Since your blood sugar levels are directly impacted by the foods you eat, nutrition is an essential part of managing your diabetes. Additionally, your diet plays a major role in managing your overall health and wellbeing. However, finding the right foods to manage your diabetes shouldn't have to feel like a guessing game, or imply that you can never enjoy your favorite foods again.
To help eliminate the common frustrations that come with trying to change the way you eat to improve your health, here are the basics of a diabetes diet, what foods to eat more of, and how to balance your intake for success.
Foods Diabetics Can Eat
Following a nutritious and balanced diet is important for short-term and long-term wellbeing. The foods you choose can not only directly impact your blood sugar levels, but can also influence your daily energy levels, mood, and appetite - helping you feel better mentally and physically each day. Moreover, in the long-run, a healthy diet may help you manage your weight, reduce your risk of heart disease, and have a positive impact on common side effects associated with diabetes, helping you to live a longer and healthier life.
The best foods for diabetics consist of options that help manage blood sugar levels and provide important nutrients for good health. These include:
- Lean Proteins
- Plant-Based Proteins
- Low-Fat Dairy
- Healthy Fats
- Fruits and Vegetables
- Whole Grains, Beans, and Lentils
Research suggests that protein has a minimal impact on blood sugar levels, and high intakes of protein is associated with reduced appetite and better weight management (1,2). Additionally, protein is an essential nutrient that plays a key role in maintaining a majority of your body’s cells, including your muscle mass.
However, the type of protein you choose may matter. Some studies suggest that high amounts of animal fat (from meat and dairy), may increase your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes (3,4,5). To get the benefits of quality protein without the fat, look for lean sources like the following:
- Egg Whites
- Mahi Mahi
- Other Whitefish
- Pork loin
- Grass-Fed Beef
Plant Based Proteins
Pant-based diets are associated with a number of health benefits including improved blood sugar control and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes (6). Thus, opting for more plant-based proteins is one way to cut back on animal fats and grab some of these potential benefits.
The catch is many plant-based proteins also tend to be a source of carbohydrates, making them less protein-dense than meat sources and giving them the ability to increase your blood sugar. While other plant-based options tend to be more of a healthy fat source. If looking to substitute in plants for meat choices, the following are some of the most protein-dense plants (carb counts included):
- Tofu - 10 grams of protein and 2 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup serving
- Edamame - 9 grams of protein and 7 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup serving
- Tempeh - 15.5 grams of protein and 8 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup serving
- Pea Protein Burgers - 20 grams of protein and 11 grams of carbs per 4-ounce serving
Low Fat Dairy
Fat-free and low-fat dairy is also a great way to load up on quality protein for fewer carbs and fat. Dairy is also a source of important nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, and potassium. Moreover, dairy intake has been associated with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes in a number of studies (7).
Low-fat dairy choices include:
- Non-Fat Greek Yogurt - 18 grams of protein and 5 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup serving
- Low Fat Cottage Cheese - 12 grams of protein and 5 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup serving
- Skim Milk - 8 grams of protein and 12 grams of carbs per 8-ounce serving
- Low Fat Cheese - 7 grams of protein and 2 grams of carbs per 1-ounce serving
Fat is thought to help slow the absorption of carbohydrates, potentially helping you manage carb intake and blood sugars levels (8,9,10). However, not all fats are created equal - choosing more healthy fats may support heart health, assist in weight management, improve blood cholesterol, and help lower blood pressure (11,12,13,14). The best types of fats for diabetes are unsaturated fats, typically from seafood and plant-based foods. Additionally, opting for more whole food sources of fat typically means it is packaged along with other important nutrients, compared to extracted fats like oils.
