Picking the right foods to eat when you have diabetes can help lower your blood sugar or keep it stable. Find out what to put on the menu when planning your diabetes diet.
Picking the right foods to eat when you have diabetes can help lower your blood sugar or keep it stable. Find out what to put on the menu when planning your diabetes diet.
Following a type 2 diabetes diet doesn’t mean you have to give up all the things you love — you can still enjoy a wide range of foods when managing this disease. Indeed, creating a diet for type 2 diabetes is a balancing act: It includes a variety of healthy carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). The trick is ultimately choosing foods that are naturally rich in nutrients to help keep your blood sugar level in your target range and avoid big swings that can cause type 2 diabetes symptoms notes the Mayo Clinic — from the frequent urination and thirst of high blood sugar to the fatigue, dizziness, headaches, and mood changes of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), per the American Diabetes Association (ADA).
Get your veggies in ahead of the holiday with this Greens, Sweet Potato, and Fried Egg Bowl!
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F and line a baking pan with parchment paper. Lay the cubed sweet potato onto the pan and drizzle with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Roast in the oven for 35 to 45 minutes.
Next, heat 1 tbsp oil in a pan on the stove over medium heat. Crack the egg into the pan and fry for 2 to 3 minutes, until crispy.
Assemble the salad by adding lettuce, microgreens, roasted sweet potato, fried egg, and avocado to a bowl. Drizzle with oil, lemon juice, and salt.
To follow a healthy diet for diabetes, you must first understand how different foods affect your blood sugar. Carbohydrates, which are found to the largest degree in grains, bread, pasta, milk, sweets, fruit, and starchy vegetables, are broken down into glucose in the blood, which raises blood sugar, potentially leading to hyperglycemia according to the Mayo Clinic. Protein and fats have little, if any, impact blood sugar, notes a past review. However, both should be consumed in moderation — along with carbs — to keep calories down and weight in a healthy range.
To hit your blood sugar level target, eat a variety of foods but monitor portions for foods with a high carbohydrate content, says Alison Massey, RD, a certified diabetes educator in Frederick, Maryland. “[Foods high in carbohydrates] have the most impact on blood sugar level. This is why some people with diabetes count their carbohydrates at meals and snacks,” she says.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there’s no “one-size-fits-all” carb target for people managing diabetes. Ultimately, the amount depends on factors such as your age, weight, and activity level.
As a general rule, though, people with diabetes ought to get about one-half of their daily calories from carbs. To identify your daily carb need, multiply 50 percent by your daily calorie target. For example, if you eat 2,000 calories a day, aim to consume about 1,000 calories of carbs in food and drink. Because the CDC says 1 gram (g) of carbs provides 4 calories, you can divide the calories of carbs number by 4 to get your daily target for grams of carbs, which comes out to 250 g in this example. For a more personalized daily carb goal, it’s best to work with a certified diabetes care and education specialist or a registered dietitian to determine a goal that is best for you.
RELATED: What Is the Ketogenic Diet? Everything You Need to Know
As you pick the best foods for type 2 diabetes, here’s a helpful guideline from the NIDDK to keep in mind: Fill one-half your plate (use a 9-inch dish for reference) with nonstarchy vegetables. One-fourth of your plate should feature your protein (such as meat or a plant-based source), and the final fourth should include a grain or other starch, such as starchy vegetables, a piece of fruit, or a small glass of milk.
Because processed and sugary foods are unhealthy carbs, limit them in your diabetes diet, says Massey. That includes soda, candy, and other packaged or processed snacks, such as corn chips, potato chips, and the like. And while artificial sweeteners like those found in diet sodas won’t necessarily spike your blood sugar in the same way as white sugar, they could still have an effect on your blood sugar and even alter your body’s insulin response.
A previous study found that when 17 obese, non-insulin-resistant people ingested a beverage treated with the artificial sweetener sucralose (sold as Splenda) before taking a standardized dose of glucose, their blood sugar and insulin levels rose more than when they drank plain water. On the other hand, a meta-analysis published May 2018 in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that artificial sweeteners didn’t increase blood sugar levels. More research is needed to determine how artificial sweeteners affect people with diabetes.
