If you have type 2 diabetes — the most common form of diabetes — eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is critical to controlling your weight, blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol. By enriching your diet and creating a meal plan tailored to your personal preferences and lifestyle, you'll be able to enjoy the foods you love while minimizing complications and reducing further risk.
Foods to try
Although there isn’t any research that directly supports individual dietary choices in the fight against type 2 diabetes, it doesn’t hurt to maintain a balanced diet. More often than not, the average diet is lacking in these key nutrients:
- vitamins A, C, D, and E
- vitamin B-12 for those on metformin
Adding foods rich in these nutrients is often a great first step in diabetes management. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), the following are considered to be diabetes superfoods:
- Fat-free milk and yogurt are both a good source of vitamin D, which promotes strong bones and teeth.
- Whole grains containing germ and bran are often rich in magnesium, chromium, and folate.
- Regardless of the type, berries are an excellent source of antioxidants and fiber.
- Citrus fruits, such as oranges, lemons, and limes, are high in vitamin C.
- Not only are beans high in fiber, they’re a solid source of potassium and magnesium.
- Omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce your risk of heart disease, so don’t shy away from salmon dishes.
- In addition to providing magnesium and fiber, nuts can help with hunger management. Some nuts and seeds also contain omega-3s.
- Tomatoes contain crucial nutrients such as vitamins C and E.
- Swap regular potatoes for sweet potatoes, which are chock-full of potassium and vitamin A.
- Dark green leafy vegetables like collards and kale are low in calories and carbohydrates.
When selecting diabetes-friendly foods at the grocery store, it’s important to keep your overall diet in mind. Depending on what meal plan you’re using, you may need to reconcile portion size with glycemic index (GI) score or other nutritional metrics.
There isn't a one-size-fits-all diabetes meal plan. It's important to work with your healthcare team to create a meal plan that fits with your schedule and eating habits, while effectively managing your diabetes. Some methods recommended by ADA include controlling portions and counting carbohydrates. The ADA recommends utilizing the GI for "fine-tuning" carbohydrate counting.
This method is fast and easy and doesn't require any special tools or counting. It focuses on portion sizes, with half the plate full of nonstarchy vegetables, one-quarter of the plate filled with whole grains or legumes, and the remaining one-quarter filled with lean protein sources. If desired, you can add whole fruit, healthy fats, and low-fat dairy to round out the meal.
To create your plate, follow these steps:
1. Draw an imaginary line down the middle of your plate.
Then divide your plate into three sections or use a plate or container with the sections already built in.
2. Fill the largest section of the plate with nonstarchy vegetables.
- bok choy
- green beans
3. In one of the smaller sections, put starchy foods.
- whole-grain, high-fiber breads
- cooked cereal (oatmeal, grits, hominy, and cream of wheat)
- whole grains, such as whole-wheat pasta, wild rice, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, and millet
- potatoes, green peas, corn, lima beans, sweet potatoes, and winter squash
- beans or other legumes
- low-fat crackers, snack chips, pretzels, and fat-free popcorn
4. In the remaining (small) section, put your meat or meat substitute.
- skinless chicken and turkey
- fish, like tuna, salmon, cod, and catfish
- other seafood, like shrimp, clams, oysters, crab, and mussels
- lean cuts of beef and pork, such as sirloin and pork loin
- low-fat cheese
5. Add an 8-ounce glass of nonfat or low-fat milk or a 6-ounce container of light yogurt, if desired.
6. Top off your meal with a piece of fruit or 1/2 cup of fruit salad, if desired.
7. Add healthy fats in small quantities, such as nuts, seeds, or avocado.
It’s the carbohydrates found in food that raise blood sugar. For people with diabetes, managing the amount of carbohydrates consumed at each meal can help to manage the rise in blood sugar levels.
To manage carbohydrate portions, you can decide how many grams of carbohydrate you eat for meals and snacks. For example, women may decide to have 45 grams of carbohydrate at a meal, and men might eat around 60 grams of carbohydrate. To decide how much is right for you, be sure to work with your doctor or dietitian.
Because different types of carbohydrates digest at different speeds, the GI can be a helpful fine-tuning tool. The GI measures the rate at which foods containing carbohydrates raise blood glucose. For instance, a food with a high GI raises blood glucose more than a food with a medium or low GI. Eating fat and fiber at the same time tend to lower the GI of a food. A good diabetes meal plan focuses on foods with low or medium GI. Note, however, that mixing foods together can slow down the digestion of the quicker-digesting carbs, so if you have white rice, add red beans and avocado to help slow it down.
Foods to avoid
Foods that are processed, enhanced, flavored, preserved, and packaged are typically less healthy than whole, unprocessed foods. These include:
- foods made with white flour or white sugar, such as white pasta, white rice, and white breads
- refined carbohydrates like baked goods, candy, ice cream, and prepared breakfast cereals (unless they're unprocessed whole grain)
- soft drinks, sweetened iced tea, sports drinks, lemonade, and fruit juice
- salt and high-salt foods and condiments, such as canned soup, lunch meat, soy sauce, gravy, ketchup, and mustard
- processed meats, such as lunch meats
- drinking more than two alcoholic drinks a day for men and one for women
Eating a balanced diet can have numerous health benefits, particularly when it comes to diabetes management. Although research on the matter is limited, it’s clear that making healthy food choices can aid in weight management. This can help you control your blood sugar levels.
If you’re wondering how to improve your diet, talk to your doctor about developing a nutritional plan suited to your individual needs. They can provide you with some general information or recommend a dietician to help you devise an appropriate strategy.