While good nutrition is essential for all children, eating right is particularly important for kids with diabetes. It keeps their blood sugar levels on track and helps prevent problems from diabetes that can occur later in life, such as heart disease.
Children with diabetes don’t need to be on strict diets, but they do need to pay attention to when they eat and what’s on their plates.
Just like everyone else, people with diabetes need to aim for each meal to be a good balance of nutrition and taste. Here are some estimates to shoot for over the course of a day:
- About 10 to 20 percent of the calories your child eats should come from protein. Try to select lean meats like chicken or beef.
- Roughly 25 to 30 percent of calories should come from fat. Try to avoid foods with lots of trans and saturated fats (or eat them only in moderation).
- About 50 to 60 percent of the calories your child eats should come from carbohydrates. Try to include lots of green and orange vegetables in their daily diets — like carrots and broccoli — and choose vitamin-rich brown rice or sweet potatoes, instead of white rice or regular potatoes.
Choosing the Right Meal Plan
There are 3 types of meal plans that children with diabetes usually follow: the exchange, constant carbohydrate and carbohydrate counting.
The exchange meal plan is good for kids who’ve just developed diabetes, are overweight or who need to pay close attention to the balance of calories and nutrients they eat each day.
For this meal plan, foods are divided into 6 groups: starch, fruit, milk, fat, vegetable and meat. The plan sets a serving size (amount) for foods in each group, and each serving has a similar amount of calories, protein, carbohydrate and fat. This allows a child some flexibility in planning meals because she can exchange, or substitute, choices from a food list.
The number of servings from each food group recommended for each meal and snack is based on the total number of calories that the person needs each day.
The other 2 types of meal plans help make sure that the amount of carbohydrates that a child eats matches up with the insulin or other diabetes medicines she is taking. Focusing on carbohydrate intake is important because carbs are mainly responsible for the rise in blood sugar that occurs after eating.
The constant carbohydrate meal plan is easy to follow for kids who usually eat and exercise about the same amount from day to day. For this meal plan, the person eats a certain amount of carbohydrates in each meal and snack. Then, she takes insulin or other diabetes medicines at the same times and in the same amounts each day.
Lastly, the carbohydrate counting meal plan works best for kids who take a dose of insulin (as a shot or with an insulin pump) with each meal. It works well for children who need more flexibility because the person takes insulin when actually eating, rather than at a set time each day.
For kids on this meal plan, they count the number of carbs in the foods they eat at each meal or snack. Then, they match their insulin dosage to that carb amount.
Your diabetes nutrition team can teach you and your child meal-planning guidelines. Your meal plan won’t tell you specific foods to eat, but it may suggest mealtimes, food groups to select from and the amounts to eat from these food groups.
There’s no sense in having a boring diet your child won’t stick to, so your nutrition team will work to build the plan based on the foods that she usually eats. With your diabetes knowledge and the right tools, your child will be prepared to eat right for her health.
(c) 2016. Article adapted from The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth(R). Used under license.