Foods to Avoid with Diabetes

By: Lori Brookhart-Schervish  |  Diabetic Living Magazine

These top food offenders contain high amounts of fat, sodium, carbs, and calories that may increase your risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, uncontrolled blood sugar, and weight gain.

At Diabetic Living, we believe that eating with diabetes doesn't have to mean deprivation, starvation, or bland and boring foods. However, some foods really are best left on the table or in the store. Everyone -- with diabetes or without -- would be wise to avoid or limit the foods on this list because they are high in saturated fat, sodium, calories, or carbs, or might contain trans fats. High amounts of sodium and saturated fat can lead to heart disease, while excess sugars, high carb counts, and added calories can cause unwanted weight gain and blood sugar spikes.

If you see some of your favorite foods on this list, don't despair: We've picked healthier options for you to choose from that taste great. So you can have your fries and eat them, too -- provided they're baked rather than deep-fat fried.

Don't Miss: Best Foods for Diabetes

*Nutrition information cited was gathered from company websites or food packaging.

1. Nachos


You walk into a restaurant and you're feeling starved. A quick scan of the menu and there they are: nachos, one of your favorites. You order them as an appetizer and also order a meal. Unfortunately, most restaurant nacho orders equate to and often exceed an entire meal's worth of calories, carbs, and fat. For example, a regular order of Chili's Classic Nachos has 830 calories, 59 grams of fat, and 39 grams of carb.

Chili's Classic Nachos (regular order)*
830 calories
59 g total fat
31 g saturated fat
1,630 mg sodium
39 g carbohydrate
N/A cholesterol

Taco Bell Nachos Supreme*
430 calories
23 g total fat
4.5 g saturated fat
690 mg sodium
44 g carbohydrate
30 mg cholesterol

You don't need to give up nachos to eat healthfully. Make a few changes to the basic recipe, such as using reduced-fat cheeses and baked tortilla chips like we do in our Loaded Nachos recipe. Finally, make the nachos your meal, not your appetizer.

2. Coffee Drinks

Coffee Drinks

A simple cup of joe with a little milk or even half-and-half can be a low-calorie beverage perfect for a person with diabetes. But many coffee-shop drinks rival decadent desserts for their high calorie, carb, and fat contents. For example, a 16-ounce Starbuck's White Chocolate Mocha (with whipped cream and 2 percent milk) comes in at 470 calories and 63 grams of carb. Similarly, a medium Dunkaccino contains 350 calories, while the large size has almost 500 calories.

Starbuck's White Chocolate Mocha (with whipped cream) *
470 calories
18 g total fat
12 g saturated fat
0 mg sodium
63 g carbohydrate
50 mg cholesterol

Dunkaccino (medium)*
350 calories
16 g total fat
13 g saturated fat
320 mg sodium
51 g carbohydrate
10 mg cholesterol

3. Biscuits and Sausage Gravy


Sometimes known as the bad boy on the breakfast buffet, traditional biscuits and gravy is indeed high in calories, fat (particularly saturated fat), and sodium. For example, the McDonald's Biscuit and Gravy* entree has 570 calories and 13 grams of saturated fat.

That amount of saturated fat may not sound like too much, but consider that the American Diabetes Association suggests eating less than 7 percent of calories from saturated fat -- and for most people, this is about 15 grams of saturated fat per day. Similarly, Bob Evans' Sausage Gravy* recipe has 1,828 milligrams of sodium, exceeding the ADA's recommended 1,500-milligram maximum per day.

McDonald's Biscuit and Gravy*
570 calories
36 g total fat
13 g saturated fat
1,610 mg sodium
50 g carbohydrate
25 mg cholesterol

Bob Evans Sausage Gravy recipe (includes biscuits)*
709 calories
44 g total fat
N/A saturated fat
1,828 mg sodium
46 g carbohydrate
71 mg cholesterol

4. Battered Fish Dinners

Battered Fish Dinners

Fish: It's always a safe choice when managing your weight and diabetes, right? It all depends on the preparation and the sides. A typical breaded-fish meal, complete with sides such as fries, hush puppies, and coleslaw, is simply best to avoid. The culprits are just about everything. For example, a typical platter with two deep-fried fish fillets, hush puppies, fries, and slaw comes to a total of more than 1,300 calories, 84 grams of fat, 113 grams of carb, and a whopping 3,000 milligrams of sodium. That's double the suggested meal carb level of 45-60 grams for many people with diabetes and the recommended 1,500-milligram daily maximum for sodium.

