Healthy Eating

There is no ‘special’ diet for people with diabetes – you are advised to eat a healthy diet, along with the rest of the general population. Healthy eating forms an important part of managing diabetes; it is also essential for your general health and well being. But what exactly is “healthy eating” and how does it translate into our everyday lives? Why is it so important for people with diabetes?

What’s covered on this page

Healthy Eating

What is ‘Healthy Eating’?
Why is healthy eating so important for people with diabetes?
Part of your healthy lifestyle

Recommended Reading


How much can I drink?
What should I drink?
Hypoglycaemia and alcohol


Healthy Eating

There is no ‘special’ diet for people with diabetes – you are advised to eat a healthy diet, along with the rest of the general population. Healthy eating forms an important part of managing diabetes; it is also essential for your general health and well being.

But what exactly is “healthy eating” and how does it translate into our everyday lives?  Why is it so important for people with diabetes?

The specific roles of diet in the management of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are discussed separately in the section, “Managing Diabetes”. Here, we look at the concept of healthy eating in more detail and examine the contributions made by different food types.


What is ‘Healthy Eating’?

You may believe that you already have a good idea of what healthy eating is. However, different people often have quite different views on what constitutes ‘healthy’ eating.


Some preconceived ideas about what ‘healthy eating’ is:

  • Eating more or less of particular foods or types of food
  • Cutting out particular foods or types of food altogether
  • Adopting certain dietary lifestyles, such as eating regular meals, or becoming vegetarian
  • Taking vitamin/mineral supplements
  • Eating ‘organic’ produce
  • Choosing (or avoiding) artificial sweeteners

In fact, none of the above are ‘healthy’ in isolation, although some of the above may combine to form part of a healthy diet.


The key to healthy eating is to eat a balanced diet. This means balancing your choices, and eating appropriate amounts of the different food groups for your optimum health. The balanced diet model of healthy eating means that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods; it is more important that you eat a variety of different foods and balance your overall intake.

Healthy eating also means eating the right amount of food in order to be a healthy weight. This might mean that you should aim to lose some weight, but you will need to continue with healthy eating in order to stay at a healthy weight once you have achieved it.

The section on “Food and Nutrition” at the Diabetes New Zealand website is an excellent resource for people with diabetes wanting to learn more about a balanced diet.


Why is healthy eating so important for people with diabetes?

Having diabetes places you at risk of developing further serious health problems known as ‘complications’ of diabetes. These include heart disease and circulation problems, eye and kidney disease, and nerve damage. The combination of nerve damage and circulation problems places you at risk of infection in your legs and feet, which may lead to amputation.

Diet affects blood glucose control, blood lipid levels and blood pressure. These are all risk factors for developing complications later on in life. A healthy diet will help you to reduce these risk factors.

So, by paying attention to the different types of food that you eat, and the amounts that you eat, you can improve your blood glucose control, your blood fats and blood pressure, and maintain a healthy weight. A few changes to your eating habits can make a significant difference when it comes to your health, both in the short term and in the long term.


Part of your healthy lifestyle

Healthy eating is just one aspect of a healthy lifestyle. In addition to making changes to your eating habits you should consider your lifestyle as a whole; you may benefit from cutting down on your alcohol intake, giving up smoking, increasing your level of activity or reducing the harmful effects of stress. Take a look at the rest of the “Healthy Living” section, for further information.


Recommended Reading

The recent publication, “Diabetes and Healthy Food Choices,” from Diabetes New Zealand (Updated 2015) is an excellent booklet. You can obtain a copy by calling toll-free: 0800 DIABETES (0800 342 238) or Email



Alcohol and diabetes do not always mix very well. Having diabetes does not mean you have to avoid alcohol, but drinking too much or drinking at the wrong time can cause problems. There is nothing wrong with a person with diabetes having an occasional beer or glass of wine, but getting drunk is really not such a good idea. If your diabetes is treated with tablets or insulin then one too many could be dangerous.

The advice on alcohol consumption will depend to some extent on the type of treatment you use to manage your diabetes and any other medication being prescribed.

