Diabetes Diet: What to Eat and What to Avoid

Medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, RD, LD on April 12, 2016Written by Juliann Schaeffer on April 12, 2016

Managing your diabetes diet is often easier said than done. If you have diabetes, there’s a good chance you’re already watching your carbohydrate content. Your doctor may also want you to keep your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers in check. Taste matters, too, though.

Here are some tips to make your meal planning easier. It’s not always as simple as the lower carb, the better.

Why your diet matters

A healthy diet is important for all people with diabetes. This is especially true for people who have or are at risk for type 2 diabetes. This is the most common type of diabetes, and it can often be prevented. Keeping your weight in check with regular physical activity and a healthy diet are the best ways to do just that.

Foods with carbohydrates turn into glucose in your body and affect your blood sugar levels. Your doctor can help you determine what carb levels are right for you.

Make sure your diet is more friend than foe by adding a some new foods to your diet.

Check out: 10 diabetes diet myths »

5 diabetes-friendly foods

Foods to add:

  1. Avocado
  2. Low-fat cottage cheese
  3. Salmon

1. Avocado

A 1-ounce serving of creamy avocado has just 3 grams of carbs. This food has lots of healthy monosaturdated fats. Unlike saturated fats, monounsaturated fats can decrease your risk for heart disease and stroke.

That’s huge, because having diabetes doubles your risk for heart attack and stroke compared to someone without diabetes, says Jill Weisenberger, R.D.N., C.D.E., author of Diabetes Weight Loss: Week by Week. Eating more monounsaturated fats may even improve insulin sensitivity.

Sliced avocado can be used in a variety of ways. Throw it on top of a salad or in a dip, such as this recipe.

2. Low-fat cottage cheese

At 4 grams of carbohydrates for a 1/2 cup serving, low-fat cottage cheese is one way to get more protein in your diet. Paired with raw broccoli florets or pepper, it’s unlikely to affect your blood sugar levels much.

Not a fan of cottage cheese’s taste or texture? Greek yogurt or low-fat string cheese are great substitutes. They’re perfect for a quick breakfast or a mid-afternoon snack. Just watch for hidden sugars in flavored yogurts.

3. Salmon

With 0 carbs per serving, you can’t get much lower in the carbohydrate department. This is another high-protein pick, too.

Salmon is also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which help your heart in multiple ways. These fats make the blood less sticky and less likely to form dangerous clots, Weisenberger says. That’s part of the reason the American Heart Association recommends everyone eats fish at least twice every week.

You can roast salmon with your favorite herbs and a touch of olive oil, or try this Dijon marinade. Not a fan of salmon? Try barramundi, trout, or sardines.

4. Walnuts

An ounce of walnuts contains just 4 grams of carbs, making it another great low-carb option to add to your diabetes-friendly food regimen. Just be careful with portion size, as the calories can add up quickly. One ounce is around 15 walnut pieces.

Walnuts are also high in omega-3s. These omega-3s are different than those found in fish, though. “It looks like the omega-3 fats from plants and fish may work together to protect health better than either type alone,” Weisenberger says.

Walnuts go great in salad, alone as a snack, or roasted with fish.

5. Non-starchy vegetables

From spinach and mushrooms to kale or cauliflower, options for nonstarchy veggies are nearly limitless. Many contain 5 grams or less of carbs per serving.

There are so many variances in color, taste, and texture that it’s difficult to get bored. Many are also high in fiber because they’re packed with phytochemicals. This helps fill you up and curb cravings.

Fill half your plate with these veggies. Load an omelette with mushrooms, onions, and peppers, or serve them alongside your favorite protein. Cooked or raw, the options are endless.

3 foods to limit or avoid for a diabetes-friendly diet

Foods to avoid:

  1. Sugary drinks
  2. Low-carb fast food fare
  3. Protein bars

1. Sugary drinks

One cup of your choice of soda can contain as much as 50 grams of carbohydrates. That might be more than your doctor wants you to consume in an entire meal. Not just that, but sugary drinks are typically considered empty calories. Sugary drinks also come in the form of flavored coffees and juices, so be sure to look at the nutritional facts before taking that first sip.

Save your carbs for nutrient-dense choices that offer more than just sugar. Opt for water or an unsweetened iced tea. If you’re craving bubbles, try seltzer water.

2. Low-carb fast food fare

Low carb doesn’t always mean it’s good for diabetes or your body. This is true with some low-carb options featured on fast food menus. Before ordering, consider what you’re getting for your money. Options such as bunless cheeseburgers or certain salads can be high in calories, saturated fats, and sodium. Stick to the grocery store’s salad bar instead. Load up on nutrient-dense veggies, and watch how much dressing you drizzle.

3. Protein bars

The carb content on protein bars will vary, but their appeal is easy to see. They’re ready for on-the-go eating and appear to be high protein and low in carbs. Appearances can be deceiving, though.

Many times, these bars are little more than protein powder with a variety of questionable ingredients, Weisenberger says. Take the time to pack a snack or lunch with whole foods, and you’ll be better off in the long run. If you’re worried about portion size, grab a medium piece of fruit.

The takeaway

For a healthy diabetes diet, focus on whole foods and portion sizes, and make your carbs count.

Don’t cut carb-rich foods out of your diet, Weisenberger says. Instead, enjoy them in reasonable quantities, consume healthy carbs over unhealthy carbs, and choose foods that do your body good. 

Keep reading: How to plan a diabetes-friendly grocery list »

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