Here's what to eat to reduce inflammation and improve insulin resistance.

Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., R.D.
December 12, 2019
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Diabetes is marked by higher-than-normal blood sugars, but did you know an underlying cause for type 2 diabetes is low-grade inflammation? The reason is that chronic inflammation—caused by diet, excess weight, sedentary lifestyles, stress and impaired gut health—causes cells to slowly become insulin resistant. This leads to higher blood glucose levels, as well as fat accumulation in the liver, creating a cycle that builds on itself that leads to greater insulin resistance.

Recipe pictured above: Walnut-Rosemary Crusted Salmon

This means that those with diabetes or prediabetes reap long-term benefits by choosing foods that not only keep blood sugar in check, but also reduce inflammation. To get started, here are a list of the top anti-inflammatory foods to eat for diabetes.

1. Nuts

Recipe pictured above: Savory Date & Pistachio Bites

Those healthy anti-inflammatory fats in nuts aren't just good in terms of heart health. Several studies associate regular nut consumption with lower fasting blood glucose levels, improved insulin resistance and improved A1c levels. The combination of fiber, protein and fat provides energy while not spiking glucose. Aim to keep portions to around 1 ounce per day. Walnuts are some of the best, but almonds, pistachios and other tree nuts offer similar benefits (get our picks for the 6 healthiest nuts to snack on).

2. Broccoli

The American Diabetes Association recommends filling half your plate at meals with nonstarchy veggies, and broccoli is one of your best options to include. The green florets are packed with fiber, as well as antioxidants such as vitamin A and vitamin C. However, it's the sulfur-containing compounds in broccoli, as well as other cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, that have powerful anti-inflammatory effects when eaten regularly.

3. Garlic

Recipe pictured above: Lemon-Garlic Chicken with Green Beans

Adding extra garlic when cooking to help manage blood sugar may sound a little out there. However, a 2018 meta-analysis suggests that it might just help. Researchers analyzed the effects from 33 studies that garlic has on blood sugar in those with diabetes, and found that when consumed in tandem with their medications, many had slightly lower glucose levels. These benefits are believed to come from the sulfur compound allicin, which has anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and antibacterial properties.

4. Chickpeas

Chickpeas are showing up everywhere lately, from snack foods to soups to cookie "dough," but this is a good thing since this bean is a tasty and inexpensive source of fiber and protein. From an anti-inflammatory standpoint, beans and legumes are an ideal source of complex carbs that have a much lower impact on glucose when eaten in place of refined grains and starches. In terms of long-term benefits, research suggests that regularly incorporating high-fiber foods like chickpeas, as well as other beans and legumes, reduces fasting blood sugar levels.

5. Squash

Available year-round, squash are packed with antioxidants that soothe inflammation. Carbohydrates vary depending on type, so opt for one to fit your meal needs. Winter squash like butternut and acorn are higher in carbohydrates, yet have more nutrients and a lower glycemic effect compared to potatoes and refined grains. If you're need fewer carbs, give spaghetti squash a try. It's a great low-carb substitute for spaghetti and pasta, and swapping carb-rich foods like pasta and rice for spaghetti squash or zucchini noodles keeps blood sugar more stable eating inflammation.

6. Greek Yogurt

Gut health seems to be connected to most every health issue, and this holds true for diabetes as well. A 2017 study found that incorporating probiotics (foods or supplements with "good" gut bacteria) on a regular basis was associated with lower HgbA1c levels and fasting blood glucose in those with type 2 diabetes. A healthy microbiome bacteria appears to reduce inflammatory compounds that contribute to insulin resistance and weight gain, and one of the best probiotic-rich foods is yogurt with live bacteria cultures. Choose Greek yogurt for higher levels of protein, and pick plain over flavored varieties to avoid added sugars. Then add fresh fruit or nuts for a little sweetness and crunch.

7. Blueberries

Recipe pictured above: Blueberry-Banana Overnight Oats

The tiny blue fruit was named a "superfood" by the American Diabetes Association and is one healthiest fruit choices you can make. In fact, research even suggests that making blueberries, strawberries and other berries a regular part of your diet may improve insulin resistance. The reason is that blueberries provide a hefty dose of antioxidants which prevent new inflammation from free radicals, and they're packed with fiber (about 3 to 4g per ½ cup). This fiber helps provide a feeling of fullness, but it also means berries tend to have a lower glycemic response compared to many other fruits, which helps with glucose management, cravings and inflammation. (Plus, here are some other fruits you should eat when you have diabetes).

8. Cinnamon

Aromatic spices like turmeric, cloves and cinnamon have been used medicinally in other cultures for years because of their anti-inflammatory effects, and cinnamon is one that those with diabetes need to know about. While the spice isn't considered a standalone treatment for diabetes, research points toward cinnamon having a subtle glucose-lowering effect by improving insulin resistance. Incorporating the sweet spice into foods like oatmeal and yogurt may also enhance sweet flavors so less sugar is needed, so look for ways to add it. Benefits have been seen from servings as small as one-fourth teaspoon.

9. Omega-3-Rich Foods

Recipe pictured above: Grilled Salmon with Tomatoes & Basil

Consuming adequate omega-3 fatty acids is good for everyone, but even more important if you have diabetes. Omega-3 fatty acids have powerful anti-inflammatory effects, particularly for reducing heart disease risk. There's also research to suggest that daily omega-3s may help to prevent diabetic inflammatory conditions like neuropathy in arms, legs and extremities. Omega-3 fatty acids sources are limited, but higher fat, cold water fish like salmon, trout, sardines and mackerel are some of the best, along with flaxseeds. Aim to get two servings of fish per week, and try sprinkling flaxseeds into yogurt, cooked grains and cereal like granola.

10. Spinach

There are only so many salads you can make with leafy greens which is why you might consider purchasing baby spinach instead. The tender leaves are ideal to toss as a salad, but they can also be stirred into hot stews, soups, entrees, and cooked whole-grains. Loading up on non-starchy vegetables, like leafy greens, is also a good way to add more food to your plate without adding many calories or carbs. A two-cup serving also provides almost half of an adult's daily needs for Vitamin C and beta-carotene which are two antioxidants that play key roles in reducing inflammation.

Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, is author to the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert known for ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She received a 2017 James Beard Journalism award. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.