What Can My Child Eat?
Just because your child has been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes doesn’t mean that they will have to stop eating the foods they enjoy. But it’s important to remember that their food choices, just like their insulin treatment, are an important part of diabetes management.
At the time of diagnosis, your child’s care team should provide you with some guidance about diet and how to manage mealtimes. By giving your child a healthy diet at home and encouraging a positive attitude toward food, you can provide them with all the nutrients they need for growth, as well as help them to manage their diabetes.
This section provides some basic information on meal planning and carbohydrate counting. Your child’s diabetes care team will be able to provide you with more specific advice.
When your child (or the child you are caring for) is first diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, managing mealtimes may seem complicated. But it will get easier over time, and you will soon learn how specific foods affect your child’s blood sugar. You may find it helps to keep a food diary to track your child’s meals and blood sugar levels.
A balanced diet
In general, children with type 1 diabetes have the same basic nutritional needs as children without diabetes. No single food group provides everything your child needs to stay healthy, so you should try to aim for a balanced diet that includes protein, carbohydrates, and fruit and vegetables.
Know the food types
Creating a healthy meal plan that your child can enjoy starts by learning more about food types and how those foods affect blood sugar. The more you know, the better you can create a healthy plan that not only fits your child’s personal tastes but also helps control blood sugar levels.
Different types of milk contain more fats and calories than others. You may want to start giving your child a more diabetes-friendly milk, such as:
- Fat-free milk
- 1% milk
- Unflavored soy milk
- Almond milk
Remember, read nutrition labels carefully, especially on low-fat and fat-free dairy products because their sugar content can be higher than you think.
Fruits can be healthy and taste great, too! They are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. But remember, fruits also have carbohydrates in them.
Fruits come in all different sizes. A large piece of fruit has more carbs, so you may need to give your child a smaller portion. You can ask a dietitian for details on how many carbohydrates are in your child’s favorite fruits or use the Nutrition and Carbohydrate Lookup tool.
Some healthier fruit choices include:
- Fresh fruits
- Frozen fruits without sugar added
- Canned fruits in 100% fruit juice
The right choice of vegetables can help you pack vitamins and minerals into each meal. Vegetables can be divided into 2 main categories: starchy and nonstarchy. Nonstarchy vegetables have fewer carbohydrates, which may make them a good choice for your child’s meal plan.
Here are some suggestions for healthier, nonstarchy vegetable choices:
- Fresh vegetables
- Frozen vegetables
- Canned vegetables without salt. Draining canned vegetables and rinsing them in fresh water before you cook them can remove some of the extra salt that is used to preserve them
Examples of nonstarchy vegetables include:
- Beans (green, wax, Italian)
- Bean sprouts
- Brussels sprouts
- Cabbage (green, bok choy)
- Greens (collard, kale, mustard, turnip)
- Salad greens
- Water chestnuts
Protein-rich foods should be part of a healthy meal plan. Chicken, meats, fish, soy products, and cheese are all foods high in protein. The best choices include those that are lower in saturated fats like chicken or turkey breast. When choosing fish, look for ones high in healthy omega-3 fish oil, such as tuna and salmon.
Here are some pointers when choosing protein-rich foods for your meal plan:
- 3 to 5 ounces of meat is a healthy portion for 1 meal
- Nuts and seeds can also provide protein and healthy fats
- Remember, plant-based proteins, such as tofu or soybeans, can have carbohydrates in them, so be sure to check nutrition labels
Types of fat
- Monounsaturated fats: include olive and canola oils, avocados, nuts and all-natural peanut butter
- Polyunsaturated fats: include corn, cottonseed, sunflower, safflower, and soybean oils and are also found in margarine and mayonnaise
- Omega-3 fats: can be found in walnuts, flaxseed oil, and fish, such as tuna, bluefish, lake trout, salmon, and sardines
- Saturated: This type of fat is found mostly in animal products, such as butter and meat, but also in tropical oils (coconut and palm)
- Trans fats: This type of fat is also unhealthy in large amounts and can be found in processed foods and fast foods like french fries. You can improve your child’s meal plan by doing your best to reduce or eliminate trans fats from their diet
Make sure your child is getting less sugar. Before you buy fat-free foods, compare the amount of carbohydrates and calories in them to the regular version. Sometimes all the manufacturer is doing in their fat-free versions is swapping out fat for sugar!
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates can be found in many of the foods we eat and are needed for energy that helps your child grow and develop. Proteins and fats also supply energy to the body, but carbohydrates have the biggest effect on blood sugar levels. Within 1 to 2 hours of eating, most carbohydrates are converted into blood sugar.
The difference between simple and complex carbohydrates
Simple carbohydrates are short-acting carbohydrates that will increase blood sugar levels quickly. In fact, some simple carbs can be used to help treat a low blood sugar (hypoglycemic) episode. These are called high-glycemic-index carbohydrates.
Complex carbohydrates are long-acting carbohydrates that take longer to digest (low-glycemic carbohydrates). They increase blood sugar levels slowly over time. Ideally, the majority of carbohydrates a person with type 1 diabetes eats should come from complex carbohydrates. These types of carbohydrates can help reduce the risk of hypoglycemia.
What foods contain carbohydrates?
Sugar (simple carbohydrates)
- Fruits and juices
- Some cereals
Starch (complex carbohydrates)
- Lentils and beans
Fiber (complex carbohydrates)
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grain bread
- Whole grain/oat cereals
- Lentils and beans