Grocery shopping with diabetes doesn't have to be a headache. With these simple tips for choosing healthy items and steering clear of the not-so-healthy options, you'll be out of the store in no time with a cart full of delicious, good-for-you food.

Mindy Hermann, R.D.
September 28, 2018

Guide to Healthier Grocery Shopping

Healthy eating starts with healthy shopping. We talked to dietitians and certified diabetes educators to get must-know shopping tips for people with diabetes. Keep reading to learn how to navigate the grocery store, read and understand food labels, and pick products -- saving you money and helping you maintain a healthy weight.

Make a List and Check It Twice

"Try to write out your menu for the week, starting first with dinners, because they require the most planning. Breakfast and lunch tend to be easier because they stay about the same from day to day," says Jean Bauch, R.D., CDE, manager of Unity Diabetes Center in Rochester, New York. "Then make your shopping list, including all the foods and ingredients you need for the week, plus staple items that you've run out of." When you plan ahead and bring a list, you're less likely to forget to buy items that you need or end up buying foods on impulse.

Visit Your Store's Web Site

A growing number of markets and supermarket chains have Web sites with useful tools for shoppers. The online weekly circular can alert you to store specials (or look for a hard copy of the circular in your mailbox or newspaper). Some markets allow you to view and print store coupons or load them onto your shopper's club card.

Dietitian Jean Bauch points out that some grocery store Web sites let you create an online shopping list and put it in order based on store layout. A supermarket Web site may also offer guidelines for people with diabetes and lists of healthier food picks based on the market's own rating system. While a high nutrition rating doesn't give a food a free pass into your shopping cart, it can invite you to take a closer look at nutrition information.

Never Shop on an Empty Stomach

Being hungry can weaken your resolve to shop and eat healthfully. When you're hungry, foods you might not ordinarily consider can be very tempting. Stores that bake and prepare foods in the store -- ah, the aroma! -- are particularly challenging, even on a full stomach. Be sure to shop right after a meal or snack.

Check Your Blood Glucose Before Shopping

Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) can increase your hunger levels when you're in the store. It also may impair your ability to think clearly while you're shopping and makes driving to and from the market dangerous.

Learn to Speed-Read Food Labels

"The most important tool for shopping is the nutrition label," says Susan Weiner, R.D., CDE, a diabetes nutrition expert in New York. "Practice label reading at home so that you don't have to spend 10 minutes per food item when you're in the market."

Weiner suggests noting these numbers on labels:

  • serving size, keeping in mind that the serving size for a person with diabetes might be different
  • number of servings per container
  • total carbohydrate grams, which can help determine how the food fits into your meal plan
  • calories per serving
  • sodium, if you have or are at risk for high blood pressure

Also pay attention to the amount of fat per serving, advises Hope Warshaw, R.D., CDE, author of The Real-Life Guide to Diabetes (American Diabetes Association, 2009). "Fat is a concentrated source of calories. Read beyond just the total fat. Foods that contain fat may contain saturated and trans fat that can raise bad cholesterol and increase heart disease risk," she says.

Understand What the Food Label Claims Really Mean

Shop carefully when considering "free" foods. For example, according to the American Dietetic Association, a calorie-free food has no more than 20 calories and 5 grams of carbohydrate per serving, but both can add up if you eat a larger portion or several portions. Fat-free foods like crackers and salad dressings often are higher in carbohydrate than the regular versions. "Sugar-free and no added sugar do not mean carbohydrate-free, so check the total amount of carbs before you buy," says dietitian Susan Weiner.

Likewise, the term "reduced" is tricky, says dietitian Hope Warshaw. A reduced-fat food has less fat than the regular version, but it still might contain a lot of fat. As with fat-free foods, reduced-fat foods often contain added carbohydrate or sodium to enhance flavor and texture.

Walk Perimeter Aisles First

Fresh, healthy foods are generally found around the perimeter of the grocery store. Most markets line the walls with the dairy, meat, seafood, and produce departments. While each department offers healthy options, smart shopping still is in order.

In the dairy section, consider these items:

  • reduced-fat butter and margarine to keep down saturated fat intake
  • reduced-fat cheese and milk
  • low-fat or fat-free plain or Greek yogurt as substitutes for sour cream
  • flavorful grated cheeses -- a little bit goes a long way

In the meat department:

  • Choose lean cuts, and figure that each pound will serve about four people.
  • Purchase poultry with the skin on and remove the skin and extra fat before cooking or eating, if skinless poultry is significantly more expensive.
  • Ask the store manager or courtesy desk whether nutrition information is available for prepared, deli, and baked items.

Seafood and produce are two other sections around the store perimeter where you want to spend a lot of your time. Read on to get great tips on shopping in those sections.

Linger in the Seafood Section

Spend a few extra minutes in the seafood department. Many fish are low in fat and saturated fat. Higher-fat fish like salmon and mackerel are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are linked to heart health. Dietitian Susan Weiner suggests comparing circulars to shop for the best prices, but buy fish only if it looks fresh.

When purchasing frozen seafood, avoid breading and butter sauces. Canned salmon, tuna, and mackerel can be lower-cost nutrition bargains, so stock up when they're on sale. To lower the sodium content of canned seafood, rinse and drain it before using.

Note: Women of childbearing years and children should limit intake of albacore tuna to 6 ounces per week because it's higher in mercury.

Spend Extra Time Shopping for Produce

The produce department is filled with low-carbohydrate vegetables such as celery, zucchini, peppers, broccoli, and lettuce. Starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn, peas, and winter squash are higher in carbohydrate, but they're excellent nutrition values that shouldn't be excluded. You can eat larger portions of melons, grapefruit, and berries because they contain a bit less carbohydrate than some other fruits.

Dietitian Jean Bauch suggests buying precut vegetables and fruit. "Too many people never get around to washing, peeling, and cutting, so items spoil before they get eaten," Bauch says.

To supplement your fresh purchases, check out low-sodium canned vegetables, along with frozen veggies that are cut and ready to cook. But avoid frozen vegetables with sauces that sneak in fat and sodium. Remember to stock up on canned, jarred, and frozen fruits with no added sugar.

Shop Strategically in the Middle Aisles

"Today's stores are well-integrated, so most aisles have plenty of healthier options," says dietitian Jean Bauch. Cereals made with whole grains (the nutrition label should list a whole grain as the first ingredient) are smart choices, as long as you pay attention to total carbohydrate content. Brown rice and whole grain pastas are easy to find. Canned and dried beans are a nutrition and grocery bargain. Although beans contain fiber, protein, and other healthful nutrients, their carbs need to fit into your meal plan. Bauch says to also check out the natural foods section of your market for a wide selection of whole grain crackers, cereals, chips, and baking supplies.

Treat Yourself

If you can't resist a favorite food, treat yourself to a small portion or buy a single 100-calorie pack, usually available near the checkout lines. Remember to factor the food's carbohydrate into your diabetic meal plan. Also consider the wide variety of foods sweetened with no-calorie sweeteners, such as soft drinks, cocoa mix, yogurts, and flavored syrups for coffee.

"Many of these sugar-free foods can satisfy your sweet tooth, reduce your waistline, and help you control your blood glucose," says dietitian Hope Warshaw. "Find a few sugar-free foods that truly offer you a calorie savings and help you stay on track with your nutrition and diabetes goals."

Eat What You Love!

Food -- sugar, carbohydrate, fiber, protein--is not your enemy. With the help of a wide variety of tasty, low-carb recipes and quick tips to help you eat more healthfully, you can take control of your diabetes with every bite.

Reviewed by Hope Warshaw, R.D., CDE, BC-ADM, 2009