When you have diabetes, it's helpful to have a sense of what foods to eat more of and which ones to cut back on. Here's our guide to general healthy eating—and what that looks like when you have diabetes.

Maya Feller, M.S., R.D., C.D.N.
November 25, 2019

Healthy eating for diabetes looks very similar to healthy eating for a person without diabetes. The basis of your nutrition plan should focus on whole and minimally processed foods—think vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, healthy proteins and fats—with limited added sugars and salt. Patterns of eating that provide an abundance of plants have been linked with a reduced risk of developing diet-related chronic illnesses like high cholesterol and hypertension (learn more about the health benefits of plant-based diets). They've also been linked with improved management of diabetes, as well as slowing the progression of diet-related chronic illnesses. The good news is, you don't need to eat a completely vegan diet—just one rich in plants—to reap the benefits.

Pictured recipe: Grilled Chicken Breasts with Tomato-Caper Sauce

How to eat for steadier blood sugar

There isn't one plan that will work for everyone with diabetes. You'll want to create a nutrition routine designed to keep your blood sugar steady, but what causes your blood sugar to go high and low will vary from person to person and depends on your lifestyle. Your diet and what works for you may also depend on what type of diabetes you have, for example Type 2 diabetes, and what medication you are taking to help manage your blood sugar. There is no one size that fits all, and individualization is key.

Individual glycemic response to food, culture, likes and dislikes, current health status, work and family are important variables that should be considered. It's not just about what you eat. Sustainability is also key—you need to find a plan that you can stick with long-term. Work to create a pattern of eating that is both pleasure-filled and nutritious that can be maintained over time (yes, you can and should still enjoy what you eat when you have diabetes).

Instead of thinking about cutting out all the foods you enjoy eating, try to create the most liberal pattern of eating possible, with well-managed blood sugars in mind. That might look like still enjoying mac and cheese but trying to use whole-wheat pasta and serving a vegetable on the side.

Related: Comfort Food Diabetes-Friendly Dinners

Building a healthy plate

Pictured recipe: Baked Halibut with Brussels Sprouts & Quinoa

The plate method, developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is a great steppingstone and helps you build a plate with a variety of nonstarchy vegetables, starches and proteins. The method uses a 9-inch dinner plate where half of the plate is nonstarchy vegetables of your choice, one-quarter of the plate is lean proteins of your choice (plant or animal), and the remaining one-quarter of the plate is a starch of your choice (grains or starchy vegetables or legumes or a combination of all three). This method allows the majority of your plate to be plant-based, with animal proteins as the accompaniment.

Remember, variety is key when you build your plate. You want to eat the rainbow. Fruits and vegetables have unique nutrient profiles. The more variety you can eat, the more you'll get a wide spectrum of nutrients on your plate.

Be carb literate

Carbohydrates are found in all plant-based foods and dairy products, not just the foods we typically think of, like rice and bread. This doesn't mean you can't eat these foods. You'll just want to be aware of the carbohydrates they contain.

Oftentimes we hear people say, "I've removed carbs from my diet." What they likely mean is, "I've reduced my intake of carbohydrates coming from grains." Understanding the impact of the different types of carbohydrates on your blood sugar is an important component in stabilizing blood sugars (learn more about how many carbs you should eat per day when you have diabetes).

Liquid carbs from sugar-sweetened beverages and juices are easily digested and can cause a rapid increase in blood sugars, whereas a serving of whole fruit paired with a protein shouldn't cause the same spike because the protein and the fiber from the fruit help slow down the absorption of carbs into your blood. (Learn more about complex carbohydrates and why they're the good kind of carbs.)

Healthy eating tips when you have diabetes

Pictured recipe: Paprika Baked Pork Tenderloin with Potatoes & Broccoli

Here are some general tips to keep in mind as you start to change your diet. Remember, you don't need to give up your favorite foods or be on a restrictive diet. Knowledge is powerful, and learning more about food and nutrition can help you create a plan that really fits your lifestyle and works for you.

Know your starchy swaps

Starches can and should be a part of your plate. Did you know that you can fill the starchy section of your plate with ancient grains, whole grains, beans or starchy vegetables? Farro, whole-wheat pasta, quinoa, brown rice, black beans, chickpeas, sweet potato and lentils are all foods worth trying. Options like these will boost your fiber intake, and fiber is important for managing blood sugars and also helps with satiety.

Don't forget about seafood

Aim to have fish twice weekly. Seafood is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have great anti-inflammatory properties that have been linked to better cardiovascular health. Fatty fish, like salmon, are typically higher in omega-3s, but choose a variety of fish and try to buy sustainable seafood when you can (get inspired with our diabetes-friendly fish & seafood recipes).

Salt matters

Having a diagnosis of diabetes means that you should be mindful of your sodium intake. The recommendation for the entire population is to limit your intake of sodium to 2,300 mg daily. If you also have a diagnosis of hypertension or your doctor told you to be mindful of your sodium intake, you may benefit from a further reduction to no more than 1,500 mg of sodium each day.

Choose your fats carefully

The current recommendations from the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association are to get no more than 10% of total energy intake from saturated fats to reduce the risk of developing heart disease, and to have little to no trans fats as part of a healthy balanced diet. Saturated fat is found more in animal-based fats—think butter and bacon. Coconut oil is a plant source that's high in saturated fat. Typically, plant-based fats like olive oil and nuts are lower in saturated fat and high in healthy fats.

Added sugars

Added sugars are in many packaged goods, including in foods you may not suspect, such as tomato sauce and yogurt (learn more about sneaky sources of added sugar). It's not just about cutting down on desserts. Most of us should limit our added sugar intake to less than 10% of our total calories.

It can be tricky to calculate how much added sugar you are getting, but look for sugar in the ingredient list. The more you can make homemade sauces and salad dressings, the more control you'll have over your added sugar intake.

Bottom Line

Change doesn't happen overnight and it's unrealistic to expect perfection in your diet. Besides, perfection is not the goal. Rather, focus on having a nice balance of proteins, fats and carbohydrates coming from a variety of whole and minimally processed foods.

The saying "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" holds true here. Each meal is an opportunity to make a nutrition-related choice that benefits your health. And all those choices together inform your future health outcomes. Having well-balanced blood sugars over time reduces your risk of health problems such as heart disease and or kidney dysfunction. Nutrition and lifestyle changes are not easy in the moment, but in the long run the rewards are life-changing.

The takeaway is to work toward creating a sustainable pattern of eating that is both nutritious and enticing.

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