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Home arrow Health arrow Diabetes arrow The Diabetes Diet: Best Foods for Blood Sugar Management

The Diabetes Diet: Best Foods for Blood Sugar Management

Dr. Donika Vata
Written by Donika Vata, MD
HR_author_photo_Edna
Fact checked by Edna Skopljak, MD
Last update: August 10, 2023
19 min read 821 Views 0 Comments
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Find out the foods that you should include in your diet to maintain your blood sugar levels and stay healthy.

Diabetes diet

Eating a diet balanced with the right amounts of protein, fats, and carbohydrates is crucial for anyone hoping to lead a healthy lifestyle, but especially for those with diabetes.

If you have this condition, you may have heard of the diabetes diet, which is a healthy eating plan encouraging followers to eat foods that are naturally rich in nutrients. But how do you get started?

Keep reading to discover everything you need to know about the best foods to eat for diabetes and how to manage your carb intake effectively.

Diabetes Diet: Understanding the Impact

It’s essential to eat a nutritious, well-balanced diet to effectively keep your blood glucose levels within the target range. Along with what you eat, you’ll also need to be aware of meal timings and portion sizes.

The hormone insulin helps glucose from the foods we eat reach the cells where it is needed for energy. However, those with diabetes either don’t produce insulin or struggle to make enough. This can result in too much glucose in the blood, particularly if you eat the wrong foods.

The impact of a healthy diet extends beyond blood sugar control and helps improve your overall well-being. For instance, it can reduce your risk of experiencing serious health issues such as loss of vision, kidney damage, and obesity.

Best Foods for Diabetes

Whether you have type 1, type 2, or prediabetes, you’ll need to be mindful of your food choices to control your blood glucose levels. However, this doesn’t mean that you have to completely cut out your favorite foods, but simply eat them less often.

Try to include the following healthy foods in your diet, which are all good for diabetes:

Diabetes-friendly carbohydrates

Best Food For Diabetes
Health Reporter edit

For those with diabetes, it’s important to eat mainly unrefined, complex carbohydrates that will be absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream to prevent blood sugar spikes. Focusing on filling your plate with the following carb sources:

Lentils

Lentils contain large amounts of fiber, a carbohydrate that absorbs slowly into the bloodstream, meaning your blood glucose levels won’t spike. A 2018 study found that replacing half a serving of white rice with lentils lowers blood sugar levels by 20%.

Beans

Beans are a low glycemic index (GI), complex carb full of protein. Try to choose dry beans rather than canned ones, as the latter often contains added salt, which increases your risk of high blood pressure. 

Whole grains

Compared to refined grains, whole-grain foods such as quinoa, brown rice, and oats contain larger amounts of fiber and a lower GI. Brown rice is a great source of magnesium, a mineral that helps with blood sugar regulation.

Whole-wheat pasta

Despite being carb-heavy, pasta like whole-wheat spaghetti is a great source of fiber and should be paired with non-starchy vegetables, lean protein, and a diabetes-friendly tomato or oil-based sauce for a nutritious meal.

Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes are a high-carb, starchy vegetable that you should eat in moderation. Purple sweet potatoes are a better choice than the traditional orange variety as they have a lower GI and also contain anthocyanins. These compounds may improve insulin resistance, which studies show can reverse or prevent your risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Barley

Barley is rich in the soluble fiber beta-glucan, which may improve glycemic control. Hull barley is the healthiest and most diabetes-friendly variety.

Fruits and berries

Many diabetes-friendly fruits contain a range of important vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that maintain stable glucose levels, lower your blood pressure, and reduce inflammation. For example, blueberries are a diabetes superfruit as they help to improve insulin sensitivity

However, fruits do contain natural sugars, so they should always be consumed in moderation.

Diabetes-friendly proteins

Protein is an important macronutrient as it contributes to the repair and growth of tissues, bones, and muscles within the body. It’s essential for those with diabetes, as research indicates that protein keeps you fuller for longer, helping with weight management. Here are some lean protein sources you should include in your diet:

Tofu

Tofu is a soybean-based protein that may improve the sensitivity of organs and tissues to insulin. This reduces insulin resistance and helps with blood sugar management for those with type 2 diabetes.

Fish

Fish such as tuna, salmon, and sardines contain omega-3 fatty acids, which keep your heart healthy. This is essential, as those with diabetes are at a higher risk of developing heart disease.

Eggs

Containing less than half a gram of carbs, eggs are an ideal diabetes-friendly protein source. They are also packed with healthy fat, which keeps you fuller for longer, helping with glycemic control and weight loss.

