Complete List of Foods to Eat When You Have Diabetes—and What to Limit
Plan, plan and plan some more. That's my motto for success in the kitchen—and it's especially helpful when you're eating for a chronic condition, such as type 2 diabetes. Creating a road map of delicious balanced foods for both meals and snacks will help you stay on track and support your overall health. When you go to the grocery store with a list—that you've made thinking of budget and meal planning—you can reduce food waste and save money. So what are the best foods to pick up at the store and which ones should you limit? (See our list of the Best Foods for Diabetes.)
Pictured recipe: Charred Shrimp & Pesto Buddha Bowls
Foods to limit
Packaged foods can still be in your diet; you just want to choose them wisely. Read the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list and learn to be an informed consumer who makes intentional food choices that support your health.
Just because a label claim on the front of a package states that a product is "natural," it doesn't mean that the product is inherently better. The back of the package will give you the information you need to make a choice. You'll want to look out for the serving size, since this will provide you with information about the amount of food that qualifies as a single serving.
In addition, note the amount of saturated fat, sodium and added sugars. Ideally, these numbers should be no more than 7 to 10% of the Daily Value. The Daily Value shows the amount of each nutrient in one serving of the food. 5% or less is considered low, where 20% or more is considered high. Be mindful of total carbohydrates in the food and look for sugar listed in the ingredient list.
When you have diabetes, all foods can fit in your diet. But you want to choose some foods less often.
Foods you may want to limit include:
- sugar-sweetened beverages, like soda and sports drinks
- packaged pastries and baked goods
- refined grain products like white bread (choose whole grains instead)
- sweetened fruits (look for unsweetened dried, canned and frozen fruits)
- processed meats, including hot dogs, sausages and bacon
Healthy grocery staples to add to your list
So what should you choose more of? Focus on whole and minimally processed foods. Opt for fiber- and nutrient-rich whole grains in place of refined grains. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, healthy proteins and healthy fats should make up a majority of your diet.
Creating a solid grocery list as well as a pantry list focused on staple meals and any specialty items will make shopping much more manageable. Batch cooking also can save you time and energy in the kitchen (get our best tips to become an expert meal planner when you have diabetes). If you want to eat healthy foods, first you have to stock them in your house.
Vegetables are one food group that most of us aren't getting enough of. They're packed with nutrition, like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Vegetables are typically divided into two categories—nonstarchy and starchy. Starchy vegetables contain more carbohydrates (about 15 grams per 1/2 cup cooked), so you'll want to be mindful of them as you plan your plate. Eat a variety of vegetables for lots of different nutrients. Fresh vegetables are great. Frozen and canned are good choices too, and can be more affordable and last longer—just check the sodium.
- spinach, kale, collards, Swiss chard, mustard greens
- bell peppers
- Brussels sprouts
- winter squash such as butternut squash, acorn squash
- sweet potatoes
- sweet peas
Fruits can be a great choice when you have diabetes. They contain carbohydrates (about 15 g per serving) but also lots of nutrients. Fruit also delivers fiber to help minimize blood sugar spikes. Don't be afraid of frozen fruits, either. They are generally harvested at the peak of the growing season, so they are equally nutritious as fresh produce. Because they're frozen, you don't have to worry about them spoiling as quickly and when they are on sale you can purchase the bags in bulk. Frozen fruits are great in smoothies or thawed in oatmeal or yogurt.
- oranges, clementines
Buying dried beans in bulk makes them one of the cheapest healthy foods you can eat. They do take more time and forethought to prepare but are a fraction of the price of many other protein foods. Using an instant pot (pressure cooker) can greatly reduce your active time in the kitchen. Even canned, they're still affordable. A 1/3-cup serving of cooked beans has about 15 g of carbohydrate and delivers fiber, plant-based proteins and other nutrients.
- black beans
- navy beans
- butter beans
- kidney beans
- lima beans
- pinto beans
- fava beans
You can still eat grains and other typical starches when you have diabetes. Choose whole grains at least 50% of the time. And be mindful of your portions. A 1/3-cup serving of cooked grains has about 15 g of carbohydrate. To bulk out your serving, add lots of nonstarchy veggies.
- rice: black, brown, red
- pastas: bean-based (such as lentil, chickpea, black bean), whole-wheat, alternative grain-based (quinoa, brown rice)
- bread (1 slice): look for 100% whole grain or 100% whole wheat
Look for lean cuts of meat when you can to help cut down on saturated fat. Aim to eat a variety of proteins, including seafood twice per week. For the most part, the animal proteins listed here have 0 g of carbohydrates. You still don't want to overdo it on your protein portions though. A serving is 3 to 4 ounces of cooked meat.
- fish and other seafood, including shrimp, salmon, haddock, cod, scallops, sardines and tuna
- poultry, including chicken breast, chicken thighs and ground chicken and turkey
- red meat, including beef tenderloin, cubed beef, flank steak, lean ground beef, sirloin
- pork, including pork loin, pork chops and ground pork
Dairy contains some carbohydrate. A cup of milk or yogurt has about 12 grams. But dairy also delivers protein, calcium and vitamin D. Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy if you are limiting your saturated fat. Otherwise, the biggest thing to watch out for here is flavored dairy products—e.g., blueberry yogurt—since the added sugars can really up the carb count. Choose plain, unsweetened yogurts and other dairy products instead, and add a little fruit if needed. Cheeses are lower in carbohydrates and higher in protein and fat compared to most milk.
- plain yogurt
- cottage cheese
- cheese, including Cheddar and Swiss
Nuts & seeds
Nuts and seeds deliver healthy fats and plant-based protein to your diet for very few carbohydrates. Choose lower-sodium or no-salt-added options when you can. These make a great snack or oatmeal or salad topper.
- chia seeds
- hemp seeds
Grocery shopping when you have diabetes can feel overwhelming, but it doesn't have to. To make things simpler, choose a day when you'll shop and try to pick a time that won't be crowded. Many stores are now offering grocery delivery, which can be a big timesaver. Learning which foods to include in your diet more often can help streamline your eating, and you can make so many different delicious recipes with the foods listed above. Read labels and look for sales, and don't forget to have fun and be creative with the foods you bring home.