10 best foods for diabetes: What to eat and avoid
A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and healthful proteins can have significant benefits for people with diabetes.
Balancing certain foods can help maintain health, improve overall well-being, and prevent future complications.
A healthcare professional, such as a doctor or dietitian, can work with people who have type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes to find the most beneficial food choices that work for them.
This article looks at some of the best foods for people with diabetes to eat, as well as which foods to limit or balance in the diet.
Diet for diabetes
Living with diabetes does not have to mean feeling deprived. People can learn to balance meals and make healthful food choices while still including the foods they enjoy.
Both sugary and starchy carbohydrates can raise blood sugar levels, but people can choose to include these foods in the right portions as part of a balanced meal plan.
For those with diabetes, it is important to monitor the total amount of carbohydrates in a meal. Carbohydrate needs will vary based on many factors, including a person’s activity levels and medications, such as insulin.
A dietitian can recommend specific carbohydrate guidelines to best meet a person’s needs. However, as a general rule, people should try to follow the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ MyPlate guidelines and include no more than a quarter plate of starchy carbs in one meal.
For people who have diabetes, the key to a beneficial diet, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), is as follows:
- Include fruits and vegetables.
- Eat lean protein.
- Choose foods with less added sugar.
- Avoid trans fats.
Below is a list of some fruits, vegetables, and foods with less added sugar.
1. Green leafy vegetables
Green leafy vegetables are packed full of essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. They also have minimal impact on blood sugar levels.
Leafy greens, including spinach and kale, are a key plant-based source of potassium, vitamin A, and calcium. They also provide protein and fiber.
Some researchers say that eating green leafy vegetables is helpful for people with diabetes due to their high antioxidant content and starch-digesting enzymes.
Green leafy vegetables include:
- collard greens
- bok choy
One small-scale study suggested that kale juice may help regulate blood sugar levels and improve blood pressure in people with subclinical hypertension. In the study, people drank 300 milliliters of kale juice per day for 6 weeks.
People can include green leafy vegetables in their diet in salads, side dishes, soups, and dinners. Combine them with a source of lean protein, such as chicken or tofu.
2. Whole grains
Whole grains contain high levels of fiber and more nutrients than refined white grains.
Eating a diet high in fiber is important for people with diabetes because fiber slows down the digestion process. A slower absorption of nutrients helps keep blood sugar levels stable.
Whole wheat and whole grains are lower on the glycemic index (GI) scale than white breads and rice. This means that they have less of an impact on blood sugar.
Good examples of whole grains to include in the diet are:
- brown rice
- whole-grain bread
- whole-grain pasta
People can swap white bread or white pasta for whole-grain options.
Beans are an excellent food option for people with diabetes. They are source of plant-based protein, and they can satisfy the appetite while helping people reduce their carbohydrate intake.
Beans are also low on the GI scale and are better for blood sugar regulation than many other starchy foods.
Also, beans may help people manage their blood sugar levels. They are a complex carbohydrate, so the body digests them slower than it does other carbohydrates.
Eating beans can also help with weight loss and could help regulate a person’s blood pressure and cholesterol.
There is a wide range of beans for people to choose from, including:
- kidney beans
- pinto beans
- black beans
- navy beans
- adzuki beans
These beans also contain important nutrients, including iron, potassium, and magnesium.
Beans are a highly versatile food choice. People can include a variety of beans in a chili or stew, or in tortilla wraps with salad.
When using canned beans, be sure to choose an option with no added salt. Otherwise, drain and rinse the beans to remove any added salt.
Nuts are another excellent addition to the diet. Like fish, nuts contain healthful fatty acids that help keep the heart healthy.
Walnuts are especially high in omega-3 fatty acids called alpha-lipoic acid (ALA). Like other omega-3s, ALA is important for good heart health.
People with diabetes may have a higher risk of heart disease or stroke, so it is important to get these fatty acids through the diet.
A study from 2018 suggested that eating walnuts is linked with a lower incidence of diabetes.
Walnuts also provide key nutrients, such as protein, vitamin B-6, magnesium, and iron.
People can add a handful of walnuts to their breakfast or to a mixed salad.