Chicken

Chicken is a great low-fat alternative to red meat, which can elevate your cholesterol levels and lead to artery blockages. From the breast to the liver, all cuts of chicken are rich sources of protein and provide good amounts of zinc, which promotes healthy insulin function and maintains stable glucose levels.

Diabetes-friendly fats

Although they’re high in calories, healthy unsaturated fats should be part of all diabetes diets as they contribute to lower cholesterol, which is often high for people with this condition. Try adding small portions of the following fats to each meal:

Avocado

Packed full of healthy monounsaturated fats, avocados slow down the digestion of carbs, which stabilizes blood glucose levels. Monounsaturated fats also help to keep the heart healthy, reducing the chances of cardiovascular disease.

Nuts

Adding small portions of nuts into your diet is beneficial for treating insulin resistance, as their unsaturated fatty acids help with glucose control and appetite suppression. Avoid nuts that are salted, and instead, eat raw or dry roasted ones.

Peanut butter

Peanut butter regulates the release of insulin after eating a meal. A study on women with a high risk of developing diabetes found that consuming this nut butter at breakfast prevented blood sugar spikes early in the day, and their levels also remained stable after a high-carb lunch.

Olive oil

Olive oil is rich in essential fatty acids that make it a great substitute for butter, lard, or stick margarine when cooking. The extra virgin variety may even lower your fasting blood glucose levels and make the perfect addition to any salad dressing.

Olives

Olives are great for those with diabetes as they contain oleuropein, a polyphenolic compound that increases insulin sensitivity. They are high in fat and salt, so try to eat them in moderation.

Diabetes-friendly fiber

Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that passes through the body undigested. This helps it to regulate blood sugar levels and keep your hunger in check, meaning you’re less likely to overeat.

Like unsaturated fats, fiber helps people with diabetes to maintain a healthy heart, reducing their risk of coronary heart disease or stroke.

Leafy greens

Add leafy green vegetables, such as cabbage, spinach, and kale, to your plate, as they are high in antioxidants that regulate blood glucose levels. They are also low-carb and high-fiber, helping to keep you full without consuming too many calories.

Psyllium husk

As a manufactured soluble fiber, psyllium husk is beneficial for diabetes management as it slows down the digestion of carbohydrates, helping to regulate blood glucose levels. It also provides feelings of fullness, which reduces your calorie intake and helps you maintain a healthy weight.

Flax seeds

Flax seeds are among the best sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid that promotes good heart health. They also have a high soluble fiber content, which slows digestion and reduces fasting blood sugar levels.

Chickpeas

Also known as garbanzo beans, chickpeas are a great low GI, high fiber option for those with diabetes. They’re also rich in protein and vitamin C, an essential antioxidant for lowering cholesterol and maintaining blood sugar levels

Chia seeds

Research indicates that chia seeds may increase insulin sensitivity, therefore reducing the symptoms of type 2 diabetes. These high-fiber seeds also contribute to feelings of fullness and prevent blood sugar spikes after meals.

Diabetes and Carbohydrate Management: How to Do It Successfully 

How to Manage Carbohydrate Intake
Health Reporter edit

Making changes to your diet can seem overwhelming at first, but over time they will become a normal part of your everyday life. Read on to find out what you need to do to keep yourself healthy.

#1 Glycemic index

The glycemic index (GI) ranks carbohydrates based on how they impact blood sugar levels. High-GI foods are digested and absorbed quickly, which causes blood sugar spikes, so try to choose low-GI foods that help with glycemic control.

The index runs from 0 to 100, with 100 indicating pure glucose. Try to choose carbohydrates that have a GI rating of 55 or below, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, pulses, and whole grains.

#2 Counting carbs

Carbohydrates turn into glucose in your body, meaning that they cause your blood glucose levels to rise when consumed. Counting the number of carbs you eat can help you maintain normal blood glucose levels, guiding when and how much insulin you’ll need to take and giving you flexibility in your food choices.

Read the nutrition facts label or use a diabetes app to find how many carbs are in the foods you eat. Add the grams up for each meal to get your total for the day.

#3 Planning meals

If you’ve got diabetes, you’ll know it’s important to eat the right foods, in the right portion sizes, at the right times, to avoid any side effects. Knowing what you’re going to eat and when beforehand is therefore important in preventing sugar crashes, which is where meal planning comes in.

Write down a plan for your breakfasts, lunches, evening meals, and snacks for the week, to ensure that you have all of the right healthy foods ready to go in your kitchen. 

