Smart Eating: How to Plan Your Meals if You Have Prediabetes
If you have been diagnosed with prediabetes, making smart dietary choices becomes even more essential. But with all the conflicting advice out there, figuring out how to start can be terribly confusing!
In this article, I will outline a step-by-step approach to planning your meals that can help you put prediabetes behind you and improve your overall health, with specific suggestions and ideas to get you started.
At VIBRANCE Nutrition, we believe that healthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated or boring. That’s why I have developed a practical and effective meal planning guide tailored specifically for individuals with prediabetes. By implementing these tips and incorporating delicious and nutrient-dense foods into your diet, you can take control of your health and prevent the progression to type 2 diabetes.
With a focus on balanced meals you can effortlessly achieve portion control to begin losing any extra weight. This, coupled with mindful eating and meal planning strategies are designed to keep your blood sugar levels stable and support your weight management goals.
Keep reading to take the first step towards reversing your prediabetes, improve your energy, and discover how to plan your meals effectively.
Understanding prediabetes and its impact on your health
Prediabetes is a condition in which your blood sugar levels are higher than is healthy, but not high enough to be classified as type 2 diabetes. It is a warning sign that your body is not processing glucose efficiently, and if left unmanaged it can lead to the development of diabetes.
Most individuals with prediabetes also have insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a condition where the body’s cells become less responsive to the effects of insulin. Insulin does many things, but it is predominately a storage hormone. It responds most enthusiastically to carbohydrates (glucose) in the bloodstream after a meal, shuttling the excess glucose out of the blood into cells to be used for energy or stored as fat. In individuals with insulin resistance, the cells fail to respond adequately to insulin, and it cannot put glucose into the cell. This means that glucose remains in the bloodstream, leading to high blood sugar levels. To compensate for this, the pancreas produces more insulin, resulting in high levels of both insulin and glucose in the bloodstream. Over time, this can have detrimental effects on weight management, energy levels, and long-term health.
To reduce chronically elevated blood sugar and insulin, carbohydrates must be brought into one’s personal tolerance level. Foods which support a healthy metabolism, such as vitamins D and K, as well as amino acids need to be emphasized. More on this in a moment! (1)
The prevalence of Prediabetes as well as Type 2 Diabetes continues to rise worldwide. Over 1 in 3 Americans as well as Britains have chronically high fasting blood sugar. A fasting blood sugar of 100-125 mg/dl and a hemoglobin A1c of 5.7-6.4% is considered pre-diabetic by the American Diabetes Association while the World Health Organization considers a fasting blood sugar of 110-125 as a prediabetic range. Unchecked, half of those with prediabetes can expect to develop Type 2 Diabetes in their lifetime. (2)
The good news is that prediabetes is reversible through lifestyle changes, particularly in your diet and exercise habits. By understanding the impact of prediabetes on your health, you can take proactive steps to prevent progressing to type 2 diabetes.
One of the key factors in reversing prediabetes is reducing overall insulin levels and maintaining stable blood sugar levels. This is where meal planning comes into play. By carefully selecting nutrient-dense foods in the right proportions, you can keep your blood sugar levels in check, improve insulin sensitivity, and reduce the risk of developing complications associated with diabetes.
The importance of meal planning for prediabetes
Meal planning is a crucial to reverse prediabetes. It allows you to take control of your diet and make proactive, conscious choices about what you eat. By planning your meals in advance, you can ensure that you have a well-balanced and nutritious diet that supports your health goals.
One of the main benefits of meal planning is that it helps you avoid impulsive or reactive food choices. When you have a plan in place, you are less likely to reach for snacks or make suboptimal food choices when hunger strikes. You ensure you have enough of what your body needs to thrive, ready to go. Most quick options, even when healthy, are not proportioned well enough to keep blood sugar and hunger low. By planning your food in advance, you can rely on a pre-determined meal plan that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods.
Another advantage of meal planning is that it saves you time and money! By knowing exactly what ingredients you need for each meal, you can create a shopping list and avoid unnecessary purchases. Additionally, by preparing meals in advance, you can save time during the week and ensure that you always have a healthy option available, even on busy days.
