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A Delicious Diet Plan to Help Manage Diabetes in the Elderly

Claire Samuels
By Claire SamuelsJuly 21, 2020
Elderly couple cutting and preparing vegetables.

What is a diabetic diet? According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), there isn’t one answer. Many diet plans focused on senior nutrition can be beneficial for diabetics, as long as they include plenty of non-starchy vegetables and limit added sugars and refined carbs. Whole, unprocessed foods are always a healthy choice, but seniors with diabetes have plenty of options for delicious, nutritious meals and snacks.

Learn expert snack suggestions, foods to choose at mealtimes, advice on managing carbs, and resources about nutrition for elderly adults.

3 beginner’s tips for better senior nutrition

Many seniors have enjoyed the same favorite foods for decades, and it’s hard to break lifelong eating habits. “My number one tip is to start small,” says Sara Casey, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition for dining services at Brookdale Senior Living. “Attempting to overhaul eating habits overnight will likely not be sustainable long term.”

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Casey suggests easing into healthy eating habits for senior nutrition with these tips:

  1. Start with one or two specific changes a week
    It’s easier to implement a few changes at a time, and succeeding with those can build confidence to add additional changes later on.
  2. Make each goal specific, realistic, and measurable
    For example, instead of “eat more whole grains,” try “add one whole grain food (bread/cereal/oats) at breakfast three times a week.”
  3. Focus on a goal that adds instead of takes away
    To start, try adding one nutrient-dense food a day, rather than focusing on eliminating or restricting a food. This positive mindset encourages success.

Make a plate with this diabetic-friendly food list

How do you build a meal that’s both delicious and full of nutrition for diabetic elderly adults? To ensure nutrient needs are met, Casey suggests thinking of each meal as a plate, where half is filled with fruits and veggies and the other half is split between lean proteins and whole grains.

Here are a few diabetes superfoods the ADA suggests for filling the sections of your plate:

Vegetables:

  • Leafy greens like collards, spinach, and kale are full of vitamins and minerals, and they’re low in calories and carbs
  • Broccoli has only 27 calories per half cup serving and is full of nutrients like vitamin C and magnesium
  • Summer squash contains antioxidants and fiber that may help stabilize blood sugar and insulin levels
  • Arugula, lettuce, and celery have high nitrate concentrations
  • Carrots, beets, brussels sprouts, and avocado are all high-fiber veggies

Fruits:

  • Citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit, clementines, and lemon are high in fiber, vitamin C, folate, and potassium
  • Berries like blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries are all packed with antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber. They’re also a great way to satisfy your sweet tooth
  • Stone fruits like peaches, cherries, and apricots are sweet, delicious, and full of fiber

Proteins:

  • Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, trout, and tuna are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which may help reduce the risk of heart disease and inflammation. The American Diabetes Association Standards of Medical Care recommends eating fish (mainly fatty fish) twice a week for people with diabetes
  • Lean poultry like skinless chicken is versatile, flavorful, and healthy. Try replacing hamburger meat with ground turkey for favorites like burgers and meatloaf
  • Legumes like kidney, black, and pinto beans have fiber, magnesium, and potassium. Beans may be higher in carbs than meat but offer as much protein, minus the saturated fat

Whole grains and starches:

  • Sweet potatoes can be used like regular potatoes but are full of vitamins. Try baked sweet potato fries, mashed sweet potatoes, or even a vinegar-based sweet potato salad
  • Brown rice is versatile and delicious
  • Quinoa is a great source of fiber and can be used as a side, in salads, or as the base of a bowl
  • Barley and faro are two ancient grains full of B vitamins, iron, and folate

But don’t just balance your plate with bland options you aren’t excited to eat. “Meals should include foods that are enjoyed! Healthy eating does not need to be complicated or boring — consider new and creative ways to reimagine old favorites,” says Casey.


My number one tip is to start small. Attempting to overhaul eating habits overnight will likely not be sustainable long term.

Sara Casey, director of nutrition and dining services at Brookdale Senior Living

Looking for more specific suggestions? Check out this “paper plate plan” for summer picnics from the Association of Diabetes Care & Education Specialists.

Snack suggestions for a diabetic diet

Along with balanced meals, well-timed snacks are an important way to regulate blood sugar in seniors with diabetes. But this isn’t a green light for traditional snack foods like Twinkies and chips. “A good rule of thumb for snack building is to pair a complex carbohydrate that has fiber with a lean protein source,” says Casey. “This combination should help keep blood sugar levels stable and keep you feeling full longer.”

