Lifestyle

If you are living with diabetes, lifestyle is an important part of your care. It is very important that you eat a good balance of foods every day and exercise regularly. Managing your diabetes also means taking medicine, if needed, and testing your blood sugar levels each day.

Diet

Diabetes does not require special foods. A healthy, balanced diet can come from everyday foods. If you have diabetes, you should

  • Choose foods that are low in fat and salt
  • Choose foods that are high in fiber (such as beans, vegetables, and fruit)
  • Eat foods from all food groups. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has plenty of information about choosing a balanced diet
  • Lose weight if you need to by cutting down on how much you eat.

Your doctor can refer you to a dietitian who can help you plan meals that taste great and are good for you.

Alcohol

If your diabetes is under control and you do not have high blood pressure, your doctor may allow you to drink alcohol in moderation. Keep in mind that if you drink alcohol while taking insulin or other diabetes medication, your  risk of having low blood sugar may increase.

If you drink alcohol, limit yourself to one drink a day if you are a woman and two drinks a day if you are a man. Avoid sugary mixed  drinks.  Never drink alcohol on an empty stomach.

Smoking

Smoking greatly increases your risk of heart disease, eye disease, and blood vessel disease, which are major complications of diabetes. Stopping smoking is the single best thing you can do to lower your chances of developing heart and blood vessel disease.

Exercise and Activity

Always see a doctor before starting an exercise program. Your doctor may have good ideas about types of exercise that would be best for you. Exercise is important for people with diabetes because it

  • Helps insulin work better to lower blood sugar
  • Helps keep weight down
  • Is good for the heart, blood vessels, and lungs
  • Gives you more energy

Exercise affects your body's need for sugar. When you exercise, be sure to

  • Have a snack with you in case you get low blood sugar.
  • Wear a tag or carry a card that says you have diabetes.
  • Eat a snack, such as milk or an apple, before exercising if your blood glucose  is less than 100 mg/dL.
  • Avoid exercising if your blood sugar is over 300 mg/dL. 
  • Do not take insulin to lower your blood sugar before exercising. This may result in severe low blood sugar.

If you have heart disease or risk factors for heart disease, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or poor diabetes control, check with your doctor about whether or not you need a stress test before beginning an exercise program.

If you have nerve damage to your feet, be careful to wear well-fitting shoes and socks to avoid blisters. Talk with your physician and/or podiatrist about your exercise program.

Medications and Blood Sugar Monitoring

Taking your medicines and monitoring your blood sugar are also part of managing your diabetes.

If you need to take medicine, be sure to take it as directed. Do not change your dosage or how often you take your medicine unless your doctor tells you to. Take it as prescribed and on time every day. Be careful not to skip doses of insulin or other medicines.

Test your blood for sugar as directed by your doctor. Some people only test once a day. Those who take insulin or more than one medication may need to test four or more times a day. Talk to your doctor about how often you should test your blood sugar.

See your doctor for a hemoglobin A1c test every three to six months. This blood test gives your doctor a picture of your blood sugar levels over the past three months. Ask your doctor if you have questions about your A1c test results. You should have a normal result if most of your blood sugar levels are near 100 mg/dl.

Ketone Testing

If you have type 1 diabetes, you may want to test your urine or blood for ketones—substances your body forms when you do not have enough insulin and your body starts breaking down fat for energy.

If you have a positive ketone test when you take a blood or urine test, call your doctor immediately. This could mean that you are developing a condition called diabetic ketoacidosis, a serious condition that can cause death if left untreated.

Managing your diabetes may take some planning. Ask your doctor how to best prepare for the following situations, which may require extra insulin or even changes to your regular dose of medication:

  • When you are sick
  • If you are planning a pregnancy or become pregnant
  • When you are traveling
  • When you are at school or at work
  • When you are exercising

Make a commitment to learn about your condition and make the lifestyle changes needed to maintain good health despite the challenges of diabetes. A great doctor, the right medication, a good diet, and exercise will go a long way in ensuring your well-being for many years to come.

Editors:

Guillermo Umpierrez, MD
Emory University School of Medicine

Margaret Eckert-Norton, PhD
SUNY Downstate

Last Updated: May 2013