#4 Replacing sugar

Keeping your sweet tooth happy can be difficult when you’ve got diabetes, as consuming sugar causes your blood sugar to spike. However, you could instead use a sugar alternative in your tea or coffee. 

Choose natural sweeteners like stevia, erythritol, or monk fruit extract, which contain next to no calories or carbs and therefore help to maintain stable blood sugar levels. However, try to avoid natural sweeteners that are high-calorie, such as agave.

Although agave is considered a low GI food, it has a high fructose content, a type of sugar that causes the body to produce less insulin.

#5 Managing insulin levels

Although those with diabetes cannot completely eliminate their insulin resistance, there are some things that you can do to increase your insulin sensitivity. Sleep deprivation can reduce insulin sensitivity, so try to get at least 7–9 hours per night. 

You should also exercise regularly, for at least half an hour 3 days per week. Exercise may cause an immediate increase in insulin sensitivity, which studies show becomes a more permanent effect after routines lasting at least 8 weeks.

Taking insulin at the right time is essential for preventing blood sugar spikes throughout the day. To ensure that you administer the right amount of insulin, you should assess your blood glucose levels before meals and after meals, as you’ll need to adjust your insulin doses based on your carbohydrate consumption.

You can do this by conducting a finger-prick test or by using a flash glucose monitor if you have one.

Making Healthy Food Choices With Diabetes

Below we’ve summarized 7 key tips to guide your daily food choices, which will help you to manage diabetes safely and effectively:

#1 Control your portion size

It’s essential to be mindful of how much you’re putting on your plate so that each meal or snack contains the right balance of nutrients to support your overall health. You can control portion sizes using the plate method, which shows how much of each food group you should eat.

Using a 9-inch plate, fill one half with non-starchy vegetables, one quarter with a lean protein source, and the last quarter with a grain or starchy vegetable. Add healthy fats like avocados and nuts in small amounts, along with a small serving of fruit or low-fat dairy too.

#2 Consume complex carbohydrates

Compared to simple, refined carbohydrates like white bread, sugary cereals, and soda, complex carbs are digested slowly, which raises blood sugar levels at a more gradual pace. Consuming them makes it easier to manage spikes that you may have after meals, so try to include the following carbs in your meals:

  • Whole grains, like quinoa, brown rice, and whole-wheat pasta
  • Fibrous vegetables, including leafy greens, broccoli, and carrots
  • Beans
  • Fiber-rich fruits, such as berries, bananas, and apples

#3 Limit ultra-processed food intake

Ultra-processed foods typically contain large amounts of additives, including sugar and harmful fats. They generally have high GI and low amounts of fiber and vitamins that help to maintain good overall health. You should therefore avoid these foods where possible.

#4 Prioritize foods that are rich in fiber

Found in foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans, fiber is an important complex carbohydrate as it controls cholesterol and maintains good bowel health. Some fiber-rich options that make a great addition to any diabetes diet include:

  • Beans 
  • Lentils
  • Avocados
  • Berries
  • Homemade popcorn
  • Oats
  • Broccoli

Starch is also a complex carb that keeps you fuller for longer and is present in potatoes, rice, oat flour, and whole-wheat bread.

#5 Opt for nutrient-dense foods

Eating foods that contain high levels of vitamins, minerals, and the right macronutrient ratio is essential for managing the symptoms of diabetes. Select options that are rich in protein, fiber, antioxidants, and healthy fats to maintain good heart health, prevent blood sugar spikes, and keep you fuller for longer. This includes foods such as:

  • Dark green, leafy vegetables
  • Fatty baked or grilled fish such as tuna salmon, sardines, and mackerel
  • Nuts and seeds like walnuts and flax seeds
  • Whole-grain barley, oats, and quinoa
  • Low-fat milk and yogurt
  • Brightly colored fruits, such as grapefruit, berries, and citrus fruits

#6 Monitor your sodium intake

Sodium is a compound found in salt, which can raise blood pressure and cause fluid retention. This is particularly detrimental to those with diabetes, as it can put you at a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease. 

You should therefore read food labels carefully and only consume salt in moderation, eating less than 2,300 milligrams per day, or 1,500 if you have high blood pressure.

#7 Eat regularly

Make sure to plan regular meal times into your day, to eliminate the risk of going hungry and getting blood glucose spikes. This also helps the body use the insulin that it produces or obtains through medication more effectively. If you’re heading out, be sure to keep emergency snacks in your bag too. 

