The Best and Worst Foods For People With Diabetes
The Best and Worst Foods For People With Diabetes

The Best and Worst Foods For People With Diabetes

If you have diabetes, keeping your blood sugar levels within their target range is key to managing the disease. Along with exercise and, if prescribed, medication, diet plays a central role in controlling your blood sugar.

But there is no one-size-fits-all approach to eating with diabetes. People have their own cultural traditions, food preferences, dietary restrictions, and life schedules. People’s blood sugar may also respond to food differently. 

Needless to say, there are many factors that can dictate your eating plan for diabetes. But, generally, there are foods that are considered good for diabetes and others that you might want to limit. 

Woman preparing a salad at a kitchen counter.
JULIA VOLK / STOCKSY

Good Foods for Diabetes

Eating nutrient-dense foods can help in managing diabetes. These are foods that are rich in things like fiber, water, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Eating nutrient-dense foods in appropriate portions can aid in reaching and maintaining body weight goals—a factor in diabetes. Nutrient-dense foods can also help you stay within your target blood glucose goals, a key to managing diabetes.1

These nutrient-dense foods should come from all the food groups. In fact, variety is key. Overall, eating a variety of healthful foods from all food groups can delay or prevent diabetes complications.1 

Here are the food groups you should work in to your diet, including standout options in each group.

Fruit

The glycemic index helps determine the potential that a carbohydrate food, like fruit, has to raise blood sugar. The lower the glycemic index, the less likely a food is to cause blood sugar spikes.2 Most fruits have a low glycemic index in part because of their fiber content.3 

Fiber is the indigestible part of carbohydrate that slows down glucose absorption and helps you feel full. That means foods high in fiber can help control blood sugar.4

Fruit may even help prevent diabetes in the first place. One study showed that blueberries, grapes, and apples were associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. In addition, some research suggests that a wider variety of fruit can even reduce the risk of diabetes.5

When selecting fruit with diabetes in mind, go for ones that are fresh, frozen, or canned and that don’t have added sugars.3 

Not all fruit has the same effect on blood sugar, though. Some fruit is actually higher on the glycemic index, including:3

  • Melon 
  • Pineapple 
  • Some dried fruits 
  • Dates
  • Raisins
  • Sweetened cranberries

That doesn’t mean you can’t eat them. When choosing fruits that have a higher glycemic index, it is usually best to pair them with healthful fat and protein. Doing this can slow down how quickly the carbohydrates in fruit are metabolized. That way, compared to the rest of the meal, the fruit’s glycemic index doesn’t have as much of an effect.6

In general, eating any fruit will likely increase your blood sugar—what varies is by how much. That’s why it’s healthy to eat fruits in moderation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends about 2 cups per day for adults.7 Especially with diabetes, you should be mindful about the types of fruit you consume and other sources of carbohydrates in your diet.3

Vegetables

Vegetables are classified under two main categories: starchy and non-starchy. Those that are considered starchy vegetables have more starch, a type of carbohydrate, than non-starchy vegetables.8

Both types of vegetables have benefits, but it is non-starchy vegetables that should make up half of your plate.9

Non-starchy vegetables are not only low in carbohydrates, but they also provide fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants—all of which can help in managing diabetes. Non-starchy vegetables include:10

  • Carrots
  • Peppers
  • Tomatoes
  • Onions
  • Eggplant
  • Asparagus

While all non-starchy vegetables can be beneficial, cruciferous vegetables in particular can be a top option because of their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.11 

A meta-analysis of past studies found a 13% lower risk of type 2 diabetes with high cruciferous vegetable intake. Cruciferous vegetables also contain prebiotics which are important for gut health, and having a healthy gut is related to better blood sugar control.12 Cruciferous vegetables include:

  • Arugula
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Kale
  • Radish
  • Turnips
  • Watercress

Just because starchy vegetables have more carbohydrates than non-starchy vegetables doesn’t mean you can’t eat them. Starchy vegetables include butternut squash, sweet potatoes, peas, corn, and white potatoes. These foods also contain fiber, antioxidants, and other nutrients that are important for health such as vitamins A and C and potassium. 