Another way to look at these dinners is through the lens of the plate method for meal planning: The goal is to fill half your plate with nonstarchy veggies, a quarter of your plate with a starch, and the remaining quarter with a meat or other protein source. Typical fish platters, with an emphasis on hefty protein and starch components, are the opposite of what promotes a healthy you.

Long John Silver's meal (2 pieces battered pollock, 2 hush puppies, fries, coleslaw, and tartar sauce)*
1,323 calories
84 g total fat
19 g saturated fat
3,005 mg sodium
113 g carbohydrate
100 mg cholesterol

Red Robin Arctic Cod Fish and Chips*
1,118 calories
67 g total fat
N/A saturated fat
2,833 mg sodium
84 g carbohydrate
N/A cholesterol

5. Fruit Juice Beverages

Fruit Juice Beverages

Fruit beverages make our list of worst foods for diabetes because they can be high in calories and sugar. For example, Minute Maid Enhanced Pomegranate Blueberry 100% Juice Blend* has 29 grams of sugar, 130 calories, and 31 grams of carbohydrate in an 8-ounce serving. Minute Maid does offer a line of low-calorie juice drinks with 2 grams of sugar or less per 8-ounce serving.

Reading labels is a great way to make the best choices. Also be aware that nutrition information is per serving; many beverages that come in cans or bottles contain more than one serving.

6. Deep-Fried Chinese Entrees

Deep-Fried Chinese Entrees

You want to make smart food selections when you're out and about, so you think: Asian? Check. Chicken? Check.

Not so fast. While some Asian chicken dishes are great choices, you're best taking a pass on items such as deep-fried orange chicken with white rice. This breaded chicken swimming in sauce typically comes in at more than 400 calories and 43 grams of carb per serving, and that's without the steamed white rice, which can often add another 200 calories and 44 grams of carb in a typical 1-cup serving. Also, this type of dish usually comes without vegetables.

When choosing an Asian chicken dish, opt for:

  • Plain, unbreaded chicken.
  • A thin sauce rather than a cornstarch-thickened sauce.
  • A high proportion of veggies.
  • Steamed brown rice in a 1/3- to 1/2-cup serving size.

Here are the nutrition values for typical orange chicken entrees. While the calorie and fat counts on the Lean Cuisine version are reasonable, the meal would have a better nutrition profile with brown rice, a cleaner ingredients line, and less sodium.

Panda Express Orange Chicken (excludes rice)*
420 calories
21 g total fat
4 g saturated fat
620 mg sodium
43 g carbohydrate
95 mg cholesterol

Lean Cuisine Orange Chicken (includes rice)*
310 calories
8 g fat
1 g saturated fat
640 mg sodium
46 g carbohydrate
20 mg cholesterol

7. Cinnamon Rolls

Cinnamon Rolls

One of the most tempting smells in the mall or airport is freshly baked cinnamon rolls. But before you succumb, take a deep breath of fresh air and consider that a typical "mall" cinnamon roll contains more than 800 calories and 120 grams of carb -- well over the 45-60 grams of carb suggested for an entire meal for the majority of people with diabetes. Sometimes even a homemade cinnamon roll can be over the top. For example, Crowd-Pleaser Cinnamon Rolls with Cream Cheese Icing from has 427 calories and 62 grams of carb per roll. With a few ingredient tweaks, you can save carbs and calories and use more healthful ingredients, such as rolled oats and whole grain or whole wheat flour.