Here are some foods high in healthy fats to add to your meal plan:
- Salmon - 0 grams of carbs per 4-ounce serving
- Sardines - 0 grams of carbs per 4-ounce serving
- Anchovies - 0 grams of carbs per 4-ounce serving
- Oysters - 0 grams of carbs per 3-ounce serving
- Mackerel - 0 grams of carbs per 4-ounce serving
- Herring - 0 grams of carbs per 4-ounce serving
- Egg Yolks - 0 grams of carbs per egg
- Avocado - 5 grams of carbs per 1/3 of fruit
- Olives - 6 grams of carbs per 3-ounce serving
- Flaxseeds - 4 grams of carbs per 2 Tbsp serving
- Chia Seeds - 12 grams of carbs per 2 Tbsp serving
- Hemp Seeds - 2 grams of carbs per 2 Tbsp serving
- Pumpkin Seeds - 15 grams of carbs per 1-ounce serving
- Sesame Seeds - 4 grams of carbs per 2 Tbsp serving
- Walnuts - 4 grams of carbs per 1-ounce serving
- Almonds - 6 grams of carbs per 1-ounce serving
- Peanuts - 5 grams of carbs per 1-ounce serving
- Other nuts
Other sources of healthy fat with no carbs include:
- Olive Oil
- Avocado oil
- Canola Oil
- Peanut Oil
- Soybean Oil
- Corn Oil
- Sunflower Oil
Fruits and Vegetables
Like all plants, fruits and vegetables are a source of carbohydrates int he diet. However, plants also tend to be high in important vitamins and minerals for daily health and long-term wellbeing. In fact, fruits and vegetables are some of the most nutrient-dense foods you can choose and are associated with a wide range of health benefits (15,16).
In addition, plants can be a source of fiber, a type of carbohydrate that isn't easily absorbed by the body - meaning it has little impact on blood sugar levels (17).
There are are a wide range of fruits and veggies to consider and not all impact your blood glucose levels the same way. Based on carb content, here are the different fruits and veggies to help you get more nutrition and balance your diet.
Non-starchy veggies contain little carbs and tend to very low in calories as well. These include:
- Spinach - 1 grams of carbs per cup
- Leafy Greens - 1 gram of carbs per cup
- Celery - 1.2 grams of carbs per cup
- Kale - 1.5 grams of carbs per cup
- Bok Choy - 1.5 grams of carbs per cup
- Cucumbers - 2 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Radishes - 2 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Mushrooms - 3 grams of carbs per cup
- Squash - 3 grams of carbs per cup
- Zucchini - 3.5 grams of carbs per cup
- Asparagus - 5 grams of carbs per cup
- Onion - 5 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Eggplant - 5 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Cabbage - 5 grams of carbs per cup
- Broccoli - 6 grams of carbs per cup
- Tomatoes - 7 grams of carbs per cup
- Cauliflower - 7 grams of carbs per cup
- Bell Peppers - 7 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Okra - 7 grams of carbs per cup
- Green Beans - 7 grams of carbs per cup
- Brussel Sprouts - 8 grams of carbs per cup
- Pumpkin - 8 grams of carbs per cup
Low Sugar Fruits
Although fruits are often associated with sugary foods, some fruits are naturally lower in carbs, like:
- Lemon - 5 grams of carbs per fruit
- Strawberries - 5 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Watermelon - 5 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Cantaloupe - 6.5 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Lime - 7 grams of carbs per fruit
- Blackberries - 7 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Raspberries - 7.5 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
Other, more starchy veggies can contain more carbs, but still tend to offer meaningful health benefits and nutrition. The best starchy vegetables are:
- Green Peas - 11 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Corn - 20 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Lima Beans - 20 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Yams - 21 grams of carbs per 1 small potato
- Potatoes - 30 grams of carbs per 1 small potato
- Sweet Potatoes - 26 grams of carbs per 1 small potato
Some fruits can provide more sugar than others, but all fruits are still considered a nutritious food that should be included in a well-managed diabetes diet. Other types of fruit include:
- Grapes - 8 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Plums - 8 grams of carbs per fruit
- Blueberries - 10.5 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Pineapple - 11 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Mango - 12.5 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Kiwi - 13 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Peaches - 14 grams of carbs per fruit
- Oranges - 15 grams of carbs per fruit
- Apples - 25 grams of carbs per fruit
- Bananas - 27 grams of carbs per fruit
Whole Grains, Beans, and Lentils
Having diabetes does not mean avoiding high carb foods. The key is choosing more quality sources of carbs and eating the portion size that fits your personal dietary needs - which can vary drastically from one person to the next.
