These top 10 nutrient-dense foods are high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, protein and healthy fats and are the foundation for a diabetes-friendly diet.

Vanessa Rissetto M.S., RD, CDN
April 01, 2021
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With all the items available on the shelves, grocery shopping can sometimes leave us scratching our heads, wondering what's really healthy. And for people with diabetes, it can be even more of a challenge. If you want to keep your blood sugar in check and make grocery shopping a little easier, throw these dietitian-approved foods in your cart.

Egg Salad & Avocado Toasts with Capers
Credit: Jason Donnelly

While there are no foods that are totally off-limits, people with diabetes do benefit from eating certain foods more often than others. Nutrient-dense foods that are high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, protein and healthy fats are the foundation for a diabetes-friendly diet and better blood sugar levels—like these 10 of the best healthy foods to shop for when you have diabetes, according to this dietitian.

1. Dark Leafy Greens

kale white bean salad with green goddess dressing
Credit: Carolyn Hodges

Dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, collard greens and Swiss chard pack a big punch when it comes to nutrient density. They're high in nutrients like magnesium, potassium and vitamin K and low in calories, making them an ideal choice for people with diabetes.

In fact, one study published in the British Medical Journal showed that higher daily consumption of leafy greens was linked to a 14% reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.

This may be because the nutrient profile of dark leafy greens has specific blood-sugar-lowering benefits. For example, people with diabetes are more likely to be deficient in magnesium. Additionally, some studies have found that higher intakes of magnesium are associated with better insulin sensitivity and a decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The potassium and vitamin K in dark leafy greens also have blood-sugar-lowering effects. Specifically, studies show that low potassium intake may be associated with an increased risk of getting type 2 diabetes, and vitamin K may improve insulin sensitivity and glycemic control. Not to mention the fiber that's in dark leafy greens, which helps to keep blood sugars balanced after a meal.

2. Legumes

spaghetti squash with roasted tomatoes beans and almond pesto

Speaking of fiber, beans, lentils, chickpeas and other legumes are among the best sources of dietary fiber. Most beans and legumes contain around 10 to 15 grams of fiber per serving, which is almost half of the recommended daily value for adults under age 50.

Fiber slows down the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates, which stabilizes your blood sugar by preventing glucose spikes. As an added benefit, fiber makes you feel fuller for longer, an important factor in managing your weight. Since obesity is a risk factor for diabetes, eating more high-fiber foods like legumes may also help decrease diabetes risk.

Eating more legumes may also help decrease the risk of other complications related to diabetes. One review study found that legumes help lower your blood sugar, and are also beneficial for decreasing the risk of heart and kidney disease.

3. Salmon

Roasted Salmon with Smoky Chickpeas & Greens

Fatty fish like salmon are high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Inflammation  contributes to the development and progression of type 2 diabetes. Eating foods high in omega-3 fats combats inflammation by neutralizing free radicals and lowering oxidative stress that can lead to chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes.

The American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association recommend eating omega-3 fats in the form of fatty fish to help prevent and treat cardiovascular disease, a common comorbidity for people with diabetes.

Salmon is also a great source of protein and one of the few food sources of vitamin D. Getting enough vitamin D is crucial for people with type 2 diabetes since they are more likely to be deficient in this essential nutrient. We need more research to understand the exact connection between vitamin D and diabetes, but some studies have found that vitamin D deficiency is associated with decreased insulin release, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

4. Nuts

Baked Blueberry & Banana-Nut Oatmeal Cups
Credit: Jamie Vespa

Healthy fats are an important part of every diet, but may be especially beneficial for people with diabetes. Nuts are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, which are well known for their role in lowering unhealthy LDL cholesterol. Since people with diabetes have an increased risk for heart disease, eating more nuts may help minimize the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Nuts are also a great source of magnesium, an essential mineral that is commonly deficient in people with diabetes. Nuts are also low in carbohydrates and contain plant-based protein. They make the perfect low-carb, on-the-go snack to help keep you full between meals and prevent overeating.

Macadamia nuts and almonds are jam-packed with monounsaturated fats, and walnuts are also a great source of omega-3 fats.

5. Avocado

avocado green smoothie

Like nuts, avocados are high in monounsaturated fats. Additionally, avocados are high in fiber, magnesium and potassium—key nutrients for regulating blood sugar.

