often contain added sugar and carbs that can cause a blood sugar spike.
Alcohol can also be dangerous when mixed with common medications that seniors take. It’s even known to cause dangerously low blood sugar when taken with diabetes medications, including insulin and sulfonylureas.
How to Build Meals for Diabetic Seniors
Ready to put these principles into action? Use the following tips for a diabetes-friendly meal to create a plate that’s blood sugar-stabilizing, nutritious, and delicious.
Incorporate Foods from All Food Groups
For seniors with diabetes, it’s extra important to eat a variety of foods. Aiming for one food from each food group at mealtime can make it more likely to get the nutrients you need.
This may sound complicated, but a simple goal of “eating the rainbow” can help to guide your efforts. As the catchphrase implies, you’ll want to make your plate colorful by including foods of every color. Since fruits and vegetables naturally come in many colors, this can encourage a greater intake of nutrient-rich produce.
Use “The Plate Method” to Guide Portions
The plate method acts as a visual guide to choosing food. It’s especially useful if you struggle with portion sizes, and can help you keep carbs under control if you plan to enjoy starchier favorites (like white rice or plain pasta).
The guidelines for the plate methods are as follows:
- Half the plate (larger portion): non-starchy vegetables
- One-quarter of plate/moderate portion: protein (preferably lean)
- Remaining quarter of plate: starch/complex carb
- In small amounts: add healthy fats and a serving of fruit or dairy
Make Half (or More of) Your Grains Whole
Another great guide to remembering across all your meals is to “make half your grains whole.” Throughout the day, aim to make at least half of all your grain choices come from whole grains, such as:
- Brown rice
- Whole-grain bread, pasta, or cereal
Meal Timing for Diabetic Seniors
A few additional tips can help you make the most of your meals when you have diabetes. In general, it’s recommended to eat as close to the same time each day as possible and to enjoy meals about 4 hours apart.
Don’t Skip Meals
Skipping meals when you have diabetes can cause blood sugars to dip dangerously low, not to mention cause poor mood or inability to focus. While it’s often warned not to let blood sugars get too high when you eat, eating properly portioned meals helps ensure blood sugar doesn’t go too low.
Optimize Food Order
Surprisingly, food order—in which you eat different meal components—may impact your blood sugar levels. A recent study found that eating vegetable and protein-rich dishes before carbohydrate-heavy foods may be optimal for diabetics.
Be Mindful of Medication
Since diabetes medications can influence blood sugar levels, it’s important to understand which medications are meant to be taken with or without food. Other medications taken by seniors may also influence hunger, satiety, and blood sugar.
Consulting your doctor or asking your pharmacist about instructions anytime a new medication is prescribed is a good practice.
The Final Decision on Diabetic Diets for Seniors
Diabetes may be a complicated disease, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish the quality of life. In fact, making better food choices and being informed about glycemic control can help you successfully choose foods that meet your needs without spiking your blood sugar.
Remember, you aren’t alone! A team of qualified professionals—like dietitians, diabetes educators, and doctors—can help assist you on your journey as you combine food options, count carbohydrates, manage meals, and take medications.
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