If you have diabetes, you probably know just how important your diet can be when it comes to controlling diabetes symptoms. However, a healthy diabetic diet plan goes way beyond cutting carbs and slashing sugar consumption. In fact, filling your plate with the right foods and switching up your daily routine can also have a huge impact on managing your blood sugar levels.
Wondering what a diabetic should and should not eat? Or curious what a diabetic diet actually looks like? Keep reading for everything you need to know about how to get started on a diabetic eating plan.
What Is a Diabetic Diet?
When you eat carbohydrates, your body produces enzymes that break them down into smaller sugar molecules. These sugars are transported by a hormone called insulin out of the bloodstream and into the cells where they can be used as a source of energy.
Diabetes is a condition that impairs your body’s ability to process nutrients properly, resulting in abnormal levels of glucose — or sugar — in the blood. For people with diabetes, the process of breaking down carbs and shuttling them to the cells doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, which can lead to spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels.
Diabetes is often treated with medications that reduce blood sugar levels and help your body use insulin more effectively. However, switching up your meal plan and following a basic diabetic diet is also absolutely essential for keeping blood sugar levels steady.
The best diet for diabetics should include a mix of nutrient-rich, low-carb ingredients, including non-starchy veggies, protein foods and heart-healthy fats. Other fiber-rich foods that contain a moderate amount of carbs like whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds can also be included in limited amounts as part of a diabetic/prediabetic diet.
Following a diabetic diet not only helps reduce blood sugar levels, but it can also improve overall health and prevent some of the side effects associated with diabetes. Plus, it may also protect against other chronic conditions while boosting heart health and keeping your waistline in check.
Foods to Eat
Following a diabetic diet plan to lose weight and manage your blood sugar levels doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, incorporating a few diabetic diet foods into your routine while cutting out sugary snacks and sodas can help enhance insulin sensitivity and stabilize blood sugar levels.
In fact, a 2022 study found that the quality of someone’s diet plays as big a role as genetics do in determining if someone will develop diabetes.
Findings showed that despite someone’s genetic risk for type 2 diabetes, if that person ate a “low quality diet” he or she had approximately a 30 percent increased risk of developing diabetes compared to if that person ate a “high quality diet.” Overall, low diet quality and increased genetic risk seemed to have about equal impact on determining if someone will develop type 2 diabetes.
One of the best ways to manage blood sugar levels effectively is to fill your diet with nutrient-rich whole foods. So what foods can diabetics eat freely? Here are a few of the top choices on the diabetic food list:
- Foods high in fiber: Research shows that 90 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t consume enough fiber on a daily basis. High-fiber foods help slow down glucose absorption, regulate your blood sugar levels and support detoxification. Aim to eat at least 30 grams of fiber per day, which can come from vegetables (like Brussels sprouts, peas and artichokes), avocados, berries, nuts and seeds, especially chia seeds and flaxseeds.
- Foods high in chromium: Chromium is a nutrient that’s involved in normal carbohydrate and lipid metabolism. Foods high in chromium can improve the glucose tolerance factor in your body and naturally balance out blood glucose levels. It plays a role in insulin pathways, helping bring glucose into our cells so it can be used for bodily energy. Broccoli has the highest amounts of chromium, but you can also find it in raw cheese, green beans, brewer’s yeast and grass-fed beef.
- Magnesium-rich foods: Magnesium can help regulate blood sugar levels because it plays a role in glucose metabolism. Research shows that diabetes is frequently associated with magnesium deficiency. Eating magnesium-rich foods, like spinach, chard, pumpkin seeds, almonds, yogurt and black beans, can improve type 2 diabetes symptoms.
- Healthy fats: Medium-chained fatty acids found in coconut oil can help balance blood sugar levels, and they serve as the preferred fuel source for your body rather than sugar. Using coconut milk, ghee and grass-fed butter can also help balance out your blood sugar levels, so include these foods into your meals and smoothies. Some research actually suggests that a high-fat, low carb diet known as the keto diet may be a novel approach to reverse diabetes naturally, although you don’t technically have to go into ketosis to achieve the benefits of healthy fats in treating diabetes.
- Clean protein: Eating protein foods has a minimal effect on your blood glucose levels, and it can slow down the absorption of sugar. Some of the best sources of clean protein include wild-caught fish, which contains omega-3 fats that reduce inflammation, grass-fed beef, organic chicken, lentils, eggs and bone broth.
- Foods with a low glycemic load: The glycemic index of a food tells you about the blood glucose-raising potential of the food. According to a large-scale Nurses’ Health Study, women eating the highest glycemic load diets were much more likely to develop type 2 diabetes compared to women of the same age with the lowest glycemic load diets. Foods that have a high glycemic index are converted into sugar after being eaten more quickly than low glycemic foods. If you are fighting diabetes, stick to low glycemic foods like non-starchy vegetables, stone fruits and berries, nuts, seeds, avocados, coconut, organic meat, eggs, wild-caught fish, and raw pastured dairy.