One half of an avocado has only 6 grams of carbohydrates, but also has 5 grams of fiber—making the net carbohydrates only 1 gram! Avocados are also high in several nutrients that may be helpful for people with diabetes, including magnesium and potassium.

For a tasty, blood-sugar-lowering treat, try adding a half of an avocado to salads, soups and whole-grain toast.

6. Sweet Potato

Stuffed Sweet Potato with Hummus Dressing

Potatoes have a bad reputation when it comes to diabetes because of their seemingly high carbohydrate content, although it's really not that high (about 37 grams of carbs for 1 medium russet potato). It's important to keep in mind that you don't need to avoid carbohydrates to manage your diabetes. The best type of carbohydrates to eat when you have diabetes are complex carbohydrates that are high in fiber and nutrients.

White potatoes are a great option but when you swap them for sweet potatoes, you get an extra boost of antioxidants from beta carotene and vitamin C, plus a little extra fiber. The fiber in sweet potatoes also helps stabilize blood sugar and curbs your appetite. Make sure you eat the skin of the potato because that's where all the fiber is!

7. Berries

Berry-Almond Smoothie Bowl

Many people with diabetes are worried about eating fruit because it's high in sugar. As a registered dietitian who has counseled countless people with diabetes, I can tell you that eating fruit can absolutely be part of a healthy diet for diabetes.

Choosing the right type and amount of fruit is the key to eating fruit without spiking your blood sugar. Berries are my favorite option because they are loaded with polyphenol antioxidants which may help control and reduce diabetes complications.

Choose a variety of berries like strawberries, raspberries and blueberries to add to yogurt, oatmeal and smoothies, or eat berries as a snack with a handful of nuts.

8. Citrus Fruits

Fresh Fruit Salad

Get the Recipe: Fresh Fruit Salad

Citrus fruits are another great fruit option for people with diabetes because they have a low glycemic index (GI). The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly the carbohydrates in the foods we eat raise our blood sugar. Eating low-GI foods like citrus minimizes blood sugar spikes after meals.

Citrus fruits are also high in vitamin C, a potent antioxidant that decreases inflammation that can lead to insulin resistance.

Oranges and grapefruit are a great on-the-go snack. Lemons and limes add flavor to savory dishes including seafood, meats and salads. Add them to sparkling or still water for a refreshing, low-calorie beverage.

9. Yogurt

Strawberry-Chocolate Greek Yogurt Bark

Yogurt can be a nutrient-dense, diabetes-friendly breakfast or snack. Although yogurt naturally contains carbohydrates in the form of lactose, unsweetened Greek yogurt is lower in carbohydrates and higher in protein, making it ideal for people with diabetes. That being said, it's totally OK if you prefer regular yogurt.

Yogurt is also rich in probiotics, calcium and vitamin D. We still have a lot to learn about the direct impact of probiotics on blood sugar but research has shown that eating more yogurt may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. Research also suggests that getting enough calcium and vitamin D may be important for glucose metabolism and managing insulin resistance.

When grocery shopping for yogurt, make sure you choose yogurt without added sugar. You can add in sweetness yourself, with fresh or frozen fruit and just a little bit of honey or maple syrup.

10. Cinnamon

Cinnamon Sugar Roasted Chickpeas in white bowl

Cinnamon is a popular spice used in sweet and savory dishes across the globe. The popularity of cinnamon goes beyond flavor. Cinnamon also has several medicinal properties, including blood-sugar-lowering effects.

There's a large body of research on cinnamon and diabetes, although the results have been mixed. While we still have more to learn about cinnamon and diabetes management, several studies have found that the consumption of cinnamon is associated with a decrease in fasting blood sugar.

Researchers suspect that the high antioxidant content in cinnamon may be protective against insulin resistance. I love adding cinnamon to oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies and even coffee for an extra boost of antioxidants.

The Bottom Line

Choosing foods that are high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, healthy fats and protein is the foundation of a healthy diet for managing diabetes. When grocery shopping for a diabetes-friendly diet, choose a variety of whole foods that fit these criteria, including dark leafy greens, legumes, salmon, nuts, avocado, berries, citrus fruits, yogurt and cinnamon.