Diabetes educators and dietitians share their secrets for building nutritious, blood-sugar-friendly meals you can whip up with simple ingredients.
If you spend your days juggling Zoom meetings, caring for your family, and tackling tasks that focus on anything but self-care, chances are your midday meal has become an afterthought. But if you’re managing type 2 diabetes, making a healthy lunch one of your priorities can have a significant effect on your weight and blood sugar level. Whipping up your meal at home is the simplest way to make sure that happens. Plus, eating out for many meals is associated with negative health effects, like a higher body mass index and cholesterol levels, according to a study published in May 2015 in the International Journal of Obesity.
Thankfully, all it takes is a little know-how — and these easy recipe ideas — to create quick, healthy lunches that are diabetes-friendly.
For starters, think about building your lunch around a lean protein source, such as skinless chicken, tuna, shrimp, beans, or tofu, as the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) suggests. In general, “protein does not raise blood sugar as quickly or as greatly as foods high in sugar or options from the grain group,” says Julie Stefanski, RDN, CDCES, a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who is based in Baltimore. From that base, Stefanski recommends adding at least 1 to 1½ cups of your favorite nonstarchy vegetable. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) lists collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, and green beans as diabetes-friendly nonstarchy veggie options.
As for carbohydrates, aim for 30 to 45 grams (g) if you’re a woman and 45 to 60 g if you’re a man, suggests Amy Kimberlain, RDN, CDCES, who is based in Miami and is also a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Choose your carbs wisely. “They’re not all created equal,” Kimberlain explains. For example, while brown rice, which is a whole grain, and white rice, which is refined, contain similar amounts of carbs per serving — 50 g and 44 g per cup, respectively, per the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — they affect blood sugar very differently. “The key difference is in the fiber content,” Kimberlain says. Brown rice packs 3.1 g of fiber per cup, whereas white rice offers only 0.6 g. A higher fiber count means your body will take longer to digest the brown rice than the white, which will help keep your blood sugar stable and your belly fuller, potentially aiding weight loss, per the Mayo Clinic.
Plus, whole grains like brown rice offer more protein, vitamins, and minerals than refined grains like white rice, Kimberlain notes. Opt for whole-grain carbs over refined carbs whenever possible.
RELATED: 8 Healthy Carbs for People With Type 2 Diabetes
Finally, stick to roughly 1 tablespoon (about a thumb’s worth) of fat, which the ADA notes includes olive oil, nut butter, and canola oil, suggests Carrie Swift, RDN, CDCES, a spokesperson for the Association of Diabetes Care and Education Specialists (ADCES) who is based in Richland, Washington.
Of course, these are only the building blocks for a nutritious, diabetes-friendly lunch. For inspiration, here are 12 simple lunch ideas for your diabetes diet, along with estimated calorie and carb counts:
It doesn’t get much easier — or healthier — than a lunchtime salad.
Start with 1 cup of greens, such as spinach, kale, or romaine lettuce. Add in another cup of nonstarchy veggies, like carrots, tomatoes, or sweet peppers. “Anything crunchy and in season makes a good addition,” says New York City–based Sandra Arévalo, MPH, RDN, a spokesperson for the ADCES. Then add ⅔ cup of cooked quinoa, which will provide a bit of protein — 5 g per the USDA. Finally, drizzle 1 tablespoon of your salad dressing of choice (Arévalo suggests balsamic vinaigrette) over everything. However, be sure you steer clear of dressings high in sugar. Check the nutrition label and choose one with no more than 5 g of sugar per serving, Arévalo says.
Calories 257.5
Carbs 40.7 g
RELATED: The Top 14 Healthiest Greens for Your Salad
Sandwiches can be a quick, diabetes-friendly lunch option as long as you’re smart about your choice of bread.
Choose a bread that’s flat. “Bagels and rolls have too many calories and carbs,” Arévalo explains. Also, check that it’s 100 percent whole grain with roughly 30 g of carbs per serving, says Swift.
If you need condiments, avoid butter and mayo, which tend to add unnecessary calories and fat; opt for mustard instead, Arévalo says. Top your bread with two slices of lean meat like turkey or chicken breast and 1 ounce (oz) of low-fat mozzarella or Swiss cheese (these are naturally low in sodium, the Cleveland Clinic notes). Keep in mind that lunch meat can be high in sodium and fat, Swift warns. “Aim for lunch meats that have less than 250 milligrams [mg] of sodium and less than 3 g of fat per serving,” she says. Swift recommends Dietz & Watson No Salt Added Turkey Breast and Fred Meyer Simple Truth Organic Smoked Turkey Breast.