It’s typically recommended to eat small yet frequent meals 6 times per day to keep your blood sugar stable.

How to Manage Eating Out and Social Situations? 10 Tips to Help You Out

Having diabetes doesn’t mean you should miss out on spending time with friends or going out to eat. Here are some things that you can do to allow you to join in on the fun while staying safe and healthy:

  • Prepare in advance by reviewing the restaurant’s online menu and seeking out healthier alternatives.
  • Select an eatery that provides a range of nutritious meal options and fresh, unprocessed ingredients.
  • Manage portion sizes by either sharing a dish or preserving half for later consumption.
  • Inform the waitstaff about your dietary requirements and make specific demands.
  • Remain cautious of concealed sugars and carbohydrates in sauces, dressings, and condiments.
  • Opt for water, unsweetened tea, or sugar-free beverages instead of sugary drinks.
  • Carry a wholesome snack with you in case of delays or extended intervals between meals.
  • Maintain an active lifestyle by incorporating physical activity before and after social gatherings.
  • Eat attentively, paying attention to your body’s hunger and satiety signals.
  • Monitor your blood sugar levels prior to and following meals, particularly when experimenting with new cuisines.

Foods That Lower Blood Sugar

While foods containing refined carbs or added sugars can cause high blood sugar, there are others that can help to lower or maintain your levels. This includes the following foods:

Fruits with a low-glycemic index

Although fruits are high in natural sugars, they also contain fiber, which makes them low GI. They also provide important diabetes nutrients like vitamin C that help to control blood sugar and include varieties such as berries, apples, oranges, and pears.

Leafy greens

Leafy greens are some of the best vegetables for diabetes as they are low-calorie and contain essential nutrients such as potassium, which relaxes blood vessels and lowers blood pressure.

Non-starchy vegetables

As we’ve mentioned, you should fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables, including mushrooms, asparagus, green beans, carrots, or broccoli. These vegetables are fiber-rich and slow digestion, keeping you full and stabilizing blood sugar levels.

Nuts

Eating nuts such as almonds and peanuts as part of a low-carb, healthy diet has been shown to reduce both fasting and post-meal blood sugar levels. They are high in fiber, protein, and healthy fats that help to release glucose into the bloodstream slowly and steadily, making them a great low-GI snack idea.

However, they are high in calories, so only grab a small handful as a snack.

Spices

Adding spices to your food is a great way of elevating the flavor without consuming extra salt or sugar. For example, studies show that cinnamon can lower blood glucose levels for those with type 2 diabetes and may also reduce triglycerides and high cholesterol. 

Basil is a herb packed full of antioxidants that help reduce oxidative stress, which can cause complications for those with diabetes. Turmeric is an anti-inflammatory spice that decreases blood glucose levels and may even play a role in diabetes prevention.

Whole grains

To maintain normal blood sugar levels, choose whole-grain foods like rolled or steel-cut oats, brown rice, quinoa, barley, and whole-wheat products. These contain more soluble fiber and are lower in sugar than refined grains, which promote fullness and maintain your glucose levels.

Foods to Avoid With Diabetes

Although there are plenty of delicious foods you can eat, there are some that you should avoid or only enjoy occasionally to prevent blood sugar spikes and maintain good heart health. The worst foods for diabetes include:

Sugary foods

Sugary foods contain simple carbohydrates, which are digested and absorbed more quickly than complex carbohydrates. This means that they raise your blood sugar levels more quickly, which puts those with diabetes at a higher risk of organ or tissue damage.

Fast food

Fast foods are usually fried and high in unhealthy saturated and trans fats, which, when eaten in excess, can contribute to obesity. They also contain sugar and refined grains that spike blood sugar levels and lack the fiber needed for slow carbohydrate absorption. 

Soda

It’s no secret that soda is packed full of sugar, which is a no-go for those with diabetes. Diet sodas are a low-sugar alternative, but they do contain artificial sweeteners. 

Along with negatively affecting your gut bacteria, these sweeteners are a lot sweeter than sugar and can increase your sugar cravings later on. Try to drink more water or diabetes-friendly fruit juices in moderation.

Canned fruits

Although fruits can be enjoyed by those with diabetes, canned fruits are a no-go as they usually contain syrups with added sugar that will raise your glucose levels.

Chips

Chips are high in starchy carbs and low in fiber, meaning they won’t keep you satisfied. You’re therefore more likely to keep putting your hand back into the bag, causing you to eat more carbohydrates than is safe.