For now, here’s what you need to know about choosing the most diabetes-friendly foods from each food group.
RELATED: 9 Sugar Substitutes to Consider When Managing Type 2 Diabetes
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends lean proteins low in saturated fat for people with diabetes. If you’re following a vegan or vegetarian diet, getting enough and the right balance of protein may be more challenging, but you can rely on foods like beans (dried or canned beans, and bean products like hummus and falafel), nuts and nut spreads, tempeh, and tofu to get your fix, notes the Cleveland Clinic. Just be sure to keep portion size in mind when snacking on nuts, as they are also high in fat and calories, according to Harvard Health. The American Heart Association (AHA) counts a small handful (roughly 1.5 ounces) of whole nuts as one serving. If you opt for unsalted almonds, 1.5 ounces will provide 258 calories and nearly 23 g of fat, per estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Meanwhile, processed or packaged foods should be avoided or limited in your diabetes diet because, in addition to added sugars and processed carbohydrates, these foods are often high in sodium, according to the AHA. Getting too much sodium in your diet can increase your blood pressure and, in turn, the risk of heart disease or stroke, notes Harvard Health. And heart disease and stroke are two common complications of diabetes, according to the Mayo Clinic. It’s important to keep your blood pressure in check when managing diabetes.
In addition to getting enough fiber, incorporating protein-rich foods in your diet can help keep you satiated and promote weight loss, per a past review. Losing just 5 percent of body weight has been shown to improve blood sugar control in overweight and obese individuals with type 2 diabetes, according to a review published June 2014 in the International Journal of Clinical Practice.
Best options, according to the ADA:
Worst options, per the Mayo Clinic, the ADA, and the NIDDK:
RELATED: 7 Immune-Boosting Foods for People With Diabetes
Contrary to popular belief, not all carbs are off-limits if you’re managing diabetes. In fact, the ADA recommends vitamin-rich whole grains in a healthy diabetes diet. These foods contain fiber, which is beneficial for digestive health. Fiber can also promote feelings of fullness, preventing you from reaching for unhealthy snacks, and it can help slow the rise of blood sugar, according to the Mayo Clinic. Plus, whole grains contain healthy vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that are healthy for anyone, regardless of diabetes status.
On the other hand, grains in the form of popular foods such as white bread, as well as sugary, processed, or packaged grains, should be avoided or limited to help prevent unwanted blood sugar spikes. Also, while some refined white flour is enriched — meaning B vitamins and iron that were removed during the milling process get added back in — it doesn’t contain the fiber that whole grains do, warns the USDA. Dietary fiber slows the breakdown of starch (a type of carb) into glucose (sugar), which helps keep blood sugar levels steady, explains the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
Just keep in mind that while Harvard lists whole grains as one of the healthiest sources of carbs, it’s still important to keep tabs on your overall carb count and practice portion control to keep your blood sugar level steady, according to the NIDDK.
Best options (in moderation), per the ADA and the NIDDK:
Worst options, per the Mayo Clinic and the ADA:
RELATED: How Do You Tell the Difference Between Good and Bad Carbs?
When picked well and eaten in moderation, dairy can be a great choice for people with diabetes. In fact, a review published September 2017 in Nutrients revealed that dairy products such as milk and yogurt offer protective benefits against type 2 diabetes. Whenever possible, opt for low-fat and fat-free dairy options to keep calories down, and unhealthy saturated fats at bay. Also, try to avoid flavored dairy, such as milks and yogurt, without added sugar.
Best options, per the ADA and the Mayo Clinic:
Worst options, as the ADA’s pages on healthy fats and superfoods, and the Mayo Clinic note:
RELATED: Yogurt for Diabetes: Is One Type Better Than Another?
Vegetables are an important food group to include in any healthy diet, and a diabetes diet is no exception. Veggies are full of fiber and nutrients, and nonstarchy varieties are low in carbohydrates — a win for people with diabetes who want to gain control over their blood sugar level, Massey says.