Learn about other beneficial nuts for diabetes here.
6. Citrus fruits
Research has shown that citrus fruits, such as oranges, grapefruits, and lemons, have antidiabetic effects.
Eating citrus fruits is a great way to get vitamins and minerals from fruit without the carbohydrates.
Some researchers believe that two bioflavonoid antioxidants, called hesperidin and naringin, are responsible for the antidiabetic effects of oranges.
Citrus fruits are also a great source of:
- vitamin C
Learn about other beneficial fruits for diabetes here.
Berries are full of antioxidants, which can help prevent oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is linked with a wide range of health conditions, including heart disease and some cancers.
Studies have found chronic levels of oxidative stress in people with diabetes. Oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between antioxidants and unstable molecules called free radicals in the body.
Blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries all contain high levels of antioxidants and fiber. They also contain important other vitamins and minerals, including:
- vitamin C
- vitamin K
People can add fresh berries to their breakfast, eat a handful as a snack, or use frozen berries in a smoothie.
8. Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes have a lower GI than white potatoes. This makes them a great alternative for people with diabetes, as they release sugar more slowly and do not raise blood sugar as much.
Sweet potatoes are also a great source of:
- vitamin A
- vitamin C
People can enjoy sweet potatoes in a range of ways, including baked, boiled, roasted, or mashed. For a balanced meal, eat them with a source of lean protein and green leafy vegetables or a salad.
One way to manage diabetes with diet is to balance high- and low-GI foods. High-GI foods increase blood sugar more than low-GI foods.
When choosing high-GI foods, limit the portions and pair these foods with protein or healthful fat to reduce the impact on blood sugar and feel full for longer.
Foods high on the GI scale include:
- white bread
- puffed rice
- white rice
- white pasta
- white potatoes
People with diabetes may wish to limit or balance the following foods:
Carbohydrates are an important part of all meals. However, people with diabetes will benefit from limiting their carbohydrate intake in a balanced diet or pairing carbs with a healthful protein or fat source.
Most fruits are low on the GI scale, though melons and pineapple are high-GI. This means that they can increase blood glucose more.
Saturated and trans fats
Unhealthful fats, such as saturated and trans fats, can make a person with diabetes feel worse. Many fried and processed foods, including fries, chips, and baked goods, contain these types of fats.
People with diabetes should aim to limit or avoid refined sugar, likely present in both store-bought and homemade sweets, cakes, and biscuits.
Per day, the American Heart Association advise consuming no more than 24 grams, or 6 teaspoons, of added sugar for women, and 36 grams, or 9 teaspoons, for men. This does not include naturally occurring sugars from foods such as fruit and plain milk.
Drinks that contain a lot of sugar, such as energy drinks, some coffees, and shakes, can imbalance a person’s insulin levels.
Foods that are high in salt can raise blood pressure. Salt may also appear as sodium on a food label.
The ADA recommend that people keep their daily sodium intake to under 2,300 milligrams per day, which is the same as the recommendation for the general population.
Drinking alcohol in moderation should not have serious risks for people with diabetes and should not affect long-term glucose control.
People using insulin or insulin secretagogue therapies may have a higher risk of hypoglycemia linked to alcohol consumption.
For people who have diabetes and those who do not, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
What about gestational diabetes?
People with gestational diabetes can work out a meal plan with their healthcare professional.
A meal plan may involve counting the amount of carbohydrates a person eats to make sure they are getting enough energy and keeping their blood sugar under control.
The National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development advise that people with gestational diabetes eat three medium-sized meals per day, with two to four snacks in-between meals.
People with gestational diabetes will benefit from a balanced diet of fiber, vegetables, fruit, protein, healthful fats, and legumes, including the foods listed above.
People with diabetes can work with their healthcare professional to devise a personal nutrition plan.
Eating a healthful, balanced diet including the foods listed above can help people with diabetes manage their condition and prevent complications by:
- controlling their blood sugar levels
- lowering inflammation
- lowering risk of heart disease
- increasing antioxidant activity
- reducing the risk of kidney disease
Pregnant people with gestational diabetes can discuss a diet plan with their healthcare professional to create a meal plan that can help them and their baby stay safe and healthy.
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