National Diagnostic Solutions
Following a type 2 diabetes diet doesn’t mean you have to give up all the things you love — you can still enjoy a wide range of foods and, in some cases, even help reverse type 2 diabetes. Indeed, creating a diet for diabetes is a balancing act: It includes a variety of healthy carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. The trick is ultimately choosing the right combination of foods that will help keep your blood sugar level in your target range and avoid big swings that can cause diabetes symptoms — from the frequent urination and thirst of high blood sugar to the fatigue, dizziness, headaches, and mood changes of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).
The Basics of the Type 2 Diabetes Diet: What Should You Eat?
To follow a healthy diet for type 2 diabetes, you must first understand how different foods affect your blood sugar. Carbohydrates, which are found to the largest degree in grains, bread, pasta, milk, sweets, fruit, and starchy vegetables, are broken down into glucose in the blood faster than other types of food, which raises blood sugar, potentially leading to hyperglycemia. Protein and fats do not directly impact blood sugar, but both should be consumed in moderation to keep calories down and weight in a healthy range.
To hit your blood sugar level target, eat a variety of foods but monitor portions for foods with a high carbohydrate content, says Alison Massey, RD, CDE, the director of diabetes education at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “[Foods high in carbohydrates] have the most impact on blood sugar level. This is why some people with diabetes count their carbohydrates at meals and snacks,” she says.
How Many Carbs Can You Eat If You Have Diabetes?
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), you can calculate the amount of carbs you need by first figuring out what percentage of your diet should be made up of carbohydrates. (The NIDDK notes that experts generally recommend this number be somewhere between 45 and 65 percent of your total calories, but people with diabetes are almost always recommended to stay lower than this range.) Multiply that percentage by your calorie target. For example, if you’re aiming to get 50 percent of your calories from carbs and you eat 2,000 calories a day, you’re aiming for about 1,000 calories of carbs. Because the NIDDK says 1 gram (g) of carbohydrates provides 4 calories, you can divide the calories of carbs number by 4 to get your daily target for grams of carbs, which comes out to 250 g in this example. For a more personalized daily carbohydrate goal, it’s best to work with a certified diabetes educator or a registered dietitian to determine a goal that is best for you.
The Best and Worst Type 2 Diabetes Choices by Food Group
As you pick the best foods for type 2 diabetes, here’s a helpful guideline to keep in mind: Fill half your plate with nonstarchy vegetables. Round out the meal with other healthy choices — whole grains, nuts and seeds, lean protein, fat-free or low-fat dairy, and small portions of fresh fruits and healthy fats.
Sugar and processed carbohydrates should be limited, says Massey. That includes soda, candy, and other packaged or processed snacks, such as corn chips, potato chips, and the like. And while artificial sweeteners like those found in diet sodas won’t necessarily spike your blood sugar in the same way as sugar, they could still have an effect on your blood sugar and even alter your body’s insulin response, though more research is needed to confirm this.
For now, here’s what you need to know about choosing the most diabetes-friendly foods from each food group.
What Foods High in Protein Are Good for Type 2 Diabetes?
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends lean proteins low in saturated fat for people with diabetes. If you’re following a vegan or vegetarian diet, getting enough and the right balance of protein may be more challenging, but you can rely on foods like beans, nuts, and tofu to get your fix. Just be sure to keep portion size in mind when snacking on nuts, as they are also high in fat and calories.
Meanwhile, processed or packaged foods should be avoided or limited in your diabetes diet because, in addition to added sugars and processed carbohydrates, these foods are often high in sodium and therefore may increase your blood pressure and, in turn, the risk of heart disease or stroke — two common complications of diabetes. It’s important to keep your blood pressure in check when managing diabetes.
In addition to getting enough fiber, incorporating protein-rich foods in your diet can help keep you satiated and promote weight loss, thereby reducing insulin resistance, the hallmark of diabetes.
- Fatty fish, like sockeye salmon
- Canned tuna in water
- Skinless turkey
- Skinless chicken
- Beans and legumes
- Plain, nonfat Greek yogurt
- Raw, unsalted nuts, like almonds and walnuts (in moderation)
- Deli meats, like bologna, salami, ham, roast beef, and turkey
- Hot dogs
- Sausages and pepperoni
- Beef jerky
- Sweetened or flavored nuts, like honey-roasted or spicy
- Sweetened protein shakes or smoothies
What Are the Best Grains for Type 2 Diabetes?
Contrary to popular belief, not all carbs are off-limits if you’re managing diabetes. In fact, the ADA recommends vitamin-rich whole grains in a healthy diabetes diet. These foods contain fiber, which is beneficial for digestive health. Fiber can also promote feelings of fullness, preventing you from reaching for unhealthy snacks, and it can help slow the rise of blood sugar. Plus, whole grains contain healthy vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that are healthy for anyone, regardless of whether they have diabetes or not.
On the other hand, grains in the form of popular foods such as white bread, as well as sugary, processed, or packaged grains, should be avoided or limited to avoid unwanted blood sugar spikes. Also, refined white flour doesn’t contain the same vitamins, minerals, fiber, and health benefits as whole grains.
Best options (in moderation):
- Wild or brown rice
- Whole-grain breads, such as 100 percent whole-wheat bread
- Whole-grain cereal, such as steel-cut oats
- Whole-wheat pasta
- White bread
- Sugary breakfast cereals
- White rice
- White pasta
Which Types of Dairy Can People With Diabetes Eat?
When picked well and eaten in moderation, dairy can be a great choice for people with diabetes. Just keep fat content in mind, as being overweight or obese can reduce insulin sensitivity, causing prediabetes to progress to full-blown diabetes or increasing the risk of complications if you have type 2 diabetes. Whenever possible, opt for fat-free dairy options to keep calories down and unhealthy saturated fats at bay.
- Skim milk
- Nonfat plain Greek yogurt
- Nonfat, low-sodium cottage cheese
- Reduced-fat cheese (in moderation)
- Nonfat, unsweetened kefir
- Full-fat or reduced-fat (2 percent) milk, especially chocolate or other flavored milks
- Full-fat or reduced-fat cottage cheese
- Full-fat yogurt
- Full-fat cheese
- Full-fat, sweetened kefir
What Vegetables Are Good for People With Diabetes and Which Aren’t?
Vegetables are an important food group to include in any healthy diet, and a diabetes diet is no exception. Veggies are full of fiber and nutrients, and nonstarchy varieties are low in carbohydrates — a win for people with diabetes who want to gain control over their blood sugar level, Massey says.
As for packaging, frozen veggies without sauce are just as nutritious as fresh, and even low-sodium canned veggies can be a good choice if you’re in a pinch. Just be sure to watch your sodium intake to avoid high blood pressure, and consider draining and rinsing salted canned veggies before eating, per the ADA. If possible, opt for low-sodium or sodium-free canned veggies if going that route.
Follow this general rule: Aim to fill half your plate with nonstarchy veggies. And if you’re craving mashed white potatoes, try mashed cauliflower, Massey suggests. You could also opt for sweet potatoes, which people with diabetes may enjoy safely in moderation.