Some examples of this snack pairing include:

  • Peanut butter and whole grain crackers
  • Greek yogurt with berries and granola
  • Trail mix with almonds and dried fruit
  • Cottage cheese and berries
  • Whole grain cereal and milk

6 rules to manage carbs for diabetic seniors

When you consume food or drinks with carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into glucose — a type of sugar — which then raises the level of glucose in your blood. Your body and brain use that sugar for food throughout the day.


Meals should include foods that are enjoyed! Healthy eating does not need to be complicated or boring.

Sara Casey, director of nutrition and dining services at Brookdale Senior Living

It’s vital for seniors to balance carbohydrate intake for a healthy diabetic diet. Diabetes is a metabolism disorder that affects the way the body processes blood sugar, or glucose. In people with diabetes, the pancreas either doesn’t produce enough insulin, or their cells don’t respond appropriately to the insulin produced. This causes too much glucose to be released into the blood, which can be balanced with insulin doses and closely monitored carbs.

Follow these rules to keep track of your carb intake:

  1. Count your carbs
    Carb counting for diabetes can give seniors more choice and flexibility planning meals. It involves tallying the number of carbohydrate grams in a plate, then balancing that with insulin doses and physical activity. By counting carbs, people with diabetes can still enjoy favorite foods in moderation.
  2. Know your numbers
    The “right” number of carbohydrates depends on weight, age, medication, and activity level. A good rule of thumb is that people with diabetes should get about 45% of their daily calories from carbs. A diabetes care team or registered dietitian can help create a personalized plan that’s right for you.
  3. Balance your meals
    Spreading your carbs between meals and snacks throughout the day helps keep blood sugar levels even. Eating all your daily carbs at once will result in a blood sugar spike — even if you stick to your maximum daily budget.
  4. Read labels
    The nutrition labels on processed foods can help seniors make healthy carb choices. They contain serving size (it may be smaller than you think), grams of carbohydrates per serving, and other information like fiber and protein. Pay attention to how many servings you eat, and calculate the total carbohydrates.
  5. Don’t be swayed by slogans like “low-carb”
    The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t officially defined terms like “low-carb” when it comes to food marketing. Some products labeled “low-carb” may still be high in fat and calories, and “sugar-free” doesn’t always mean free of carbs. Focus on the grams of total carbs per serving.
  6. Make nutrient-rich choices
    “Including good sources of complex carbohydrates on a daily basis is important for a well-balanced diet,” according to Casey. “Choosing carbohydrates like whole grains will provide fiber as well as important nutrients like B vitamins.”

Foods with complex carbs

Casey suggests a variety of whole grain choices for seniors:

  • Whole wheat bread
  • Oatmeal
  • Brown rice
  • Quinoa
  • Tasty air-popped popcorn

“Other complex carbohydrates like legumes, beans, nuts, and seeds are also a great source of lean protein, another important component to balanced eating and maintaining good health,” says Casey.

Expert sources for a successful diabetic diet plan

Managing diabetes in the elderly can be complex, but having the right resources helps.

Use trusted web resources. The ADA diet guide offers in-depth nutrition resources, including recipes and meal planning tips. The CDC’s diabetes public health resource site has healthy eating tips, shopping lists, and a guide to eating out.

Explore nutritional counseling. Most health insurance companies, as well as Medicare, cover the cost of in-person or virtual diabetic diet counseling, if prescribed by a doctor. In fact, Medicare estimates that nearly 15 million seniors are eligible for nutritional counseling benefits but aren’t using them.

Consider senior living. Proper senior nutrition is a vital part of healthy aging. Not only do most assisted living communities offer chef-prepared, restaurant-style dining, but they often have professional dietitians on staff.

“At Brookdale communities, our menus are dietitian-approved and planned to meet the nutritional needs of the older adult,” says Casey. “We also have modified recipes available that are consistent with a carbohydrate-controlled diet for those with more specific needs.”

Nutritional care isn’t limited to mealtime — snacks tailored to residents’ preferences can be provided at consistent times throughout the day to help promote stable blood sugar levels, Casey adds.


Sources:

Centers for Disease Control. “Diabetes and Carbs.” https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/managing/eat-well/diabetes-and-carbohydrates.html

Johns Hopkins. “No More Carb Confusion.” https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/diabetes/diabetes_education/patient_education_material/no_more_carb_confusion.pdf

American Diabetes Association. “Nutrition.” https://www.diabetes.org/nutrition

American Diabetes Association. “2019 ADA Nutrition Consensus Report.” https://www.diabetes.org/sites/default/files/2019-10/ADV_2019_Consumer_Nutrition_One%20Pager.pdf

USDA. “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 8th Edition.” https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf

Claire Samuels
Author
Claire Samuels

Claire Samuels is a content writer at A Place for Mom. She worked with senior living communities throughout the Midwest before pivoting to writing. She’s passionate about sharing ways of living well at any age.

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