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Healthy Eating and Physical Activity

Reviewed by Michael Fuller, MD

For people with type 1 diabetes, careful dietary management and a regular exercise program can be crucial strategies when it comes to preventing health complications down the line.

Detailed Description

For people with type 1 diabetes, careful dietary management and a regular exercise program can be crucial strategies when it comes to preventing health complications down the line.


Fitness and proper nutrition go hand in hand for patients who need to manage their blood sugar and energy levels. They can also be helpful in combating additional risk factors and complications and may ease depression, which often accompanies chronic health conditions.

Because type 1 diabetes affects the body’s ability to metabolize sugar, keeping blood sugar low and preventing “peaks and valleys” in blood sugar levels is key to preventing dangerous complications.

Exercise causes muscles to burn glucose so that they have the energy they need to function properly. This in turn reduces blood sugar, an effect that increases in duration as the workout becomes longer and more strenuous. People who exercise regularly generally burn glucose at a steadier pace than those who do not, which can decrease insulin dependency and prevent the dangerous effects of sudden spikes or shortages of blood sugar.

The weight loss benefits of exercise are well-known, and exercise also decreases the risk of particular diabetes complications, such as high blood pressure, heart and vascular disease, stroke, and poor circulation.

Because certain complications of diabetes – diabetic retinopathy or nerve damage for example – may lead to serious risks that can be worsened by exercise, it is very important that any major change in the amount or type of daily physical activity be approved by a medical provider who is familiar with that patient’s medical history and overall health.


Food also plays an important role in the management of blood sugar levels. Since diabetics are unable to produce adequate insulin to aid them in metabolizing sugar, they must try to keep their blood sugar levels as close to normal as possible. While those who do not have diabetes may simply feel a bit sleepy or irritable if they eat a meal that is not well-balanced, the consequences for a diabetic may be more significant changes in blood sugar – and potential danger. For type 1 diabetics, after each meal, it is important to administer an appropriate amount of insulin for the food consumed at the appropriate time after eating. If too much insulin is administered or the insulin is administered before digestion has time to break food down into glucose, a dangerous drop in blood sugar can occur; and too little insulin will allow the body to be flooded with glucose or allow the blood sugar to rise too high.

A common belief is that sugar is bad for people with diabetes. While this can be true, it is more accurate to say that the consequences of unexpected blood sugar changes can be dangerous.

For example, if a person eats a meal that does not break down rapidly and administers an insulin injection too soon, eating something sugary may in fact be beneficial, because it gets glucose into the bloodstream and prevent dangerously low blood sugar. Alternately, a person might eat something with almost no sugar in it that is high in protein and fat, which would take quite a long time to break down into glucose; once this process begins, a dangerous spike in sugar may occur, though no actual sugar was eaten. Foods that break down into sugar slowly are said to have a low glycemic index, while those that break down into sugar more rapidly are said to have a high glycemic index.

The main dietary rule of thumb for diabetics who want to remain healthy is to be consistent when making choices about food, and to maintain a nutritious diet. These steps avoid other risks that may contribute to complications, such as high cholesterol and obesity. Using food labels, counting calories, noting the glycemic index of foods to be eaten and monitoring blood glucose and responses to insulin carefully are important steps maintaining a healthy diet.

Last updated: 10-Dec-07

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