Food Exchange Lists for People With Diabetes

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Figuring out what to eat when you have diabetes can be tricky. That's why there are different methods for getting the right balance of foods on your plate. One of these methods is the diabetic food exchange lists. Find out what they are and how they can help you control your blood sugar.

Main Goals of Eating With Diabetes

Your biggest goal when eating with diabetes is to eat the right amount of carbohydrate, protein, and calories at each meal and snack. Doing so can help you keep your blood sugar in a good range. Your doctor, diabetes educator, or registered dietitian can help you figure out how many carbohydrates you should eat every day (and what times of day to eat them) for optimal blood sugar control. Diabetic food exchange lists can be a big help when planning your meals.

What Are Diabetic Food Exchanges?

Diabetic food exchanges are an easy way to create a meal plan that has a variety of choices while making sure that the consumption of carbohydrates is controlled. Similar foods are grouped into categories — or "exchanges" — that have the same amounts of carbohydrates, protein, calories and/or fat. Meal plans, which are usually devised by you and a nutritionist, specify the number of servings you can have from each exchange list. Foods on the same list can be exchanged for each other, to give variety and choice to an otherwise structured meal plan. 

So, for instance, say your snack can have two carbohydrate exchanges. That would mean you could choose to have two slices of bread, or a cup of milk and an apple. You can mix and match according to your preferences, but the exchange system gives you a way to quantify how much of what kind of food you can have.

Especially when you're starting to use food exchanges, you'll find that using measuring cups and a food scale will help you keep exchange portions correct.

For even more options and variety, there is a list of "free" foods that can be consumed without counting.

Should I Use the Diabetic Food Exchange Method?

That depends. Some people find the exchange lists too rigid, especially if they're eating foods that are combinations of foods that don't really fit into one group. Cake and cookies are an example of these kinds of foods. There are some lists that incorporate special occasion foods.

On the other hand, the food exchange method is an uncomplicated way to help you keep your carbohydrate consumption consistent. Work with a nutritionist and follow the exchange lists for optimum blood sugar control.

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  1. Rodibaugh R. University of Arkansas, Division of Agriculture. The exchange list system for diabetic meal planning. Updated 2019.