What to Eat with Diabetes: Free-Food Basics

Free foods have less than 20 calories and 5 grams of carbohydrate per serving. For people with diabetes, free foods make good choices for snacking or as flavor enhancers. Find out what foods count as free and get ideas about how free foods can be enjoyed in your diabetes diet.


Featured Recipe: Tomato, Cucumber & White-Bean Salad with Basil Vinaigrette

Free Food: Cucumbers & Pickles

Cucumbers are a source of potassium, magnesium, and fiber -- nutrients most Americans don't eat enough of. Pickles qualify as a free food, but if high blood pressure is a concern, choose this free food less frequently than others. One serving of dill pickles can contain up to 60 percent of your daily value of sodium. According to the American Heart Association, the current sodium recommendation is less than 1,500 milligrams per day.

Free-Food Portions:

1/2 cup sliced cucumber

1-1/2 medium-size dill pickles

3/4 ounce gherkin pickles

How to Use This Free Food:

  • Liven up ice water with cucumber slices and fresh mint.
  • Use cucumber slices as chips to scoop vegetable dip or hummus.
  • Make cucumber sandwiches filled with a spoonful of tuna, chicken, or egg salad.
  • Make a cucumber relish to serve with fish, chicken, or tacos.
  • Puree cucumbers with ingredients such as herbs, spices, broth, avocado, or yogurt; serve as a soup, hot or chilled.

Free Food: Low-Sodium Broth

Call it a broth, call it a stock, call this clear and tasty liquid whatever you want -- but don't let it lay idle in kitchen cupboards. Homemade broths are free food rich in nutrients such as calcium and magnesium. For cooks who don't have time to chop, simmer, chill, and skim (the steps for making homemade broth), choose packaged fat-free broth or bouillon. Broths come in flavors such as beef, chicken, vegetable, and mushroom.

Buyers beware: The sodium content of some packaged broths and bouillons can be 400-850 milligrams per serving-- as much as half of your daily sodium limit (1,500 milligrams). Select low-sodium broth or bouillon, or try sodium-free bouillon.

Free-Food Portions:

Use fat-free broth or bouillon in moderate amounts as often as you like

How to Use This Free Food:

  • Poach chicken or turkey breasts in broth or bouillon; shred the meat and add to salads or sandwiches.
  • Cook quinoa, couscous, or rice in broth or bouillon to enhance the grains' flavor.
  • Make a broth-base soup filled with diced vegetables, herbs, and spices.
  • Saute vegetables using broth instead of oil to prevent sticking.

Free Food: Vinegar

Vinegar is a virtually calorie-free and low-sodium ingredient. The acetic acid in vinegar provides its lip-puckering quality, and it might serve useful for blood glucose control. In a 2005 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, adults were given one meal of bread without vinegar and three separate meals of bread with 1 to 2 tablespoons of vinegar. Results showed that when the adults ate bread with any amount of vinegar, they had lower blood sugar responses after their meal versus when they ate bread by itself. Plus, researchers reported a relationship between vinegar intake and satiety. When participants increased the amount vinegar they ate, they seemed to experience greater satiety, too.

The blood sugar- and appetite-lowering effects seen in this study are still widely debated given the scarcity of evidence. But that doesn't mean you should dismiss this kitchen staple because the wide variety of vinegars available add flavor without calories, fat, or sodium. Consider the following versatile ways vinegars add flavor without extra fat, salt, or sugar.

Free-Food Portions:

Use vinegar in moderate amounts as often as you like.

How to Use This Free Food:

  • Splash balsamic vinegar over mixed greens, sliced tomatoes, or strawberries.
  • Splash red wine vinegar onto grilled vegetables just before serving.
  • Dip baked fries in malt vinegar.
  • Try whole grain rolls with flavored vinegars such as garlic, basil, or chile.
  • Combine vinegar with spices or herbs to create a flavorful meat marinade -- perfect for tenderizing tougher cuts of meat.

Free Food: Fresh Herbs

The high antioxidant concentration in fresh herbs has been shown to exceed that of several fruits, vegetables, and grains. Just 1/2 teaspoon of oregano provides the same amount of antioxidants as half of a sweet potato, and 1 tablespoon of basil has the same amount of antioxidants as 2 cups of red grapes! Eating herbs won't damage your waistline either. An entire cup of cilantro leaves or dill sprigs contains only 4 calories. Toss herbs into your next meal for added health value, flavor, and color. Consider using them as flavor accents in recipes, or let them take center stage as main ingredients. For recipes that call for dried herbs, use 2 to 3 times the amount of fresh herbs because dried herb flavors are more concentrated. Also, fresh herbs should be added during the last minutes of cooking to preserve their flavors.