Cinnabon Cinnamon Classic*
880 calories
36 g total fat
17 g saturated fat
830 mg sodium
127 g carbohydrate
20 mg cholesterol

Crowd-Pleaser Cinnamon Roll*
427 calories
20 g total fat
N/A saturated fat
188 mg sodium
58 g carbohydrate
62 mg cholesterol

8. Restaurant French Fries

Restaurant French Fries

It's no surprise that this fast-food staple is on our list. French fries are loaded with saturated fat, sodium, and calories. Although most fast-food restaurants now offer trans-fat-free fries, that doesn't make them good for you. Here's a look at the nutritional breakdown for an order of large fries from three fast-food chains.

Burger King*
500 calories
22 g total fat
3.5 g saturated fat
710 mg sodium
72 g carbohydrate
0 mg cholesterol

480 calories
27 g total fat
5 g saturated fat
1,020 mg sodium
73 g carbohydrate
0 mg cholesterol

500 calories
25 g total fat
3.5 g saturated fat
350 mg sodium
63 g carbohydrate
0 mg cholesterol

9. Purchased Cookies

Purchased Cookies

That cookie with all the sprinkles or chocolate chips could be hiding trans fats. Butter, high-fructose corn syrup, shortening, margarine, and partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oils are the biggest saturated fat and trans fat contributors, and they can also pile on calories and carbs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration cites the following foods that can harbor trans fats:

  • Crackers, cookies, cakes, frozen pies, and other baked goods
  • Snack foods (such as microwave popcorn)
  • Frozen pizza
  • Fast food
  • Vegetable shortenings and stick margarines
  • Coffee creamer
  • Refrigerated dough products (such as biscuits and cinnamon rolls)
  • Ready-to-use frostings

Instead of buying cookies, bake them at home with our best cookie recipes. Many recipes contain good-for-you ingredients, such as whole grains and fruit.

10. Fried Chicken

Fried Chicken

Fried chicken is another restaurant staple and all-time favorite comfort food that should be avoided. Frying the chicken adds significant carbs, calories, sodium, and fat -- it turns a good protein choice into a healthy-meal deal-breaker.

Here's a look at the nutritional breakdown for a fried chicken breast versus a grilled chicken breast from a leading chicken restaurant, KFC:

Extra Crispy Fried Chicken
490 calories
29 g total fat
4.5 g saturated fat
1,140 mg sodium
20 g carbohydrate
110 mg cholesterol

Grilled Chicken
220 calories
7 g total fat
2 g saturated fat
730 mg sodium
0 g carbohydrate
135 mg cholesterol

11. Purchased Pie

Purchased Pie

Thinking about ordering a piece of French silk pie for dessert? That one slice can pack up to 650 calories, 46 grams of fat, and 52 grams of carb at a restaurant such as Village Inn.* What about the frozen variety you might be tempted to grab while grocery shopping? It would be wise to check the food label before putting it in your cart.

Sara Lee French Silk Pie (per slice)*
580 calories
42 g total fat
23 g saturated fat
300 mg sodium
44 g carbohydrate
75 mg cholesterol

12. Purchased Smoothies

Purchased Smoothies

If you're looking for healthier options at the drive-through window, a fruit smoothie might seem like a good choice. Filled with fruit and sold at colorful, fresh-looking hot spots, smoothies seem like great snacks or lunch choices. Unfortunately, what you don't see is added sugar and extra-large portion sizes.

For example, the Strawberry Whirl Jamba Juice Smoothie* has 46 grams of sugar, 220 calories, and 54 grams of carb in a 16-ounce serving. Although it's fat-free and gives you 90 percent of your daily value of vitamin C, the cons outweigh the pros for this fruit smoothie.

McDonald's McCafe Strawberry Banana Real Fruit Smoothie* comes in three sizes. The smallest, 12 ounces, has 210 calories, 44 grams of sugar, and 44 grams of carb. If you order the largest size, 22 ounces, it packs a whopping 70 grams of sugar and 74 grams of carb.

13. Processed Lunch Meat

Processed Lunch Meat

Think making a sandwich for lunch is a safe bet? Unfortunately, processed lunch meat is full of sodium. Read the nutrition labels printed on the packages you buy in the store, or ask a deli attendant to tell you the nutrition information for fresh-sliced meat.

