The Exchange System Explained

What do 1/2 cup of spaghetti sauce, 3 cups of air-popped popcorn, and six saltine crackers have in common?  They all count as one starch exchange in the diabetic exchange system.  A question that came up on the Reader Survey was, “Would you mind writing a post about the exchange system you use and why it’s helpful? I just don’t understand and not really sure where to start.”  Thanks so much for asking!  I’m happy to explain!

Photo by spacebarpark

Photo by spacebarpark

The diabetic exchange system is essentially a set of lists of foods which are interchangeable.  Designed in the 1950’s to help those suffering with diabetes make better nutrition decisions, the exchange system is also useful for weight loss and maintenance.  There’s a list for starches, one for milk products, one for proteins, and so on.  Within the lists, the foods are pretty much interchangeable.  As listed above, 3 cups of air-popped popcorn are roughly equivalent to 6 saltines in their protein, carbohydrate, and fat content.  This is helpful for planning and portioning balanced meals.

Let’s take an example lunch.  Imagine I’ve decided to have the following components:

  • 3 Proteins
  • 2 Starches
  • 1 Vegetable
  • 1 Fat

I could go to the proteins list and choose any 3 of these:

  • 1 oz. Lunch Meat
  • 1 Egg
  • 1/4 c. Cottage Cheese
  • 1 oz. Cheese
  • 1 Tbsp. Peanut Butter
  • 6 Oysters
  • 3 Slices Turkey Bacon
  • Many more

On the starches list, I could choose 2 of these:

  • 1/2 Pita
  • 1 Slice Whole-Wheat Bread
  • 1/4 c. Granola
  • 1/3 c. Cooked Brown Rice
  • 1/2 c. Corn
  • 8 Animal Crackers
  • 3/4 oz. Pretzels
  • Many more

On the fats list, I could choose from these:

  • 1 tsp. Miracle Whip
  • 8 Black Olives
  • 1 tsp. Butter
  • 1 tbsp. Cream Cheese
  • 1 tsp. Oil
  • 1/2 tbsp. Peanut Butter
  • 1/2 tbsp. Nutella
  • 6 Cashews
  • Many More

The vegetables group includes all of the non-starchy vegetables, and they’re generally portioned as 1 cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked.  So what could I make?

How about a Rockin’ Turkey Sandwich?

  • 3 Proteins – 2 oz. smoked turkey, 1 oz cheese
  • 2 Starches – 2 slices whole-wheat bread
  • 1 Vegetable – lettuce, pickles, and tomato
  • 1 Fat – 1 tsp. Miracle Whip

How about Fajitas?

  • 3 Proteins – 3 oz. grilled chicken
  • 2 Starches – 2 whole-wheat tortillas
  • 1 Vegetable – 1/2 c. grilled onions and peppers, lettuce
  • 1 Fat – 2 tbsp. sour cream

How about Stir-Fry?

  • 3 Proteins – 2 oz. tofu, 1 hard-boiled egg
  • 2 Starches – 2/3 c. brown rice
  • 1 Vegetable – 1/2 c. steamed broccoli
  • 1 Fat – olive oil in recipe, chopped peanuts as garnish

Each of these counts as 3 proteins, 2 starches, 1 vegetable, and 1 fat in the exchange system.  By learning which list (or lists) a food fits into within the exchange system, I’ve learned to better understand what it is that I’m eating from a nutritional perspective.  For instance, I’ve always thought of cottage cheese as a dairy food.  In the exchange system, it’s a protein.  When I find that I’m short on protein, cottage cheese is one of my go-to foods.  It’s excellent with some fruit.

Speaking of fruit, an exchange serving of fruit is 60 calories.  That’s one small apple, one small orange, 1 1/4 c. strawberries, 1/2 c. canned no-sugar-added pineapple, 16 grapes, or 1/2 a banana.  I love strawberries because you get so many of them in a serving, and they go well with a lot of things — yogurt, cottage cheese, or all by themselves.

Talk to your dietitian to find out how many of each categories you need to consume in a day.  I’m trying to stay around 1800 calories, so here’s how I budget my exchanges:

1720 Meal Plan

Your dietitian will work with you to come up with a plan that both meets your dietary needs and that allows you foods that you enjoy.  While the exchange system was created by the American Dietetic Association and the American Diabetes Association, dietary exchange information can be found all over.  Here are some links to various resources I’ve found helpful

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4 thoughts on “The Exchange System Explained

  1. xxplumcrazeexx says:

    That is pretty much like the orignal Weight Watchers program I was on when I became a lifetime member 30 years ago.

  2. […] So you have a meal that’s 3 proteins, 1 fat, 2 starches, and 1 vegetable.  What’s there to eat? I discussed this thoroughly in, “The Exchange System Explained.” […]

  3. […] lunch to lose weight is very straightforward when structuring your decisions using the diabetic exchange system. The best lunch to lose weight that I have found for me is one serving of starch, one serving of […]

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