The basics of eating to reverse prediabetes
When it comes to smart eating for prediabetes, the foundation is a wholesome nutrient-rich diet. This means incorporating a variety of foods into your meals to ensure you are getting all the essential nutrients your body needs. There are 4 components to your plate to think about:
First and foremost, focus on filling your plate with non-starchy vegetables. These are low in calories and high in fiber, which helps regulate blood sugar levels and promotes satiety. Green veggies are rich in Vitamin K and need to be present at least once a day, minimum! Aim to include a variety of colors, such as leafy greens, peppers, broccoli, and cauliflower, to maximize the nutritional benefits.
In addition to vegetables, include quality proteins in your meals. Protein is made of amino acids that are essential for building and repairing tissues, providing satiety and can help stabilize blood sugar levels.
Healthy fats are also an important component of a prediabetes-friendly diet. Include sources like avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil in your meals to provide essential fatty acids and trace nutrients. Vitamin D is most prevalent in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines as well as egg yolks, so including these protein foods multiple times a week is a double win!
What about carbohydrates? This is typically where most people become confused. Some plans advocate elimination of starches and others encourage whole grains instead of refined grains. While carbohydrates need not be eliminated, it is important to choose the highest quality carbs, as they will provide the most nutrients needed to balance blood sugar and often have a lower glycemic load. While lowering the amount of starches on your plate will allow you to keep glucose levels in check and lower insulin, it is unnecessary to go full-blown keto if you have prediabetes. Choose from the most nutrient-dense starches I’ll mention shortly and favor their use in meals earlier in the day or at times when you will be most active.
By adjusting your plate to be mostly vegetables with a larger chunk of protein and a more modest portion of carbohydrates, you’ll find it much easier to have the variety you enjoy while reducing your blood sugars back into optimal range.
Creating a balanced and nutritious meal guide
Now that the basics of eating for prediabetes have been outlined, it’s time to create a balanced and nutritious meal guide. I prefer to think of this as a guide rather than a plan, as plans tend to be rigid in nature and inherently unsustainable! The key to an effective guide is to ensure that your meals include a variety of food groups in the right proportions.
Start by dividing your plate into sections. Fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, spinach, or bell peppers. These vegetables are highest in nutrients per bite, making them an excellent choice for reversing prediabetes. Non-starchy vegetables are most often those which come into season in the spring and summer and grow above ground. These are salad and stir-fry veggies! Most people are only eating about a fist sized serving of vegetables per day or less. Ideally you want a minimum of 4 fists of non-starchy veggies every day. This helpful guide can help you work up to that amount!
Next, fill a third of your plate with low-starch proteins. Protein is essential for building and repairing tissues and can help stabilize blood sugar levels. Opt for sources like fish, tofu, poultry, leaner cuts of pork like tenderloin and chops, as well as leaner cuts of beef like sirloin steak and lean ground beef. These options are high in essential minerals and vitamins. Higher amounts of protein are more satisfying and help keep blood sugar stable, so aim for closer to a hand-length of protein at each meal, not the skimpy ‘deck of cards’ portion that Weight Watchers taught you. While beans do supply some protein, 60% of their calories come from carbohydrate, so they are not ideal for reversing prediabetes.
The remaining 15-20% of your plate can be dedicated starchy carbohydrates from starchy vegetables, beans and whole grains. These carbohydrates provide energy and fiber, and we reduce the portion to prevent an excess of glucose in the blood. Starchy vegetables include corn, yams, potatoes, and most winter vegetables which grow underground. The most nutrient dense whole grains are oats, quinoa, wheat bran and corn. Limit any whole grain which has been processed into a flour, and keep the amount of starches on your plate to 20% or less of your meal, or up to 10 bites of that starchy item.
To complete your meal, add a small serving of healthy fats. This could be a sprinkle of nuts or seeds, a drizzle of olive oil, or half an avocado or a serving of fatty fish. These fats add flavor and provide essential nutrients like Vitamin E, vitamin D, magnesium and fatty acids. When it comes to fatty fish, there is no need to restrict intake from sources such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, and anchovies. Whether or not you need to be mindful of saturated fat intake is dependent upon your genetics and recent lab work.