- Cinnamon: Cinnamon has the ability to lower blood sugar levels and improve your sensitivity to insulin. A study conducted at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif. found that the consumption of cinnamon is associated with a statistically significant decrease in plasma glucose levels, LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
- Cardamom: The high manganese content in cardamom makes it an excellent choice for diabetics and anyone struggling with blood sugar issues. Research indicates that individuals diagnosed with diabetes have low blood levels of the trace mineral manganese.
- Beverages: water, unsweetened coffee and tea (including rooibos tea, in which a study has demonstrated that the aspalathin in rooibos showed anti-diabetic potential).
There are also several foods that you can enjoy in moderation, provided they fit within your daily carbohydrate allotment. Here are a few examples of foods to consume in limited quantities:
- Nuts: almonds, pistachios, walnuts, macadamia nuts, etc.
- Seeds: chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, etc.
- Fruits: apples, berries, oranges, bananas, pears, etc.
- Dairy products: dairy milk, kefir, cheese and yogurt from goat’s, sheep or A2 cows.
Foods to Avoid
Just as important as loading your plate up with healthy whole foods is limiting foods that can spike your blood sugar levels. Here are some foods on the diabetic and prediabetic food list that you should avoid:
Certain foods negatively affect your blood sugar levels, cause inflammation and trigger immune responses. To reverse diabetes naturally, the first step is to remove these foods from your diet:
- Refined sugar: Refined sugar rapidly spikes blood glucose, and soda, fruit juice and other sugary beverages are the worst culprits. These forms of sugar enter the bloodstream rapidly and can cause extreme elevations in blood glucose. Even though natural sweeteners like raw honey and maple syrup are better options, they can still affect blood sugar levels, so only use these foods on occasion. Considering switching to stevia, a natural sweetener that won’t have as much of an impact.
- Grains: Grains, especially gluten-containing grains like wheat, contain large amounts of carbohydrates that are broken down into sugar within only a few minutes of consumption. Gluten can cause intestinal inflammation, which affects hormones like cortisol and leptin, and can lead to spikes in blood sugar. Try removing all grains from your diet for 90 days as your body adjusts to this healing program. Then you can try bringing sprouted ancient grains back into your diet in small amounts.
- Conventional cow’s milk: Conventional cow’s milk and dairy products should be eliminated, especially for people with type 1 diabetes. Dairy can be a fantastic food for balancing blood sugar if it comes from goat’s, sheep or A2 cows — all pasture-raised. But stay away from all other forms of dairy because the A1 casein produced by conventional cows will harm the body and trigger an immune response similar to gluten.
- Alcohol: Alcohol can dangerously increase blood sugar and lead to liver toxicity. Research published in Annals of Internal Medicine found that there was a 43 percent increased incidence of diabetes associated with heavy consumption of alcohol, which is defined as three or more drinks per day. Beer and sweet liquors are especially high in carbohydrates and should be avoided.
- Hydrogenated oils: Remove hydrogenated, rancid oils from your diet, including vegetable oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil and canola oil. Because these oils are processed, treated at very high temperatures, and combined with bleaching agents and artificial dyes, consuming them has been linked to many health concerns, including diabetes..
Several supplements have been shown to help reduce blood sugar levels, especially when paired with a nutritious diet and healthy lifestyle.
Probiotics have been shown to improve glucose metabolism and reduce fasting blood sugar levels. In a study involving almost 200,000 subjects and a total of 15,156 cases of type 2 diabetes, researchers confirmed that a higher intake of probiotic-rich yogurt reduced the risk of developing diabetes.
In a 2023 analysis of 24 randomized controlled trials with 1,325 type 2 diabetes individuals revealed that subjects who received magnesium supplementation had statistically significant reductions in fasting plasma glucose, glycated hemoglobin, systolic blood pressure and diastolic blood pressure. Effective dosages and durations included 279 milligrams per day for 116 days, 429 milligrams per day for 88 days and 300 milligrams per day for 120 days.
A review published in Diabetes Technology and Therapeutics evaluated 13 studies that reported significant improvement in glycemic control and substantial reductions in hyperglycemia and hyperinsulinemia after patients used chromium picolinate supplementation.
Other positive outcomes from supplementing with chromium picolinate included reduced cholesterol and triglyceride levels and reduced requirements for hypoglycemic medication.
4. Fish Oil
Taking a fish oil supplement can help improve markers of diabetes by reducing triglyceride levels and raising HDL cholesterol levels. Research published in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences shows that omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil are necessary for proper insulin function, preventing insulin intolerance and reducing inflammation.
5. Alpha Lipoic Acid
Alpha lipoic acid is an antioxidant that helps turn glucose into fuel for the body. It effectively improves insulin sensitivity and reduces symptoms of diabetic neuropathy, such as weakness, pain and numbness that’s caused by nerve damage.
Although we make alpha lipoic acid and it can be found in some food sources, like broccoli, spinach and tomatoes, taking an ALA supplement will increase the amount that circulates in your body, which can be extremely beneficial when trying to naturally treat diabetes.
6. Bitter Melon Extract
Bitter melon helps lower blood glucose levels, and it regulates the body’s use of insulin. Studies show that bitter melon extract can help reduce and manage symptoms of diabetes, including insulin resistance, heart complications, kidney damage, blood vessel damage, eye disorders and hormone irregularities.
