When someone is first diagnosed with diabetes, it feels like the world changes overnight. Foods you might once have considered comfort foods suddenly feel like lurking enemies. Instead of eating to sate hunger or to enjoy the pleasure of a favorite meal, you start to eye each bite warily, to worry how it will make you feel or how it might affect your blood sugar readings.

There is good news, though: treatment of diabetes has come a long way in the last twenty years, in large part because we understand it better than ever. If you work with your physician and approach it carefully, you’ll find a full, comfortable life in which you enjoy real food need not go by the wayside after your diagnosis.

Counting Carbs

When a patient with diabetes worries about nutrition, carb content represents the usual first concern. Many worry that they cannot enjoy pasta or bread dishes again, or must adhere to a popular diet trend like Atkins or the South Beach diet. While these have some positive elements, though, the diet of a diabetic is not a cookie cutter exercise. Not only does the disease affect different people at different levels, but an individual body changes over time.

Because of this, working with your physician and testing consistently are critical. Different foods affect blood sugar differently. Complex carbohydrates like pasta and whole grains will elevate your blood sugar slowly for a more extended time, whereas simple sugars in fruit and soda create quick spikes.

How to apply this information differs from person to person. If you are insulin-dependent (typically Type 1 diabetics), you need to count carbohydrates and measure your insulin dosage accordingly. Some may need one unit for every five grams of carbohydrates, while others might need one for ten units. It starts with food labels on packaged foods; in the United States, every label will include a measure of carbohydrate content, as well as the serving size that yields that count. Read the label, measure the food, and check your sugar to ensure your response is effective.

If your body still produces insulin and you control with pills and/or diet and exercise, it remains critical to measure the foods and measure how your blood sugar changes after you eat them. Your insulin production may change over time, so the way a baked potato affected you last year or even last month might differ dramatically from how it affects you today.

These measurements and counts work for more than to keep your blood sugar from spiking high. Diabetes management means working to avoid or correct low levels too. Having a source of quick sugar handy can help you recover from the discomfort of shaking, cold sweats, and heart palpitations, and also can help avert a more serious crash. This can mean having glucose tablets, hard candy, or even some juice or soda nearby. Again, measuring the carbohydrate content and effect on your level remains critical here; it is easy to overcorrect while you look to escape what can be a desperate feeling. Your physician can help you develop a plan for these situations.

Watch Out for Cholesterol

Diabetes means more than just keeping blood sugar levels in check. You need also to keep your cholesterol levels in check to avoid heart disease and other cardiovascular issues, and having your cholesterol checked regularly is important. While there are medicines designed to help, you can do a great deal to control cholesterol levels with diet.

This begins with fruits and vegetables, some of the best sources of fiber and nutrients to be found. Any person’s diet can benefit from this, but for the diabetic, they can be particularly beneficial in staving off some of the coronary issues that disproportionately affect this group. While fruits in particular need to be balanced against their effects on blood sugar, the base of your diet should remain here.

Meanwhile, your selection of meats and other dishes should include a focus on fats: reducing saturated and trans fats, and being sure to include polyunsaturated fats. Some fishes like salmon are excellent for increasing your HDL or “good” cholesterol, and should be included at least once per week in your meal plan. Similarly, some cooking oils like olive oil are superior choices for including polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats rather than saturated fats. Again, read your labels! The information is there, and you can and should use it to work out the best meal plan for yourself.

Rediscovering Joy in Eating

Along with everything above, you need to remember that some of what you need is the same as what everyone else needs. Focusing only on carbs and fats can lead to neglecting some of the vitamins and minerals that everyone needs. Fruits and vegetables again are a great source of much of what you need. Building in dairy where possible can also help with your vitamins and calcium levels. Finally, your physician can help you decide whether a vitamin supplement can help give you what your body needs to stay healthy for a long time.

With all of the nutritional elements we have to control and watch with diabetes, it isn’t unusual to find the joy of eating dissipates. There is no reason this has to happen, though! Finding meals that give you what you need, and reduce or eliminate the things that can hurt you, can lead to discovering new foods and give new appreciation for some of the foods you already like. Take time to explore what makes your mind and your body feel great. While you may have to skip that slice of pecan pie, diabetes need not mean that you can’t enjoy eating anymore.