Cutting calories to control diabetes

Published: March, 2012

Nearly 26 million Americans have diabetes. The most common form is type 2 and excess body fat is the No. 1 risk factor. The good news is that losing as little as 10% of your body weight can reduce your risk and even reverse type 2 diabetes in some people. Along with exercise, cutting calories is still the most effective and safest way to drop excess pounds.

How can you cut calories? Different methods work for different people. One approach—probably the most accurate—is to add up the number of calories per serving of all the foods that you eat, and then take steps to reduce the total calories by 250 to 500 per day by eliminating some foods or reducing portion sizes. You can check websites that list the calories per serving of many foods. Two easy ways to cut calories are to switch from regular to diet soda, and to eliminate or reduce high-calorie snacks. Try one or more of these strategies:

  • Eat high-fat, high-calorie foods less often
  • Eat smaller portions of these foods
  • Substitute lower-fat, lower-calorie alternatives

The nutrition labels on all packaged foods and beverages provide calories-per-serving information. Make a point of reading the labels of the foods and drinks you use, noting the number of calories and the serving sizes. Many recipes published in cookbooks, newspapers, and magazines provide similar information. And a growing number of restaurants now list serving size and calorie information for the offerings on their menus.

Another approach

If you hate counting calories, a different approach is to limit how much you eat, and to eat meals consisting of foods that are low in calories (salad instead of mashed potatoes with butter, or fruit instead of ice cream for dessert). Dietary guidelines issued by the American Heart Association stress common sense in choosing your foods rather than focusing strictly on numbers, such as total calories or calories from fat.

Whatever method you choose, research shows that the most successful approach involves sticking with a regular eating schedule—with meals and snacks planned for certain times each day—and recording what you eat. Planning meals and snacks that are no more than four hours apart can help you from becoming too hungry, which can lead to overeating. Writing down what you eat makes you more aware of when and how you get off track with your goals—and also helps you identify what does work. The same applies after you have lost weight and want to keep it off. Sticking with a regular eating routine increases your chances of maintaining your new weight.

Tips for healthy eating away from home

Eating out is a way of life for many people. Many of these meals are purely a matter of convenience: a sandwich from the supermarket deli counter, drive-through burgers, or take-out Chinese food.

Although meal planning and weight loss can be more difficult when you eat out, you can step into a restaurant prepared. Try the following to make your dining experience as healthy as it is enjoyable:

  • Ask how the food is prepared. Talking with the restaurant staff before you order about the various menu selections and how they're prepared will help you make appropriate choices.

  • Look for less. Consume less saturated fat and fewer calories. Skinless chicken, fish, or lean meat that's been broiled, poached, baked, or grilled is a more health-conscious option than fried foods or dishes prepared with heavy sauces.

  • Practice portion control. Use your estimating techniques to size up the food on your plate. If it looks like there's more food on your plate than your meal plan calls for, section off the serving size you want and ask for a "doggie bag" to take the rest home.

  • Order an extra side of veggies. Non-starchy vegetables, such as green beans, broccoli, asparagus, or summer squash, will help you fill up with low calorie choices.

  • Do your research. Detailed nutrition information on various menu items is available for most fast-food chains. Check out for a listing of over 50,000 foods, including many restaurant items. You can also visit company-specific websites for nutrition breakdowns, or call and request a pamphlet. Many locations display posters with this type of nutrition information.

  • Keep track of the time. If you take insulin and know your meal will be delayed, eat a roll or piece of fruit to tide you over.

As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.