Don’t forget to add some crunch — not to mention vitamins, minerals, and fiber — with a few slices of romaine lettuce and tomato.
Calories 292.6
Carbs 35.3 g
If you’re a fan of soup, try a bean-based option.
Beans offer a wealth of heart-healthy, cholesterol-lowering fiber, says Swift. For people with diabetes, the ADA lists beans (kidney, pinto, navy, and black beans) as superfoods, a term applied to foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber and those that are beneficial for overall health and may help prevent disease.
Opt for bean soups that are low in fat and sodium — ideally no more than 3 g of fat and no more than 500 mg of sodium per serving, Swift says.
To make your meal heartier, Stefanski suggests pairing the soup with a low-fat cheese stick and a ¼ cup of hulled, unsalted sunflower seeds.
Calories 350
Carbs 29 g
RELATED: 7 Healthy Meal Tips for Type 2 Diabetes
Pasta can be tricky territory for people with type 2 diabetes. “[Pasta] usually gives you too many carbs and calories,” Arévalo explains. Then if you add a creamy sauce, you’ll also exceed your fat intake, she says.
The solution? Stick to whole-grain noodles topped with a ½ cup of tomato- or pesto-based sauce (opt for low-sodium versions whenever possible). Also, keep your pasta portions around a cup or less. “One cup of pasta has about 45 g of carbs, which is enough for a whole meal,” Swift says. Pair your cup of pasta with 3 to 5 oz of a lean protein like chicken, tofu, beans, or lentils. Swift suggests adding nonstarchy veggies, wilted greens, onions, and tomatoes to fill you up without drastically increasing your carb count. As far as how many veggies: “The more, the better!” Swift says.
Calories 538.3
Carbs 59.1 g
When done right, pizza can fit into any healthy meal plan, including one for type 2 diabetes.
The key is to look for a pizza with a thin crust (ideally made with whole wheat) to reduce the carb count. Vegetarian options also tend to be best, though chicken is fine, Arévalo says. And when it comes to veggies (fresh or cooked), the more the better: “There are some pizzas that look like they have a salad on top — that’s the one you want,” Arévalo says.
Stick to one slice if you’re watching your weight, Arévalo says. If not, don’t exceed two. “Two slices of a 14-inch thin-crust pizza can fit into a quick lunch for anyone with diabetes,” Swift says.
Or make your own pizza at home so you can control the ingredients. This veggie pizza from Cookie and Kate features a variety of vegetables (cherry tomatoes, artichokes, bell peppers, olives, red onions, and baby spinach) and a whole-wheat crust. You’ll net six to eight servings — so one pizza could cover your lunch needs for an entire week!
Calories 440
Carbs 44.9 g
RELATED: 12 Foods to Limit or Avoid in a Type 2 Diabetes Diet
If you love tucking in to a warm bowl of stir-fry takeout, try whipping up your own version at home. “Homemade stir-fry will generally be much lower in carbohydrates than takeout,” Swift says. Hidden carbs can lurk in breaded and fried meats, as well as the cornstarch- or sugar-laden sauces that are commonly featured on takeout menus, she adds.
To do it, start with ⅔ cup of cooked brown rice. Top it with plenty of cooked vegetables like green peppers, onions, broccoli, bok choy, celery, and carrots (a variety is best!); then add 3 to 5 oz of a lean protein like chicken, tofu, or beans. Steer clear of breaded or fried meats, which pack hidden carbs, Swift says. Cover your creation with 1 tablespoon of low-sodium soy sauce.
Calories 483.7
Carbs 52 g
It doesn't get much easier than this option that Stefanski approves of: combining a few smart snack foods to create a well-rounded meal.
First, hard-boil two eggs (or boil several at once so you can grab and go the next time). Pair the eggs, which each provide 6.3 g of protein, with a ¼ cup of unsalted almonds (this will give you 15 g of fat) and 1 cup of baby carrots with 1 tablespoon of hummus for dipping.
