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.
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:
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:
Whole grains and starches:
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.
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:
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:
Casey suggests a variety of whole grain choices for seniors:
“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.
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.
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 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.