Free-Food Portions:

Use herbs in moderate amounts as often as you like.

How to Use This Free Food:

  • Make a Caprese sandwich or salad using fresh basil, mozzarella cheese, and tomato slices.
  • Mix chopped cilantro into tropical fruit salads, salsas, and Mexican-inspired soups or casseroles.
  • Make meat or vegetable kabobs using sturdy rosemary sprigs as the skewers.
  • Try tabbouleh, a Middle Eastern salad that uses lots of fresh mint and parsley, along with bulgur wheat and vegetables.

Free Food: Spices

Getting burned out with the usual broccoli with salt, baked potato with butter, or oatmeal with brown sugar? Here's an idea: Swap the salt shaker, butter tray, and sugar bowl in favor of aromatic spices found right in your pantry. Spices are a health-conscious cook's secret weapon for preparing nutritious, flavorful foods. Spices offer an array of flavors ranging from smoky to sweet, earthy to peppery, and mild to pungent.

Spices are also rich sources of antioxidants with therapeutic properties. Ginger, a notable stomachache soother, has been shown to relieve arthritic pain as effectively as certain anti-inflammatory medications. The Indian spice turmeric, which is used in curry powder, has been studied for its ability to preserve mental function.

Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of cinnamon on your cereal and reap as many antioxidants as 1/2 cup of blueberries. Plus, cinnamon may aid blood sugar control. In a 2003 study published in Diabetes Care, people with type 2 diabetes added about 1 teaspoon of cinnamon to their diet. After 40 days, participants' blood sugar dropped by as much as 29 percent, and cholesterol and triglyceride levels also improved.

Free-Food Portions:

Use spices in moderate amounts as often as you like.

How to Use This Free Food:

  • Sprinkle warming spices such as ground cinnamon, nutmeg, or cloves over baked fruit or cooked oatmeal.
  • Stir some curry powder (a mix of turmeric, cumin, coriander, and cayenne) into egg or chicken salad, roasted root vegetables, lentils, or rice.
  • Sprinkle ground ginger on roasted carrots or sweet potatoes; grate fresh ginger into stir-fries and vinaigrettes.
  • Add a pinch of cayenne pepper to soups, pasta, burgers, or any other dish worthy of more heat!

Free Food: Cabbage

Cabbage is a nonstarchy vegetable that's an excellent source of vitamins K and C. Whether you're partial to green, red, napa, or savoy varieties of cabbage, take heart in knowing that all are rich in antioxidants. Red cabbage also contains anthocyanins, which lend its vibrant red hue and more anti-inflammatory potential.

The last time cabbage crossed your lips may have been in a creamy coleslaw or its pickled form, sauerkraut, atop a hot dog. These are classic ways to eat cabbage, but this crunchy vegetable can be fixed a few other ways.

Free-Food Portions:

1/2 cup shredded raw cabbage

6 fresh cabbage leaves

How to Use This Free Food:

  • Add shredded cabbage to broth-base soups or stews to make them more filling.
  • Use sturdy cabbage leaves instead of tortillas or bread to wrap up taco or sandwich fillings.
  • Slowly braise cabbage leaves in broth or vinegar; the long, low heat brings out their sweetness.
  • Make a healthier, vinegar-base coleslaw as an alternative to fat-laden creamy coleslaws.

Free Food: Leafy Greens

Stack your plate with more leafy greens! Americans already love lettuce, eating on average 30 pounds per year -- only potatoes surpass its popularity. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating three or more servings of green vegetables per week, and 2 cups of leafy greens count as one serving.

Darker color leafy greens tend to be more nutrient-rich than lighter varieties. Two cups of fresh romaine or spinach sets you back just 20 calories and provides you with 100 percent of your daily needs for vitamins A and K, plus a hefty dose of vitamin C and folate.

Generally, lettuces are classified into four categories: head lettuce, romaine, loose leaf, and butterhead. But there are at least a dozen more nonstarchy varieties that don't fit neatly in these categories, such as frisee, arugula, endive, radicchio, cress, and baby beet greens. These are all often found in the boxed or bagged field greens mixes. Each leafy green has its own distinct flavor and texture, spanning from buttery and soft (Bibb or Boston lettuce), peppery and light (arugula), to very bitter and crunchy (curly endive). Choose whatever leafy green suits your taste buds. Whether you eat them rolled in a wrap, layered in lasagna, or in piled high on your plate, be at peace knowing these leaves are a free food!