Some cold cuts are low in fat, such as Oscar Meyer Deli Fresh Honey Ham;* it's 98 percent fat-free, but it packs a sodium overload with 650 milligrams in one serving.

Cut sodium by slicing meat you've roasted at home or by asking your deli for meats lower in sodium. Enjoy sandwiches for lunch or dinner by following our healthy sandwich recipes, made specifically for people with diabetes.

Tip: Be aware of the sandwich toppings that turn a healthy sandwich into a carb and fat disaster. Find tips on free foods to dress your sandwich, such as spinach, cucumbers, and mustard.

14. Restaurant Hamburgers

Restaurant Hamburgers

Big, cheesy hamburgers can be high in saturated fat, the leading factor in high cholesterol levels. However, there is no need to cut out saturated fat completely -- the American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to 7 percent of your total daily calories.

Most restaurant chains post their foods' nutrition information online or at their business locations. It's a good idea to check out a restaurant's website before eating there so you'll be better prepared to make smart food choices. If a restaurant's nutrition information isn't available, ask the staff about lighter menu options. Here's a look at the nutritional breakdown for a basic hamburger from three fast-food chains:

Burger King*
240 calories
9 g total fat
3.5 g saturated fat
490 mg sodium
28 g carbohydrate
30 mg cholesterol

270 calories
11 g total fat
4 g saturated fat
560 mg sodium
31 g carbohydrate
30 mg cholesterol

250 calories
9 g total fat
3.5 g saturated fat
480 mg sodium
31 g carbohydrate
25 mg cholesterol

15. Purchased Doughnuts and Baked Goods

Purchased Doughnuts and Baked Goods

Commercially made baked goods, such as muffins, pastries, and doughnuts, make our list of foods to avoid because of their high calorie, sugar, and fat contents, plus some contain trans fats. For example, one glazed cake doughnut from Dunkin' Donuts* has 360 calories, 22 grams of fat, 10 grams of saturated fat, 44 grams of carb, and 19 grams of sugar.

Be sure to check food labels and look for fat-free, sugar-free, or reduced-sugar varieties. However, the best way to control what you eat is to make it yourself.

16. Frozen Meals

Frozen Meals

Frozen meals are convenient, but their high sodium and fat contents can make them unhealthy choices for everyone in your family. If you do buy a frozen meal when you're in a fix for dinner, try these tips:

  • Pick frozen meals with fewer than 400 calories, 4 grams of saturated fat, and 600 milligrams of sodium, and with at least a couple of grams of fiber and 14 grams of protein. Match the carbohydrate content to your personal meal plan.
  • Before cooking, add frozen vegetables right on top of your frozen meal to make the portion larger and more nutritious. Think of frozen meals or entrees as starters. Add vegetables, herbs, leftover cooked brown rice -- whatever it takes to round out the meal.
  • If you aren't comfortable cooking fresh fish, try a frozen seafood meal or fish fillets.

One of the biggest culprits is the ultimate comfort food: pot pie. Whether you pick up a frozen variety at the market or order one at a restaurant, the pot pie is a megaviolator:

Marie Callender's Chicken Pot Pie (16 ounces)*
760 calories
42 g total fat
16 g saturated fat
1,480 mg sodium
76 g carbohydrate
30 mg cholesterol

KFC Pot Pie*
790 calories
45 g total fat
37 g saturated fat
1,970 mg sodium
66 g carbohydrate
75 mg cholesterol

Boston Market Chicken Pot Pie*
770 calories
45 g total fat
23 g saturated fat
1,100 mg sodium
60 g carbohydrate
100 mg cholesterol

17. Regular Soft Drinks

Regular Soft Drinks

Sugar-laden soda can derail your healthy meal plan and spike blood sugar levels. Every 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon, so if your drink has 30 grams of sugar, that's equal to consuming 7.5 teaspoons of sugar!