But because of their higher carbohydrate content, it’s better to monitor your portions to ensure your blood sugars are in good control. Consider keeping starchy vegetables and other higher carbohydrate foods (like grains, rice, and fruit) to about a quarter of your plate at a meal.9

Whole Grains

Any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, or barley, is a grain product. There are two types of grains: whole and refined.13 

Whole grain means that the grain is intact and contains all its parts: bran, germ, and endosperm. Refined grain means that the grains have gone through a process so that their bran and germ have been removed. After this removal, refined grains can be enriched with essential vitamins and minerals, but fiber is not added back in.13

When choosing grains, it is optimal to keep about half of your grain choices whole grain.13 Whole grains have a higher fiber content as well as more minerals like iron, magnesium, selenium than refined grains.4 

Research has shown that whole grains can help improve blood sugar control. Whole grains can also have a positive effect on body weight, the lipid profile, and other cardiometabolic risk factors in adults with diabetes.14

Whole grain sources include:

  • Brown rice
  • Barley
  • Buckwheat
  • Quinoa
  • Millet
  • Rye
  • Wheat berries
  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Whole grain bread
  • Oats

Refined grains—such as white pasta, white rice, and white bread—can increase blood sugars more quickly because they don’t contain much fiber.15 

This doesn’t mean that you can never eat foods made of refined grains. But if you choose to eat them, pair them with a vegetable and protein for a more well-rounded meal.16

Proteins

Protein can come from a variety of sources, including animals, plants, fish, cheese, and eggs. Some of the best protein sources include:1710

  • Skinless chicken or turkey 
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Cottage cheese
  • Nuts 
  • Legumes (such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas)
  • Tofu

Protein sources that are deep-fried, cured, or high in saturated fat are best consumed in moderation. These types of foods are high in sodium and fat and can affect cholesterol levels and blood pressure, which increases the risk of developing heart disease. People with diabetes are already at increased risk of developing heart disease. 

Dairy

A well-rounded diet includes the food group of dairy. The best dairy options for someone with diabetes are those that are no or low fat. This can include:10

  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese

For those who have pre-diabetes—so those whose blood sugar levels are up but not yet at levels diagnosable as diabetes—consuming low-fat dairy has even shown to lower their risk of diabetes.18

Foods to Limit

There are no forbidden foods when eating with diabetes, but eating certain foods regularly or in isolation can have an adverse effect on diabetes control.

Added Sugar and Sodium

An eating plan that is high in added sugar or added sodium is not recommended.

Consuming foods with lots of added sugar is associated with high blood sugar.19

Many people with diabetes also have other health conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease that makes it important to manage sodium intake. Therefore, consuming a lower sodium diet may be necessary.20

Saturated and Trans Fats

It’s also best to avoid saturated and trans fats. While saturated fat is typically found in animal products like butter and whole milk, trans fats can be found in processed foods like snacks and baked goods. (Even if a nutrition label says 0 grams of trans fat, there may still be a residual amount of less than 0.5 grams in the processed food.)21

Both types of fat can increase bad cholesterol levels, known as LDL. Higher levels of LDL is associated with the build up of cholesterol and fat in the arteries, a condition known as atherosclerosis—already a main complication in diabetes.222324 

Instead, try to eat food with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as avocados and plant-based oils. Unsaturated fats have favorable effects on cholesterol and are associated with better heart health.21 

Alcohol

You may also want to be mindful of how much alcohol—and even what type of alcohol—you drink. 

Drinking alcohol can increase your risk of low blood sugar. This happens because your liver pauses its job of releasing glucose into the bloodstream so that it can process the alcohol. Without glucose going into the bloodstream to help manage blood sugar levels, your blood sugar can drop. The risk is especially true if you drink without eating. The blood sugar risk can last hours after you stop drinking.25 

Your blood sugar levels might also rise when drinking beer, sweetened mixed drinks, or other options high in carbohydrates.25

Alcohol may also interact with your diabetes medication, causing high or low blood sugar.25 You’ll want to discuss with a healthcare provider about any potential interactions.

A Quick Review

Each person’s diabetes eating plan will look different. It can change based on disease status, preference, and lifestyle. Generally, a diet that includes healthful, nutrient-rich selections from each of the main food groups can help in the management of diabetes. 

While there is no single food that is strictly off-limits, there are certain foods that should be enjoyed less frequently or in smaller portions. This includes foods with added sugar, added sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat.

It is recommended that people with diabetes consult with a healthcare provider or diabetes specialist who can review diet strategies and help create an individualized eating plan. They can go over not only what to eat, but also when to eat and how much—both of which can impact blood sugar levels.

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