Free-Food Portions:

Eat leafy salad greens in moderate amounts as often as you like.

How to Use This Free Food:

  • Take advantage of endive's boat shape by using it to scoop up salsas and dips.
  • Saute spinach with garlic and spices until just wilted, and splash with vinegar before serving.
  • SUse the large leaves of Bibb, Boston, or green leaf lettuce to wrap up sandwich fillings.

Free Food: Cranberries

Whole cranberries, either fresh or frozen, offer loads of nutrients for minimal calories. Cranberries are among the top five foods with the highest antioxidant content, according to a 2006 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) study, which measured the antioxidants in 1,100 foods and beverages.

If your cholesterol levels are less than perfect, eating cranberries could help out. A 2008 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition reported that a daily intake of low-calorie cranberry juice up to 500 milliliters per day lowered the LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in 30 men over a 12-week period.

Cranberries also could minimize your visits the dentist. A compound in cranberries can keep bacteria from sticking to teeth, which may reduce risk for cavities and gum disease. Purchase fresh cranberries during the months of September to December, and opt for frozen the rest of the year.

Free-Food Portions:

1/2 cup fresh or frozen whole cranberries

How to Use This Free Food:

  • Blend cranberries with yogurt for a tangy smoothie that's sure to wake you up.
  • Toss cranberries with leafy salad greens, chicken or turkey, feta cheese, and walnuts.
  • Drop whole berries into pancake or quick-bread batters just before cooking.
  • Make cranberry chutney to serve with grilled pork, chicken, or turkey.
  • Blend cranberries, mustard, and a no-calorie sweetener for a flavorful sandwich spread.

Free Food: Fiery Favorites (wasabi, horseradish, hot sauce)

You know that fiery feeling that fills your mouth and then sweeps inside your nose for a sinus-clearing sensation? Some describe it as pleasure, others as pain. For anyone who enjoys a little kick in their cuisine, wasabi, horseradish, and hot sauce are surefire sources for this fiery effect. They are also free for the adding -- and rather tasty!

While wasabi is native to Japan and horseradish to Germany, both are members of the Brassica family, which also includes mustard, cabbage, and broccoli. These close relatives can bring immense amounts of heat to foods in small doses.

Hot sauce is another condiment to keep on hand. The heat of a sauce depends on the peppers used. Mild- to medium-flavor hot sauces commonly use milder peppers such as chipotle (smoked jalapeno), anahiem, or serrano. Hot to very hot sauces gets their kick from peppers such as Thai, scotch bonnet, or habanero (one of the hottest chilies). The antioxidant capsaicin gives chile peppers their heat; it has also been investigated for its role in weight loss. Capsaicin has been shown to suppress appetite, stimulate fat breakdown, and boost metabolism.

Free-Food Portions:

Wasabi, horseradish, and hot sauce can be eaten in moderate amounts as often as you like.

How to Use This Free Food:

  • Combine plain yogurt with horseradish or wasabi; use it on sandwiches or grilled meat, or stir it into mashed potatoes.
  • Add a few drops of hot sauce to soups, pasta sauce, rice, beans, or scrambled eggs, or stir some into meat loaf or burgers.
  • Mix hot sauce with other condiments such as ketchup, cocktail sauce, or mayonnaise.

Free Food: Parmesan Cheese

Sweet, sour, salty, and bitter have long been considered the four flavors we taste. But it turns out there aren't just four flavors, but five. Researchers in Japan discovered that our tongues can detect a flavor called umami -- a savory flavor found in select foods that contain the amino acid glutamate.

Parmesan cheese ranks as a top source of glutamate, along with meat, mushrooms, soybeans, and green tea. In fact, Parmesan's yummy quality is 20 times that of aged cheddar. Besides being tasty, Parmesan is a good source of bone-building calcium. Three tablespoons of grated Parmesan provides the same amount of calcium as 1/2 cup of milk, or 15 percent of your recommended daily value. Remember not to use all three of your free-food servings for one meal or snack, but spread them out through the day.

Free-Food Portions:

1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese

How to Use This Free Food:

  • Sprinkle freshly grated Parmesan onto roasted vegetables such as asparagus, zucchini, eggplant, or potatoes.
  • Melt some Parmesan over garlic toast, baked pita bread, or tortillas.
  • Try freshly grated Parmesan over sliced pears or green apples.