Beverages with high sugar content not only add calories and carbs, but they may cause weight gain. Of course, there are diet versions of many drinks that are made with artificial sweeteners (sugar substitutes) and other healthier alternatives, such as sparkling water with fruit.

18. Purchased Cakes

Purchased Cakes

Dessert is not off-limits for people with diabetes, but some desserts are better choices than others. Would you still eat that tempting piece of cake if you knew it had 2 grams of trans fats and 25 grams of sugar in one small serving? Many commercially baked cakes, such as those sold by Pepperidge Farm,* contain trans fats, which can lead to high cholesterol and risk of cardiovascular disease.

Portion and moderation are the keys to enjoying a sweet treat and taking care of your diabetes. And if you can have your cake and eat it, too, with better-for-you ingredients, you win!

Tip: There is no recommendation for any percentage of trans fat as part of your daily calories. Avoiding all trans fats can help lower cholesterol.

19. Flavored Water

Flavored Water

Flavored water can be convenient, but the sugar hidden inside isn't worth the price. Often high in sugar and carbs, flavored water is surprisingly a top offender.

For example, Glaceau VitaminWater* has 12.8 grams of sugar, 48 calories, and 12.8 grams of carbohydrate in an 8-ounce serving. The catch: This water beverage is sold in a 20-ounce bottle that contains 2.5 servings. If you drink the whole thing, you get close to triple the sugar (32 grams), calories (120 calories), and carbohydrate (32 grams).

Make a better choice by picking from the VitaminWater Zero line of flavored waters, which have 0 calories, 7 grams of carb or less, and 0 grams of sugar.

20. Frozen Pizza

Frozen Pizza

Pizza ranks high among favorite foods in the United States. It's delicious, it's convenient, and you can eat it with your hands -- plus, it's an icon of football games, birthday parties, and movie nights. The downside is that many commercially made pizzas are full of calories that can blow a meal plan in one slice.

Tip: Some frozen pizzas are three or more servings but look like just one or two -- keep that in mind when assessing the nutrition information. Buy a veggie pizza or doctor up a plain one with fresh herbs and your favorite veggies.

Frozen pizza is convenient, but many varieties are high in calories, sodium, carbs, and fat. Here is the nutrition information for one slice of these popular frozen pizzas:

California Pizza Kitchen Signature Pepperoni, Original Restaurant-Style Crust*
340 calories
15 g fat
6 g saturated fat
780 mg sodium
32 g carbohydrate
40 mg cholesterol

DiGiorno Original Rising Crust Pepperoni Pizza*
320 calories
12 g fat
5 g saturated fat
960 mg sodium
38 g carbohydrate
30 mg cholesterol

21. Milk Shakes

Milk Shakes

Rich, thick milk shakes from sit-down restaurants or fast-food joints are loaded with sugar and calories, but they also could be hiding bad-for-your-heart trans fats.

For example, a 16-ounce chocolate milk shake at A&W Restaurant* has 700 calories, 1 gram of trans fat (with 29 grams of total fat), and 100 grams of carb. Topping it with whipped cream adds more calories and sugar to your meal.

McDonald's* also offers these tempting treats, but beware of the reality when you sip down the 16-ounce chocolate shake: 700 calories, 20 grams of fat, 1 gram of trans fat, and 114 grams of carb.

22. Restaurant Pizza

Restaurant Pizza

Take-out pizza is a go-to meal for many families. But pizza from a restaurant or take-out spot is just as bad as the frozen stuff. Here's a tip: Cut sodium, fat, and calories by choosing a thin-crust pizza with veggies or lean meats like ham or chicken, and resist extra cheese.

Here's a breakdown for one slice of hand-tossed 14-inch (large) cheese pizza:

Domino's Pizza*
290 calories
11 g fat
5.5 g saturated fat
640 mg sodium
35 g carbohydrate
25 mg cholesterol

Papa John's*
290 calories
10 g fat
4.5 g saturated fat
720 mg sodium
37 g carbohydrate
25 mg cholesterol

Pizza Hut*
350 calories
17 g fat
6 g saturated fat
730 mg sodium
35 g carbohydrate
30 mg cholesterol

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