Calories 416.5
Carbs 21.4 g
For a simple, diabetes-friendly seafood lunch, try deconstructed sushi rolls. “Think of all the components of sushi without having to roll it,” Kimberlain says.
To make it, top ⅔ cup of cooked brown rice with 3 to 5 oz of roasted salmon or tuna. You can also use canned salmon or tuna if you prefer — just be sure to choose one that’s low in sodium and packed in water, Kimberlain says. From there, add one or two slices of avocado and as much sliced cucumber and roasted seaweed as you want (you can find prepackaged roasted seaweed at the grocery store). Add 1 tablespoon of low-sodium soy sauce and sprinkle with green onions and sesame seeds, if you’d like.
Optional: Add a ¼ cup of homemade chipotle dressing. Kimberlain makes it by blending 1 cup of nonfat plain Greek yogurt, 1 chopped chipotle pepper, 2 teaspoons of chipotle sauce, ½ cup of chopped cilantro (optional), and juice from half a lime. A ¼ cup of the mixture adds about 31 calories and 2 g of carbs to the totals below.
Calories 320.6
Carbs 39.5 g
RELATED: Eat the Right Fish for Heart Health
A sandwich wrap is one healthy meal you can eat right out of your hands.
Start with a whole-wheat tortilla or pita (look for one with no more than 30 g of carbs). Spread it with 1 tablespoon of hummus or pesto, then add 3 oz of a lean protein of your choice. Feel free to go crazy with veggies like lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, and shredded carrots. Top with a few slices of avocado.
Optional: Pair your wrap with a small piece of fruit. Aim for a tennis-ball-sized apple, 1 cup of chopped cantaloupe, or 1¼ cup of strawberries, Kimberlain says. This will add roughly 50 to 100 calories and 15 to 20 g of carbs to the totals below.
Calories 268.4
Carbs 26.9 g
Burrito bowls make a versatile, tasty lunch.
“For the base of the bowl, I always recommend starting with a whole grain and beans,” Kimberlain says. Mix ½ cup of beans (black beans or kidney beans are always good choices) with ⅓ cup of brown rice. Add 3 to 5 oz of a lean protein like grilled chicken, tuna, lean ground turkey, or tofu. Throw in as many nonstarchy veggies (lettuce, spinach, and salsa are all great options) as you’d like. Top everything with a dollop (roughly 1 tablespoon) of plain nonfat Greek yogurt in place of sour cream, a squeeze of lime, and a sprinkle of chopped cilantro.
Or whip up some homemade crema, courtesy of Kimberlain: Mix 1 avocado, ¼ cup of nonfat plain Greek yogurt, juice from half a lime, and a sprinkle of chopped cilantro. Thinly spread a third of the mixture all over the wrap to make sure you taste it in every bite, she says. This will add roughly 105 calories and 7 g of carbs to the totals below.
Calories 290
Carbs 40.7 g
RELATED: How to Enjoy Latin Food if You’re Managing Type 2 Diabetes
For a quick lunch that’s both nutritious and easy to assemble, combine ½ cup of lowfat cottage cheese with ½ cup of fresh or frozen berries, such as blueberries or strawberries, and 1 tablespoon of chia seeds. The chia seeds provide additional fiber (4 g) and healthy fats, Stefanski notes. Pair the cottage cheese and berries with half of a whole-wheat English muffin; spread with 1 tablespoon of almond butter.
Calories 352.4
Carbs 35 g
Tuna salad and toast are a perfect pair. Whip up this diabetes-friendly version, courtesy of Stefanski.
To make the tuna salad, stir together one flavored tuna packet (packed in water) with a mini avocado (or half of a standard avocado), 1 tablespoon of olive-oil-based mayo, and a ¼ cup of chopped veggies (onion, celery, or radish). Spoon the entire mixture on a slice of whole-grain toast.
Calories 326.2
Carbs 25.4 g
RELATED: 10 Healthy Breakfast Ideas for People With Type 2 Diabetes
To better control type 2 diabetes, keep these healthy lunch tips in mind:
RELATED: 10 Beverage Dos and Don’ts for People With Diabetes
Consult with a certified diabetes care and education specialist or registered dietitian to get more lunch ideas. How much and what types of food you should eat varies, depending on your specific needs — a dietitian can help create a meal plan that is right for you.
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