When it comes to carbs, choosing more whole grain and complex carbs will help you get more fiber and nutrition, as well as some potential health benefits (18).
Here are the best sources of quality, complex carbs to choose from:
- Whole Grain Bread - 12 grams of carbs per slice (1-ounce)
- Lentils - 20 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Oats - 20 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Whole Wheat Pasta - 20 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Black Beans - 21 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Chickpeas - 22.5 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Quinoa - 24 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
- Brown Rice - 26 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup
Foods to Avoid with Diabetes
The importance of diet in managing diabetes can make it feel like a lot of your favorite foods have to be avoided. However, almost all foods can fit into a healthy diabetes diet, even sugar, it’s just a matter of finding balance through portion control and overall food choices.
To help tip the balance in your favor of better health aim to eat less of foods high in the following:
Added sugars, either naturally occurring or processed, are a source of simple carbohydrates that are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and often have little nutritional value (19). Plus, a diet high in added sugar has been linked to weight gain, diabetes
Common added sugars include:
- Table sugar (white sugar)
- Raw sugar
- Corn Syrup
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Brown sugar
- Maple Syrup
- Brown Rice Syrup
Ultra Processed Foods
It can also be a real challenge to figure out how much added sugar is in your food since it is a common ingredient in processed food items. One study suggested that more than half of the average U.S. diet consists of ultra-processed
There are also over 50 different names for added sugar on the ingredients label, and it is found on just about every packaged food you can imagine - even bread and low-fat salad dressings can be full of sugar. Moreover, it is not currently required for food manufacturers to list the amount of these sugars on the nutrition facts label.
In order to cut back, limiting your intake of heavily processed foods can help. You can also start to get more familiar with different names for sugar on the ingredients label. The ingredients are listed by weight, so if you see sugar as one of the first few ingredients, that is usually a sign that food may be high in added sugar.
Common processed foods that tend to be high in refined carbohydrates include:
- Energy Drinks
- Sports Drinks
- Packaged Baked Goods
- Fruit Drinks (not including 100% juice)
- Ice Cream
- Dairy-Based Desserts
- Snack Bars
- Kid’s Cereal
- BBQ Sauce
Processed foods also tend to be a source of sodium.
While some fats can benefit your diabetes diet, other types are not as great - particularly saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats have been linked to increased blood cholesterol and there isn't much research showing any potential health benefits of consuming this type of fat, so it is often recommended to limit your intake (22,23).
Trans fat is strongly associated with an increased risk of heart disease. So much so, that the FDA has issued a ban on artificial trans fat ingredients in food (24,25). This has caused a significant decrease in the food supply, but you can still find trans fat on some processed foods, listed as “partially hydrogenated oil” on the ingredients label.
Common sources of saturated fat are:
- Full Fat Milk
- Other Full Fat Dairy
- High Fat Processed Foods
Processed Red Meats
Processed red meat has been associated with increased risk of cancer, particularly colon cancer, and is also negatively associated with heart health and diabetes risk (26,27,28,29). Of course, this doesn't mean the occasional pepperoni or hot dog is going to wreak havoc on your health, but if you tend to eat a lot of processed meat, you may want to consider scaling back on the following:
- Hot Dogs
- Corned Beef
- Canned Processed Meat (like SPAM)
High Sodium Foods
Sodium is an essential mineral for our wellbeing, but it is far too easy for us to get too much of it in our diets, leading to negative health outcomes. In fact, there is a growing body of research pointing to high sodium intakes leading to poor heart health, particularly in those with type 2 diabetes (30,31).