Here are some basic meal ideas that follow this guide:
- Zucchini noodles with Bolognese sauce and a smattering of cannelini beans.
- Chili with double the meat, half the beans, served with a large salad
- Roast chicken on a bed of fennel, cabbage, and onions, served with quinoa pilaf
- Grilled tofu stir-fry with 1/4-1/3 cup brown rice
- Grilled salmon salad with spinach, blueberries, feta, and wild rice served with a lime vinaigrette
By following this balanced plate approach, you can create meals that are satisfying, nutritious, and supportive of your blood sugar goals.
Incorporating the right carbohydrates into your meals
Carbohydrates often get a bad rap when it comes to blood sugar management. However, not all carbs are created equal. It’s important to be discerning with your carbohydrates and pair them with lots of vegetables and protein to slow down the digestion and absorption process. In fact, when presented with a meal, eating your vegetables before your starches will lower the severity of the glucose spike and drop from that meal! (3)
Your best starchy carbohydrates will come from starchy vegetables, beans, and fruits. A small amount of unmilled grains (such as oats, quinoa, and brown rice) can be enjoyed, but these tend to have lower nutrient density than produce and beans do and tend to be less filling.
Is Fruit Good for Prediabetes?
When it comes to fruits, choose those that are lower in sugars. Examples of low-glycemic fruits include berries, apples, and citrus fruits. Low sugar fruits tend to grow in temperate climates while higher sugar fruits such as pineapple, bananas, and mangoes grow in more tropical areas. This can be a handy way to quickly discern if a fruit is worth picking up or not.
Lastly, be mindful of portion sizes. Many fruits grown today are 2-3 times the size they were in the 1970s, so an apple at the grocery store today may actually be 2-3 servings of fruit, not one. Even healthy carbohydrates can raise blood sugar levels if consumed in large quantities. When you have prediabetes, your body struggles to utilize carbohydrates, so it is important to not overload the system with them, whichever the source. Be mindful with your portions and always pair carbohydrates with protein or healthy fats to slow down digestion and prevent spikes in blood sugar levels.
Effortless portion control in managing prediabetes
Many people concerned with prediabetes are also trying to manage their weight. With the prediabetes plate I’ve outlined above, you will likely be increasing your vegetables and protein, and only ‘controlling’ your starch portion. Most find this method to be an effortless way to manage both weight and blood sugar without feeling like they are on a diet. They are able to reduce foods can cause blood sugar spikes when consumed in excessive amounts by focusing their attention on the produce and protein that keeps their blood sugar optimal. Additionally, practicing mindful eating can keep your blood sugar levels stable and prevent overeating.
If you find you have a large appetite or struggle to stay mindful, you can aim to control portions by using smaller plates and bowls. This visual trick can make your meal appear more substantial, even with smaller portions. Additionally, take your time to savor each bite and listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues. Most of us eat rather rapidly, finishing a meal in less than ten minutes. Use your phone’s stopwatch to see how long it takes you to get through a meal, then work to increase that time until it takes 15-20 minutes to finish your plate.
Hunger is what drives us to eat, and by choosing more filling foods we can keep blood sugar stable without measuring, weighing, and counting grams and calories. Fortunately, the prediabetes plate I have outlined above, with ample protein and fiber-rich, non-starchy vegetables, is highly satisfying!
Remember, it’s not necessarily how much you eat but what you eat. By focusing on nutrient-dense, low-starch foods and incorporating a variety of food groups into your meals, you can create satisfying portions that help normalize blood sugar levels.
Meal prep and batch cooking for convenience and consistency
Meal prep and batch cooking can be game-changers when it comes to reversing prediabetes. By dedicating some time each week to prepare and cook meals in advance, you can save time, ensure consistency, and always have a healthy option available.
Start by planning your meals for the week. Pull together some favorite meal ideas and make a shopping list based on your meal plan. This will help you stay organized and avoid impulse purchases.
When it’s time to cook, consider preparing large batches of staple foods like grilled proteins and roasted vegetables. These can be used as building blocks for different meals throughout the week. For example, cook a sheet pan of roasted vegetables that can be used in soups, stir-fries, or as a side dish. Roast a chicken and shred it to use in salads, and add a jar of green salsa to half of it for chicken chili verde later in the week.
