People with diabetes understand the importance of our food choices. This chronic condition makes people question their diet choices, eliminate certain foods, minimize others, and focus on a healthy eating pattern.
The most common diet changes for managing diabetes include controlling your carbohydrate intake, eating smaller meals regularly, and enjoying nutrient-dense healthy food options.
This article should help you identify some of the best and worst foods for managing your diabetes symptoms.
The Difference Between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes
Diabetes is a chronic disease that affects insulin and blood sugar levels, increasing blood pressure, and risks of developing heart disease. It is a severe condition affecting 34.2 million people in the US, according to the CDC (1).
Type 1 diabetes occurs because the body cannot produce insulin, which is essential as insulin transports blood glucose into cells. Due to a lack of insulin, sugar can build up in the bloodstream causing health problems.
“Type 2 diabetes is a condition in which your body is still making insulin, but your body is insulin resistant. Insulin is necessary for blood sugars to enter cells, so being insulin resistant means your body doesn’t handle blood sugars very well,” said Arti Bhan MD, an endocrinologist who focuses on diabetes care.
Diabetes Type 2 diabetes is mostly caused by lifestyle factors such as inactivity, poor diet choices, and excess weight. In contrast, type 1 is a product of genetics mixed with environmental factors (2).
Why Is Nutrition so Important for People With Diabetes?
What you eat directly affects your blood sugar levels and insulin production. With type 1 diabetes, you need to take insulin through injections or pumps, and the amount depends on the food you consumed.
Exercise and a healthy eating pattern are essential for the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes. A diet for diabetes should consist of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fat. Meals for people with diabetes usually contain no added sugar, fewer carbs, less sodium, lower trans fat content, and fewer calories.
Managing type 2 diabetes also means eating smaller meals more frequently to prevent sugar spikes. This will keep your blood sugar levels steady throughout the day, and lower the health risks such as high blood pressure and heart disease.
List of Best Foods to Include in a Diet for a Diabetic Person
If you have been diagnosed with prediabetes or diabetes, your doctor can suggest a visit to a dietitian. They will help you better understand your chronic condition, dietary changes you need to make, and design a unique diet plan tailored to your specific needs that will limit your calorie intake.
We present you with a list of essential foods for people following a diabetes-friendly diet.
Vegetables are the star of every healthy diet. They are an excellent source of carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, and fiber. With the right nutrient balance, vegetables can help you feel full longer, preventing overeating and blood glucose spikes.
Some of the vegetables you should put on your grocery shopping list include:
The best choices are fresh, frozen, or low-salt canned vegetables.
Although fruits usually have a higher carbohydrate content than non-starchy vegetables, they are still a healthy choice because of their low glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL). Fruits have plenty of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and they are also naturally low in sodium and fat.
The best choices for your grocery shopping list include fresh, frozen, canned fruits without added sugar, and low-sugar or sugar-free jams. Some of the fruits you can add to your diet are:
Starchy Vegetables and Whole Grains
Just because you may need to lower your carb intake, doesn’t mean you need to avoid them altogether. However, you need to be smart about your choices.
Here is a list of whole grains and starchy vegetables you can try:
While people avoid things like corn, yams, green peas, and white potatoes, they are okay in small quantities.
Proteins serve many vital functions in our bodies. The American Diabetes Association recommends including these in your meals:
By including plant-based protein in your diet, you get additional fiber and nutrients you otherwise wouldn’t get from animal products. Since there is so much variety, there is no reason why you shouldn’t mix things.
When enjoying meat, buy cuts, and low-fat pieces and remove the skin from poultry.
Healthy fats are essential nutrients that support your heart health. Best choices include omega-3, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. Good sources of healthy fats are:
What you drink is important, as well. Your primary hydration source should be water. However, there are other beverages you can enjoy that won’t affect your blood sugar drastically. That includes:
Foods to Eliminate From Your Diabetes Diet
Diabetes management means eliminating certain foods from your eating habits. Sugary and highly processed food is particularly bad for people with type 2 diabetes. That is why eliminating them should be a priority.