As for packaging, frozen veggies without sauce are just as nutritious as fresh, and even low-sodium canned veggies can be a good choice if you’re in a pinch. Just be sure to watch your sodium intake to avoid high blood pressure, and consider draining and rinsing salted canned veggies before eating, per the ADA. If possible, opt for low-sodium or sodium-free canned veggies if going that route.
Follow this general rule: Aim to fill one-half your plate with nonstarchy veggies, as recommended by the NIDDK. And if you’re craving mashed white potatoes, try mashed cauliflower, Massey suggests.
Best veggie options, according to the ADA:
RELATED: What's the Best Way to Prep Veggies if You Have Diabetes?
Aim to fill one-quarter your plate with starchy veggies, which count toward your daily carb goal.
Veggies to enjoy in moderation, as the ADA notes:
RELATED: Sweet Potatoes vs. White Potatoes: How Do They Compare?
Fruit often gets a bad rap due to its carb content, but this food group can actually be great in a diabetes diet when chosen wisely and eaten in moderation. In particular, fruit can be a great replacement for unhealthy processed sweets, such as pastries, cakes, and cookies, while providing disease-fighting antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and satiating fiber to boot.
But just as with grains, it’s important to roll out your carb-counting skills when noshing on nature’s candy. The ADA notes that a small piece of whole fruit or ½ cup of canned or frozen fruit typically contains 15 g of carbs, while fruit juice — a less ideal source of fruit for diabetes — can have that much in 1/3 to ½ cup.
Also, dried fruit may not be the best way to get your fix. Because so much water is removed, a serving of this variety is much smaller and usually less filling than whole fruit — the ADA warns that just 2 tablespoons of raisins contains the same 15 g that a small piece of whole fruit contains!
Same goes for canned fruit: This variety often contains sugary syrup at a high concentration, which should be avoided at all costs. Instead, look for terms like “packed in its own juices,” “unsweetened,” or “no added sugar,” the ADA says. Trendy juices are similarly less than ideal, as they’re stripped of the beneficial fiber that you’d find in whole fruit with the skin on.
But some pleasant news: When consumed in moderation and made with whole ingredients and no added sugar, fruit smoothies can be a good food for diabetes. Consider stocking your fridge with unsweetened frozen fruit so you can whip up one in a hurry for breakfast, and in each smoothie add no more than 1 cup of fruit to keep carbs under control. Adding ingredients with protein, such as yogurt or a small amount of nut butter, will also help your body break down the carbohydrates more slowly, leading to less of a spike in blood sugar.
When in doubt, consult the glycemic load (a scale that can help you measure how much a serving of a certain food is likely to spike your blood sugar) to pick a diabetes-friendly fruit. Your healthcare team can also help you safely incorporate fruit in your diabetes diet.
You have many fruit choices at your disposal, according to the ADA. Best options for fruit include:
Worst options, as the NIDDK and the ADA point out:
RELATED: The Best Fiber-Rich Foods for People With Diabetes
Fat is not the enemy! In truth, getting enough of the right kind of fat can ultimately help you lower insulin resistance and attain better control over your blood sugar, according to a meta-analysis published July 2016 in PLoS Medicine. The key is knowing how to tell good fat from bad fat.
The monounsaturated fats found in avocados, almonds, and pecans or the polyunsaturated fats found in walnuts and sunflower oil, which can help lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol, are great picks when eating for type 2 diabetes, according to the ADA.
Meanwhile, saturated fats and trans fats can harm your heart and overall health, according to the AHA. To spot trans fats, look for the term “hydrogenated,” or “partially hydrogenated oils” on labels of processed foods, such as packaged snacks, baked goods, and crackers. “I always tell my clients to double-check the ingredient list to make sure they don’t see any partially hydrogenated oil in their food products,” Massey says.
Best options, per the ADA:
RELATED: 5 'Low-Fat' Foods That Are Making It Harder to Control Diabetes
Worst options, per the ADA:
Additional reporting by Lauren Bedosky.
For more on eating healthily while living with diabetes, check out Diabetes Daily's article "How to Have a Healthy Relationship With Food!"
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