Divide your cooked food into individual portions and store them in meal prep containers. This will make it easy to grab and go, whether you are headed to work or need a quick meal at home.
By incorporating meal prep and batch cooking into your routine, you can save time, reduce stress, and ensure that you always have a filling, supportive meal on hand.
Snack ideas for stable blood sugar
Snacking can be a challenge when you have prediabetes, as most snacks are not created with stable blood sugar in mind! It’s important to choose snacks that are low in sugar, high in fiber, and provide a source of protein or healthy fats. This combination helps stabilize blood sugar levels and keeps you feeling satisfied between meals.
Here are some prediabetes-friendly snack ideas:
1. Greek yogurt with berries and a sprinkle of nuts.
2. Raw vegetables with hummus or guacamole.
3. Hard-boiled eggs.
4. Apple slices with almond butter.
5. A handful of mixed nuts and seeds.
6. Cottage cheese with cucumber slices.
7. Edamame beans.
9. Sliced turkey or chicken breast with avocado slices, wrapped in lettuce.
10. Chia seed pudding with protein powder and unsweetened almond milk.
These snacks are tasty, satisfying, and won’t cause a drastic spike in blood sugar levels. With snacking as well as meals, remember to be eat slowly and listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues.
Staying motivated and making sustainable changes for long-term success
Reversing a chronic, progressive condition like prediabetes requires long-term commitment and dedication. It’s essential to stay motivated and make sustainable changes that will support your health goals for the long haul.
One way to stay motivated is by setting realistic and achievable goals. Start small and gradually build on your successes. Celebrate each milestone along the way, whether it’s adding an extra serving of vegetables daily for a week or incorporating more physical activity into your routine.
Staying connected to why lowering your blood sugar is important will also help you stay the course. Writing down what it will mean to have your labs come back as normal, and what the cost of ignoring your health further will lead to will act as a strong reminder when you are tired, tempted, or just having a bad day. Refer back to your why when it gets hard – and expect that it might be hard! This is the nature of change for most of us. Remember, 50% of those who do not address their prediabetes will develop Type 2 diabetes. Let prediabetes be your wake-up call and commit to not just managing the condition, but working to get blood sugar, hemoglobin A1c and insulin levels back into normal range so you no longer have prediabetes!
It can also be helpful to find a support system. Share your journey with friends, family, or a support group. Having someone to hold you accountable and provide encouragement can make a significant difference in your motivation and success. If you are on Facebook, you are welcome to join the Vibrance Village of Health for a positive group of people aiming to age well and keep disease away.
Lastly, be kind to yourself. Remember it took years to develop prediabetes, and learning a new lifestyle is a journey. Setbacks are a normal part of the process. If you slip up or have an off day, let the experience be an opportunity to learn more about your challenges and use it as an opportunity to grow and make better choices moving forward.
By staying motivated, making sustainable changes, and incorporating smart eating habits into your daily life, you can reverse prediabetes, normalize your blood sugar and improve your overall health for years to come!
A great way to start is to download the 5 Ways to 5 a Day Guide. You’ll get my best realistic strategies to start increasing your produce consumption and lowering your blood sugar at your very next meal!
- Heer, Martina, and Sarah Egert. “Nutrients other than carbohydrates: their effects on glucose homeostasis in humans.” Diabetes/metabolism research and reviews vol. 31,1 (2015): 14-35. doi:10.1002/dmrr.2533
- van Herpt TTW, Ligthart S, Leening MJG, et al Lifetime risk to progress from pre-diabetes to type 2 diabetes among women and men: comparison between American Diabetes Association and World Health Organization diagnostic criteria. BMJ Open Diabetes Research and Care 2020;8:e001529. doi:10.1136/bmjdrc-2020-001529
- Imai, S., Fukui, M., & Kajiyama, S. (2014). Effect of eating vegetables before carbohydrates on glucose excursions in patients with type 2 diabetes. Journal of clinical biochemistry and nutrition, 54(1), 7–11. https://doi.org/10.3164/jcbn.13-67