In a 2015 study, berberine was found to help lower blood glucose. This can help prevent and treat type 2 diabetes and its complications, including diabetic cardiovascular disease and diabetic neuropathy.
It’s also been shown to have positive effects on glucose-lipid metabolism, inflammatory factors and insulin resistance in patients with metabolic syndrome.
One of the most impressive studies compared taking 500 milligrams of the compound two to three times daily for three months to taking the common diabetes drug metformin. Berberine was able to control blood sugar and lipid metabolism as effectively as metformin, with researchers describing it as a “potent oral hypoglycemic agent.”
Meal Plan Tips
1. Plan Out Your Meals
On a diabetic meal plan, planning out your weekly menu is essential to balancing blood sugar levels. Including a good mix of healthy fats, protein and fiber in your meals can slow the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream to promote glycemic control.
There are several different methods for drafting your diabetic diet meal plan. Many people opt for carb counting, which involves measuring the amount of carbohydrates that you consume at each meal. Although carb allotments can vary based on your nutritional needs and the medications you may be taking, most recommend sticking to about 15–30 grams of carbohydrates in each snack and 45–60 grams of carbs per meal.
The plate method is another simple strategy for planning your diabetic diet menu. With this method, half of your plate should be comprised of non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. The remaining half should be made up of equal parts protein foods and whole grains.
2. Practice Meal Timing
A March 2022 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism investigated whether food intake time across three meals is associated with long-term survival for people with diabetes.
The study included 4,642 diabetic patients who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2003–2014. Based on results on meal times and dietary choices, researchers analyzed the relationship between patient survival and food intake times.
The survey answers highlighted some interesting relationships between how not only food choices, but the time those foods are eaten playing a role in health among diabetic patients.
Researchers found that high intake of potato or starchy vegetables in the morning, whole grains in the afternoon, and dark vegetables and milk in the evening was associated with better long-term survival in people with diabetes. They also noted that lower intake of processed meats in the evening had beneficial effects.
3. Eat More Fiber
Fiber is a key component of a diabetic diet. Studies indicate how this key nutrient moves through the body undigested and delays sugar absorption to help regulate healthy blood sugar levels.
Squeezing a few servings of fiber into each meal is an easy and effective way to keep blood sugar levels stable. Try filling up at least half of your plate with fiber-rich veggies and always opt for whole grains instead of refined grains whenever possible. Nuts, seeds and legumes are also high in fiber and can be enjoyed in moderation as part of a well-rounded diabetic diet breakfast, lunch or dinner.
4. Pick High-Quality Protein Sources
Selecting healthy sources of protein is crucial when it comes to managing blood sugar levels. Protein plays a central role in growth and development as well as immune function, tissue repair and muscle-building.
High-quality protein foods like grass-fed meat, free-range poultry and wild-caught seafood are free of carbohydrates, which means they won’t increase blood sugar levels in the body. Plus, protein modifies levels of specific hormones in the body that control hunger, meaning it can help keep you feeling fuller for longer between meals.
4. Incorporate Healthy Fats into Your Diet
Although fat has long been vilified as an unhealthy, artery-clogging nutrient, it’s actually an important part of a heart-healthy diabetic diet. Including a dose of healthy fats like coconut oil, avocados and olive oil in your meals can help stabilize blood sugar levels by delaying the emptying of the stomach.
Studies show that swapping out trans fats and saturated fats for unsaturated fats can improve insulin sensitivity, allowing your body to use this important hormone more efficiently to transport sugar from the bloodstream to the cells.
In addition to modifying what you put on your plate as part of a diabetic diet, you may also want to start switching up your daily routine. Fitting regular physical activity into your day can be very beneficial for maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.
Aerobic exercise and resistance training, in particular, have been shown to improve the body’s ability to use insulin to support blood sugar control. Activities like walking, biking, swimming and lifting weights can all be great additions to a diabetic diet plan.
Risks and Side Effects
If you have diabetes, it’s important to work closely with your doctor and dietitian to find the best diabetic diet for you. You should also consult with them before making any changes to your current diet. In some cases, your doctor may recommend modifying the dosage of your medications to account for these modifications.
Additionally, be sure to discuss with your healthcare provider before starting supplementation, especially if you’re taking medications for diabetes. Certain supplements can interfere with these medications and may cause blood sugar levels to dip too low. Always start with a low dose and work your way up to assess your tolerance and reduce the risk of negative side effects.
- A diabetic diet should include plenty of nutrient-dense whole foods, including non-starchy veggies, high-quality protein and heart-healthy fats.
- There are several methods for keeping carbohydrate consumption in check, including the plate method and carb counting.
- In addition to including plenty of fiber, healthy fats and protein foods in your diet, you should get plenty of physical activity as well. Certain supplements can also help support healthy blood sugar levels.
- The diabetic diet food list includes ingredients like veggies and healthy fats along with plenty of meat, poultry and seafood.
- There are tons of diabetic recipes online that include a mix of these ingredients, which makes it easier than ever to follow a healthy, well-rounded diabetic diet.