Free Food: Salsa

Traditional Mexican salsa is made from tomatoes, onions, and chiles -- this trio still serves as the base for most jarred supermarket salsas. Tomatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C, potassium, and a carotenoid called lycopene. Cooked tomatoes, like those in salsa, pack more lycopene than any other food. Diets rich in lycopene have been linked with reduced risk for prostate, lung, and stomach cancers.

Slice open an onion and it's likely to bring tears to your eyes; this is due to the pungent sulfur compounds in members of the allium family, which also includes leeks, garlic, and shallots. Onion's odorous compounds have been shown to inhibit blood clotting and reduce cholesterol and triglycerides.

Given the cancer-fighting properties of tomatoes and onions and their minimal calories, keeping a jar of salsa on hand seems smart. Whether you like salsa hot or mild, rojo (red) or verde (green), thin or chunky, add salsa to your meal for a punch of color and loads of flavor. Note: Salsas that contain black beans, corn, fruit, and other starchy ingredients are not considered free foods -- make sure to count these toward your meal plan.

Free-Food Portions:

1/4 cup salsa

How to Use This Free Food:

  • Spoon salsa over scrambled eggs, beans, baked potatoes, or brown rice.
  • Stir salsa into lean meat loaf or burgers to make them juicier and more flavorful.
  • Add salsa to Mexican-inspired salads or tacos.
  • Serve salsa atop grilled chicken or shrimp.

Free Food: Creamy Condiments (mayo, cream cheese, sour cream)

In 1905, Hellmann's created the first mayonnaise. The recipe was simple: soybean oil, egg yolks, vinegar, and a few other flavorings. Since then, not a lot has changed in the world of mayo-making, except for one thing -- the oil used. Today, mayo made with canola oil or olive oil is a more healthful alternative to soybean oil-base varieties.

Canola oil is a good source of alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fat that's anti-inflammatory and beneficial to heart health. Olive oil contains mostly monounsaturated fat, which can lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, plus raise HDL (good) cholesterol. Either of these oils is more healthful than soybean oil. Choose light or reduced-fat mayo made with canola or olive oil for the most health value. Light canola mayo is mild in flavor, like soybean oil-base mayo, and it works just as well in recipes. Light mayo made with olive oil tastes a bit tangier than canola mayo and makes a good sandwich spread.

Sour cream and cream cheese can also be included in your meals in moderate amounts. Choose fat-free or reduced-fat versions of sour cream and cream cheese over full-fat varieties; you can have a larger portion that counts as free, but with less saturated fat and cholesterol.

Free-Food Portions:

1 teaspoon reduced-fat mayonnaise made with canola oil or olive oil

1 tablespoon fat-free cream cheese

1 tablespoon fat-free or reduced-fat sour cream

How to Use This Free Food:

  • Flavor mayo by stirring in spices and herbs, such as garlic, basil, or curry powder, for a tastier spread.
  • Add a dollop of sour cream to spicy tomato soup, beans, or Mexican-inspired dishes.
  • Try cream cheese spread on whole grain crackers; top it with salsa, pepper jelly, or sliced turkey.
  • Finish scrambled eggs with cream cheese and chives.

Free Food: Lemon Juice and Lime Juice

Like many citrus fruits, lemons and limes are an excellent source of the antioxidant vitamin C. One-quarter cup of lemon juice provides almost half of your recommended daily value of vitamin C. Vitamin C is best known for its ability to bolster the immune system by boosting the production of white blood cells, defenders against bacteria and viruses.

Lemons are typically used to complement Mediterranean fare. Limes are popular for balancing out the spicy flavors found in Latin American, Asian, and Indian cuisines. Use fresh lemon or lime juice rather than bottled to pack the most nutritional punch and flavor. To add zest to recipes, use the citrus peels for extra tartness and color.

Free-Food Portions:

Use the juice or zest of limes and lemons in moderate amounts as often as you like.

How to Use This Free Food:

  • Bake fish inside parchment pockets stuffed with citrus slices, spices, and herbs.
  • Make a fajita or vegetable marinade using lime juice, cilantro, cumin, garlic, or any other spices.
  • Squeeze lemon juice over steamed broccoli, roasted asparagus, or grilled artichokes.
  • Make a light citrus vinaigrette to drizzle over a tropical fruit salad or a bowl of leafy greens.
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