10 Best Foods for Diabetes
Pictured Recipe: Spinach-Strawberry Salad with Feta & Walnuts
If you have diabetes, it can be hard to figure out how to eat to feel your best and keep your blood sugar under control. And while it might feel like there are a lot of foods you need to avoid, there are still many diabetic-friendly foods you can enjoy.
One thing that helps when figuring out what to eat is keeping the focus on the foods you can add to your diet and should be eating more of instead of what foods to avoid with diabetes. Think "replace" or "swap" instead of "delete" when it comes to avoiding or reducing certain foods. For example, you could swap your sugar-laden breakfast pastry for eggs and veggies in the morning.
Here are 10 top foods for diabetics that are nutrient-packed powerhouses to help you control your blood sugar and stay healthy.
Pictured Recipe: Turkish Spice Mix
This fragrant spice has been shown to lower cholesterol and keep blood sugar more stable. In a 2019 study in the International Journal of Food Science, researchers found that participants who included 3-6 grams (about 1-2 teaspoons) of cinnamon a day in their diet had lower blood glucose levels. Get your cinnamon fix by sprinkling it into smoothies, yogurt, oatmeal or even your coffee. Another plus for cinnamon? It adds flavor to your food without adding sugar or salt.
Pictured Recipe: Rosemary-Garlic Pecans
Walnuts in particular have been shown to help fight heart disease and can improve blood sugar levels, all thanks to walnuts' high levels of polyunsaturated fats. These healthy fats have been shown to help prevent and slow the progression of conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Almonds, pistachios and pecans also contain these beneficial fats. Nuts are low in carbohydrates and high in protein and fat, which makes them good for stabilizing blood sugar. Just keep an eye on your serving size, as a small amount of nuts goes a long way. A 1/4-cup portion of shelled walnuts clocks in at 164 calories, per the USDA.
Pictured Recipe: Cinnamon Roll Overnight Oats
Whole grains, such as oats, are better for your blood sugar (the fiber helps minimize spiking) and may actually help improve insulin sensitivity. Oats contain fiber in the form of beta-glucans, which are the soluble fibers that cause oats to bulk up in liquid. Soluble fiber regulates blood sugar by slowing down the breakdown and absorption of carbohydrates from other foods you eat.
In a 2019 pilot study published in Experimental and Clinical Endocrinology & Diabetes, researchers found that when participants were given about 3/4 cup of oatmeal a day over just two days, insulin requirements were lower on those two days. It's interesting to note that in this study, cinnamon was also included in the oatmeal, so the combination of the oats and cinnamon may have been a dynamic glucose-lowering duo. Research has also shown oats can help improve blood pressure, cholesterol and fasting insulin levels.
Pictured Recipe: Ricotta & Yogurt Parfait
In addition to providing calcium and vitamin D for healthy bones, dairy foods are an excellent source of protein to keep hunger at bay. Milk, cheese and yogurt have all been shown to help stabilize blood sugar levels, and eating plenty of these dairy products may reduce the risk of developing diabetes.
Research suggests you don't necessarily have to stick to fat-free dairy. A large 2018 analysis published in PLOS Medicine from researchers at Harvard and Tufts found that eating more full-fat (or whole) dairy was associated with a lower risk of developing diabetes. It might be that the higher fat content keeps you feeling full, so you'll be less likely to reach for a sugary, high-carb snack later on. With that said, keep in mind that full-fat dairy is higher in calories than fat-free, so paying attention to portion sizes is a good idea.
Whether you choose fat-free or full-fat dairy, it's most important to watch for added sugars in flavored yogurts and milks, which can add significant calories in the form of simple carbs.
Pictured Recipe: Chickpea "Chicken" Salad
A 2020 review in Nutrients suggests that beans help lower blood glucose and A1C levels in people with diabetes. Beans are inexpensive and incredibly versatile. Mix things up by adding different varieties, such as black, pinto, garbanzo or cannellini beans, to veggie-packed salads and soups.
Pictured Recipe: Lentil & Roasted Vegetable Salad with Green Goddess Dressing
Broccoli—and other cruciferous foods, such as kale, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts—all contain a compound called sulforaphane. This anti-inflammatory compound helps control blood sugar and protects blood vessels from damage associated with diabetes, according to a 2017 study in Science Translational Medicine.
Broccoli is not only low in calories and carbs—1 cup of cooked chopped florets has just 55 calories and 11 grams of carbohydrates, per the USDA—but it also packs a lot of nutrients, including vitamin C and iron. You can feel free to fill half your plate with this good-for-you green veggie.
Pictured Recipe: Red Quinoa Salad with Golden Beets & Pistachios
This protein-rich whole grain is a great substitute for white pasta or white rice. It contains 3 grams of fiber and 4 grams of protein per 1/2 cup serving of cooked quinoa, according to the USDA. The boost of fiber and protein means quinoa gets digested slowly, which keeps you full and stops your blood sugar from spiking.
Some research, like a 2022 study in the journal Nutrients, suggests that eating quinoa may help prevent pre-diabetes from advancing to type 2 diabetes by keeping blood sugar levels lower after a meal with quinoa.
Quinoa is also considered a complete protein, because it contains all nine essential amino acids, needed to build muscle, which is rare for plant-based protein sources. Plus, it's rich in minerals, such as iron and magnesium.
Pictured Recipe: Skillet Lemon Chicken with Spinach
Spinach is one of the best sources of magnesium, which helps your body use insulin to absorb the sugars in your blood and manage blood sugar more efficiently. A 2020 study in Nutrition Journal showed that when women with PCOS supplemented with thylakoid, a substance found in spinach, they experienced significant reductions in weight, waist circumference and insulin levels over 12 weeks compared to the placebo group.
This leafy green is also high in vitamin K and folate, among other key nutrients. Plus, a 2-cup serving of raw spinach delivers only 2 grams of carbohydrates and 14 calories, per the USDA. Munch on raw baby spinach in salads, add it to your morning smoothie or sauté it with garlic and olive oil for a healthy side dish.
9. Olive Oil
Pictured Recipe: Olive Oil-Braised Summer Squash
This Mediterranean-diet staple packs a punch when it comes to managing diabetes, mostly due to its high monounsaturated fatty acid, or MUFA, content. Several studies, like the 2017 review in Nutrition & Diabetes, have shown that a diet high in MUFAs helps keep blood sugar in check by lowering insulin resistance, helping cells better respond to your body's insulin.
There's no need to fear the fat from olive oil. While fat has more calories than carbohydrates, gram for gram, it helps keep you full, minimizes blood sugar spikes and allows your body to absorb key nutrients, such as vitamins A and E.
Pictured Recipe: Garlic Roasted Salmon & Brussels Sprouts
Not only is salmon high in protein, but it's also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can help keep your heart healthy by lowering blood pressure and improving cholesterol levels. Other types of fatty fish that contain omega-3 fatty acids, such as tuna, mackerel and sardines, can also provide these protective effects, which are especially important for people with diabetes, who are also at a greater risk for cardiovascular disease.
It's important to note, however, that research, like the 2020 review in Lipids in Health and Disease, has shown that supplementing with fish oil has not been shown to be helpful for blood glucose levels. Try to get your omega-3s through your food.
No food is completely off-limits when you have diabetes. But there are definitely certain foods that will help you better control your blood sugar levels. Swap some of your blood glucose-spiking foods with some of these foods that help stabilize blood sugars to keep you feeling energetic and performing at your best.