Similar to saturated fat and sugar, it is not the sodium itself causing harm, it is the amount you have in your diet. To help cut back on sodium intake, decrease the amount of food you eat out from restaurants, limit the amount of salt you add to recipes at home, and be mindful of the following in your diet:
- Tomato Sauce
- Frozen Meals
- Processed Meat and Cheese
- Salty Snacks
- Soy Sauce
- Canned Foods
- Cottage Cheese
While there is some research to support moderate drinking for heart health benefits and even reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, this is highly dependent on the person and drinking too much can have the opposite effect (32,33,34). Not to mention drinking alcohol causes a temporary drop in blood sugar - creating complications in some individuals.
If you do choose to drink, make sure to consume food with your alcohol and work with your doctor to ensure you are monitoring your blood sugar and medications appropriately.
Creating Your Diabetes Meal Plan
When it comes to diabetes, a healthy diet looks almost identical to what a healthy diet looks like for most people. The key is personalizing the portion sizes and overall intake to match your personal health needs.
The right balance of carbs, protein, and fat depends on your health goals and medication, so always work with your doctor or dietitian to develop a diabetes meal plan that works best for you.
Here are some key highlights and common tools used to help you build the perfect plan for you:
Diabetes Type 1 vs. Type 2 Diet
There are not major differences in the dietary needs of type 1 and type 2 diabetics outside of insulin use. The same principles of healthy eating and nutritious choices apply to both, but for those taking insulin, meal timing and carb portion control become extra important, regardless of which type of diabetes you have.
It is also important to note that a type 2 diabetes diet is often focused on weight management. However, this does not change the types of food you consume, just the amount since weight loss is achieved by eating a calorie-controlled diet. If weight loss is part of your health plan, figuring out how many calories you need a day to lose weight is the first step. Then it’s just a matter of choosing the right balance of nutrient-dense foods to support your calorie goals.
Portion control is a crucial element of any successful diabetic diet, and it takes practice! Use measuring cups and food scales to get more familiar with serving sizes for different foods. This will not only help you manage your calorie intake and overall balance but can also help you be more accurate with carb counting.
You can also track your food intake using a food tracking app to ensure you are hitting your daily goals.
Carb counting is a common meal planning tool used to help you identify appropriate carb portions for your meals and snacks, and to learn how to spread your intake out throughout the day. It involves understanding what foods contain carbs and the portion size needed to achieve about 15 grams of carbs.
15 grams of carbs = 1 carb count
Start by figuring out how many carbs you need a day and then use carb counting to divide that amount between your meals and snacks and plan your food choices accordingly. Typically a dietitian will give you specific amounts to hit each day. And sometimes it can be beneficial to eat more carbs earlier in the day or around the time you are more active - since this is when your body is hungry for the fuel.
Net carbs are the total amount of carbohydrates in a food, minus the amount of fiber, sugar alcohol, and glycerin, because these nutrients are not typically absorbed and utilized by the body.
This carb counting method may work well for those just looking to cut back on carb intake, but may not be the best solution for diabetics. Net carbs are not a perfect science and should not be used as a reliable carb count for those taking insulin since some of the fiber and sugar alcohol can be absorbed by the body and impact blood sugar. In other words, ignore net carbs on the food package and rely on total carbohydrates listed on the nutrition facts label for an accurate amount.
Meal timing is the art of planning your meal schedule in advance to meet your health and fitness needs. Establishing a routine or eating pattern that makes sense for you is a great way to add more consistency to your diet and help keep you on track. It is also crucial for type 1 diabetics and those taking insulin.
Your blood sugar is lowest in the morning when you first wake up, so eating a healthy breakfast is often suggested (35). It is also important to spread your carb intake throughout the day and eating when your body needs the energy most, as this can help prevent spikes form large meals and inconsistent intake. Well planned meals may also help keep you feeling satisfied and energized all day long, and keep your blood sugar more controlled (36,37).
There are no foods you have to eat to improve your health, and there are no foods you have to avoid either. A truly healthy diet depends on your food preferences, fitness level, and health. And the best diet for you is one you can stick to, so find healthy food you enjoy eating and then learn to portion control your carb intake to meet your personal needs. This can look different for everyone!
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