Diabetic Food Exchanges Made Easy

The food exchange system can make eating and meal planning with type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes much easier. Understanding the basics of the food exchange system can also help you manage blood glucose levels.

In the food exchange system, food is categorized into 3 main groups:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Protein (eg, meat) and protein substitutes (eg, eggs, cheese, soy)
  • Fats

The Carbohydrates Group
The Carbohydrates group is further broken down into bread/starch, fruit, milk, other carbohydrates (sugar and sweets), and vegetables. When a meal plan says 2 1/2 carbohydrate exchanges (1 bread/starch, 1 fruit, 1/2 milk), it means that there are many servings for those kinds of carbohydrates. You can refer to food exchange lists for the exact measurement of carbohydrates in food—these lists are posted in almost every diabetic cookbook, or refer to the diabetic exchanges listed at the end of each recipe.

For example, for those 2 1/2 carbohydrate exchanges, you might choose 1 slice of bread, 1 medium fresh peach, and 1/2 cup of skim milk. You could also choose 1/2 cup of cooked pasta, 1 cup of cubed melon, and 1/2 cup of nonfat yogurt. In general, 1 carbohydrate exchange (bread/starch, fruit, and milk) provides 12 to 15 grams of carbohydrates. Since a serving of vegetables only has 5 grams of carbohydrates, it takes 3 vegetables to equal 1 carbohydrate exchange.

The Protein Group
The Protein group is broken down into very low-fat protein, low-fat protein, medium-fat protein, and high-fat protein. A protein exchange provides 7 grams of protein and varying amounts of fat. Again, look to a food exchange list or the exchanges listed at the end of each  recipe for the amount of protein exchange for each serving.

The Fats Group
The Fats group is divided into monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fats. One fat exchange provides 5 grams of fat and 45 calories. You'll be surprised at how quickly your fat exchanges will be used—1 exchange only means 1 teaspoon of oil, butter, stick margarine, or mayonnaise. For the same fat exchange, you could choose 1 tablespoon of reduced fat margarine or mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon of salad dressing, 1 tablespoon of cream cheese, 8 large black olives, or 1 slice of bacon.

Food Exchange System Made Easy
Even if you are only counting carbs to manage your diabetes, it still makes sense to familiarize yourself with the serving size of different foods that make up 1 exchange so you'll know how much to eat to get 15 grams of carbohydrates.

Once you've become familiar with following the food exchange system, you'll find you no longer need your list—you'll be able to look at a baked potato or a serving of cooked rice and know how many exchanges those will be. The food exchange system can help you deal with type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes long-term because it's something you can do every day to help you manage your condition.

Updated on: October 22, 2012