Heavy drinking on a regular basis can lead to numerous health problems, some of which you may already be at risk of because you have diabetes.

Excessive alcohol consumption is associated with:

  • Liver disease
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood fat levels
  • Heart disease
  • Circulation problems
  • Nerve damage
  • Some cancers


How much can I drink?

The maximum amount you should drink in any one week is:

  • 21 units for men
  • 14 units for women

(These figures are for people with diabetes and are less than the recommended limits for the general population)

A unit of alcohol amounts to:

  • 1/2 pint of beer, lager or cider
  • 1 pub measure of sherry, vermouth, aperitif or liqueur
  • 1 standard glass of wine
  • 1 pub measure of spirit (e.g. gin, vodka or whisky)

So, half a pint of beer has the same alcohol content as a single measure of whisky.

Extra strength lagers are often advertised as being “low in sugar” but they tend to contain more alcohol than ordinary beer or lager. Ideally, you should choose a beer or lager which has an alcohol content of less than 5%.

Alcohol contains a large amount of calories, which many people with diabetes could do without.

  • 1/2 pint of beer, lager contains 90 kcal
  • A bottle (275 ml) of strong lager contains 120 kcal
  • A standard glass of sweet white wine contains 100 kcal
  • A standard glass of dry white wine contains 70 kcal
  • 1 pub measure of spirit contains 65 kcal

Alcohol is sometimes called the “empty calorie drink” since it has very little nutritional value.

If you are trying to lose weight then cutting down on alcohol is often a good place to start.

What should I drink?

There are no hard and fast rules concerning which alcoholic drinks to choose. It’s best to find out for yourself which drinks affect your blood glucose levels adversely by testing your blood glucose levels.

It is recommended that you choose low calorie or diet mixers and try to avoid sweet wines, sherries and liqueurs.

Low alcohol beers and lagers can be useful if you are driving although some low alcohol drinks can be quite high in carbohydrates. Remember that low alcohol drinks do contain some alcohol and this can soon add up.

Hypoglycaemia and alcohol

Alcohol actually has the effect of lowering blood glucose levels.

So, if you are taking insulin or certain oral medications (see box) for your diabetes, drinking alcohol can make you more susceptible to having a “hypo”.

Tablets that increase the production of insulin – i.e. sulphonylureas or repaglinide – increase the risk of alcohol-induced hypoglycaemia.

Alcohol is more likely to cause a hypo if you drink on an empty stomach. If you are on insulin, sulphonylureas or repaglinide then it is safest to only drink alcohol at mealtimes. If you are tempted to drink on an empty stomach then be sure to eat a snack at the same time.

How does alcohol lower the blood glucose level?

Alcohol actually stops the liver from releasing glucose into the bloodstream. Normally the liver keeps the blood glucose level topped up during periods of ‘fasting’ – i.e. overnight and sometimes between meals. Alcohol interferes with this topping-up process and makes you far more likely to have a hypo.

NOTE: The effects of alcohol on blood glucose can last up to 12 hours.

Alcohol-induced hypos can be dangerous

Hypoglycaemia that results from drinking alcohol can be sudden and severe. To complicate matters, if you are under the influence then you may not realise that your blood glucose level is dropping. Your friends may not realise either; they may mistake your unsteadiness or confusion for drunkenness.

Hypoglycaemia will often occur during the night after an evening drinking session. And unfortunately the effects of the alcohol may mean that you don’t wake up.

Take sensible precautions

  • Test your blood glucose level before and after drinking, and especially before bed
  • Never drink on an empty stomach
  • Always make sure that you eat some carbohydrate foods when drinking alcohol
  • Always have a bedtime snack
  • Tell your friends that you have diabetes and make sure that they know the signs to look out for, should have a hypo
  • Always carry – or preferably wear – some diabetic identification



Explore the section Healthy Living:

Healthy Eating  |  Healthy Thinking  |  Physical Activity  |  Stopping Smoking  | Coping with Stress  | Setting Goals and Making the Changes