Here is a list of forbidden or limited foods in the diet of diabetic people.
Added sugars, especially refined ones, are simple in structure, and they quickly get absorbed into the bloodstream, offering low nutritional value (3). Added sugars have been linked with many chronic conditions, including unhealthy weight gain, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and more (4).
Eliminate or minimize table sugar, raw sugar, maple syrup, corn syrup, high fructose syrup, brown sugar, sucrose, and fructose. You can’t eliminate sugars from everything you eat, and you really shouldn’t. Simple carbs from plants and fruits won’t spike your blood sugar because they also contain fibers and other minerals that will slow digestion.
Processed foods usually have a lot of added sugars, additives, and preservatives that may not be the best for your health. Start with removing junk food from your daily meals and then eliminate energy drinks, sodas, candy, ice cream, cakes, cookies, baked goods, chocolate bars, granola, chips, fruit juice, and other products with high carb content.
You should avoid processed grains such as white rice, white bread, cereals packed with sugar, white-flour tortillas, etc. Also, add all fried foods to that list.
Processed Red Meats
Consumption of processed red meats has been linked with increased risks of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even some colon cancer (5,6). You can still enjoy an occasional hot dog or some bacon with your eggs, but you should limit all processed meats, including bacon, ham, hot dogs, corned beef, sausages, and canned meats like Spam.
While eating healthy fatty acids is encouraged, saturated fats should be avoided as they have been linked to increased cholesterol levels and health complications (7). Trans fats present a significant risk factor for heart disease, which is why people with diabetes should limit them.
Common sources of saturated fats are cheese, butter, full-fat dairy, cream, certain meats, lard, and highly processed foods. Watch out for “partially hydrogenated oil” on the ingredient list, as some brands use this term for products containing trans fats.
While sodium is essential for our bodies, most adults consume more than the recommended amount of salt per day (8). That can lead to adverse health effects, especially in people with type 2 diabetes (9).
Watch your sodium intake, and try cutting down on pizza, prepared frozen meals, soup, processed meats, salty snacks, pickles, sauerkraut, canned goods, bread, and other processed products with high sodium content.
There aren’t any food choices that will instantly lower your blood sugar, It just doesn’t work like that. However, if you are looking to regulate your blood sugar, manage diabetes, and experience some health benefits of a healthy meal plan, try incorporating some of the suggestions from our list. Your healthy lunch can look like this: brown rice for dietary fiber and carbohydrates, fatty fish like salmon for protein, healthy fats, and blood sugar regulation, and broccoli that has been proven to increase insulin sensitivity and blood glucose (10,11).
Our list is full of healthy options for diabetics. The main focus should be on fruits and vegetables, followed by whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats.
You should avoid processed, sugary, and food products with lots of added salt. Gradually eliminate them from your meals to minimize sugar cravings. That way, you can easily transition towards a healthier eating plan, which will help you stick to healthy long-term solutions.
Eating With Diabetes – The Bottom Line
People with diabetes need to pay special attention to their diets. Eating a Mediterranean style, heart-friendly, low saturated fat, low sodium diet is linked with many health benefits. People with diabetes will often have 5-6 portion-controlled meals per day, to help their blood glucose regulation, and prevent any spikes.
In theory, if you have been eating healthily, you won’t have to make any dietary sacrifices. But people who eat healthily rarely develop diabetes in the first place. In fact, poor nutritional choices, inactivity, and excess weight are substantial risk factors for the onset of this chronic condition.
If you are not skilled in the kitchen or don’t have time to cook, you can try one of the diabetes-friendly meal delivery services. Their meals are designed by doctors and dietitians to meet the nutritional needs of people with diabetes. Feel free to take a look at our reviews of the best diabetic meal delivery services.
Since there is no cure for diabetes, most of the management depends on you and your willingness to change your daily habits. Consult with your doctor and commit to your treatment plan which should include weight management, type 2 diabetes diet, exercise plan, and medication if needed.
"Diabetes is unique in that self-management is such an important part of the treatment,"
- Dr. Irene O'Shaughnessy, endocrinologist