Candy

To give them that sweet taste, candy contains large amounts of carbohydrates in the form of sugar. Eating candy in excess can be dangerous because it can cause a sudden rise in blood sugar. Candy is also high in calories, which contributes to weight gain.

Ultra-processed foods

Processed foods such as hot dogs, ice cream, and breakfast cereals are typically packed full of salt to preserve them, which increases your blood pressure. They also tend to contain trans or saturated fats, which increase your risk of heart disease when consumed in excess. 

Diabetes Diet Plan

There may be certain foods that those with diabetes need to avoid, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t eat three delicious, fulfilling meals and snacks each day or night. If you’re in need of some inspiration, we’ve created an example diet plan below that will keep your blood sugars stable.

Breakfast:

  • 1 small bowl (40 grams) of oatmeal topped with 100 grams of fresh berries and a sprinkle of cinnamon
  • 1 cup of unsweetened coffee or green tea

Mid-morning snack:

  • 1 peach (~140 grams) or small apple (~120 grams)
  • 1 tablespoon of almond butter (16 grams)

Lunch:

  • Grilled chicken breast salad with mixed greens (100 grams), cherry tomatoes (50 grams), cucumber (100 grams), and bell peppers (100 grams)
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil on top of the salad
  • 1 small whole-grain roll (30 grams)

Afternoon snack:

  • Carrot sticks (100 grams) with 2 tablespoons of hummus (30 grams)

Dinner:

  • Baked salmon filet (100 grams) with lemon and herbs
  • ½ cup (90 grams) of cooked quinoa
  • Steamed broccoli (100 grams) or cauliflower (100 grams)
  • 1 small side salad with mixed greens (50 grams), cherry tomatoes (50 grams), and 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinaigrette dressing

Evening snack:

  • Greek yogurt (150 grams) with a sprinkle of unsalted nuts (20 grams) and a drizzle of honey (15 grams)

It is important to note that these are approximate measurements and that individual needs may differ. In order to create a personalized meal plan that meets your specific dietary needs, you should consult with a registered dietitian or healthcare professional.

FAQs

What can people with diabetes eat?

Those with diabetes should eat a diet rich in low-GI fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole-grain foods. However, it is possible to integrate sugary, processed, or fast foods into your diet occasionally, as long as they are eaten in moderation and your blood sugar levels are monitored carefully.

What foods to eat to lower A1C quickly?

Try eating leafy greens, non-starchy vegetables, nuts, or whole-grain foods to lower your blood sugar levels rapidly and safely. Some studies also suggest that apple cider vinegar may lower A1C levels, which you can consume by diluting 1 teaspoon in a glass of water.

What foods can people with diabetes eat freely?

Low glycemic index (GI) foods are safe for people with diabetes to eat freely as they won’t cause blood sugar to spike. This includes leafy greens, berries, whole grains, beans, legumes, and lean protein sources.

A Word From an MD

If you have diabetes or prediabetes, developing a healthy eating plan offers a safe and simple way to keep you nourished. This will help you to monitor your carb intake, control your weight, and manage your blood sugar levels. Consuming a balanced diet also reduces your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and high body fat.

Along with eating mindfully, you should also try to stay physically active, aiming for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. This can help you with weight loss, lower your blood glucose levels, and feel more energized.

Although there are some foods that are better than others for diabetes, there isn’t one particular diet that works for everyone with the condition. If you’re unsure, you should therefore consult your doctor or registered dietitian, who can design a personalized healthy meal plan that considers your weight loss goals, lifestyle, medications you’re on, and other health conditions.

Conclusion

It may take some effort to get your head around at first, but controlling blood sugar levels through a balanced diabetes diet allows you to live a rewarding, healthy life in the long term.

Be sure to plan your meals in advance so that you can distribute carbohydrates evenly throughout the day, try to eat regularly, and prioritize foods that are high in fiber and protein to keep you satisfied.

Written by Donika Vata, MD
Dr. Donika Vata is a highly accomplished MD whose extensive experience in the healthcare industry spans over 5 years, making her a distinguished Medical Writer and Researcher for the esteemed Health Reporter. Notably, she also holds the role of a General Practice Doctor and has rendered her exceptional patient care services in various clinics worldwide.
The article was fact checked by Edna Skopljak, MD
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Dr. Donika Vata
Written by Donika Vata, MD
HR_author_photo_Edna
Fact checked by Edna Skopljak, MD
Last update: August 10, 2023
19 min read 821 Views 0 Comments
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