You may try different meal plans to help you lose weight and manage your diabetes. These diabetes-friendly diets are not guaranteed to work for you, but a dietitian can help you determine which eating options may be best for you.

Eating well and maintaining a moderate weight can be important for your health.

But if you have diabetes, excess weight may make it harder to manage your blood sugar levels and may increase your risk of some complications. If your doctor recommends it, even a modest amount of weight loss — around 5% — can improve blood sugar management and other diabetes outcomes.

This article focuses on specific eating options and meal plans that can help you lose weight and may help you better manage your diabetes.

Eating healthfully is important for anyone who is trying to lose weight. But if you have diabetes, choosing a type of eating plan that isn’t right for you can be harmful to your health.

Weight loss pills and starvation-style eating aren’t recommended, but many popular meal plans can be beneficial.

There is no one ideal eating pattern for diabetes. Instead, many eating plans may work well for people with diabetes who are trying to lose weight. Popular meal plans such as the Mediterranean diet, low carb diets, and vegetarian diets can all be good choices.

When considering an eating pattern for diabetes, keep in mind that an ideal meal plan for diabetes:

  • is rich in nutrients
  • is high in fiber
  • is low in calories
  • emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats

When you have diabetes, managing your blood sugar is very important. Eating habits that include regular meals and snacks throughout the day may be better suited to losing weight with diabetes than what you may typically think of with short-term “diets” and those that involve long periods without food.

Diabetes and your food choices: What’s the connection?

You can read more here about how diabetes and your food choices are connected, as well as specific types of food that you may want to discuss with your diabetes care team.

Language matters too: We use “diet” throughout this article. While that phrase may indicate a short-term style of eating that doesn’t last, it’s used often and generally accepted by healthcare professionals, researchers, and others in the diabetes space.

You may want to discuss with your healthcare team how different meal plans and long-term changes in eating style can help you better manage your diabetes and possibly help with your personal weight goals.

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While calories remain important, if you have diabetes, you’ll also need to keep track of your carbohydrate intake. Your healthcare team or a dietitian can provide you with a target carb number for meals and snacks.

According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), there is no set carb target for all people with diabetes. Rather, all eating plans should be individualized.

However, the ADA’s Standards of Care note that many people with diabetes get about 45% of their daily calories from carbs, including complex carbs, fruits, and vegetables.

You might also consider a low carb diet, which research suggests can be beneficial for people with diabetes and may help reduce the amount of insulin you need to take each day. This type of eating pattern may not work for everyone, as it can be challenging to stick with and can present risks for people who have kidney disease or are at risk for eating disorders.

Many eating styles focus on limiting carb consumption, but not all of them may work for you. Consulting your diabetes care team and nutritional experts is always a good first step in figuring out what meal plans and food choices may be best for you.

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Illustration by Brittany England

While this sample meal plan for a week is just one example, there are several specific eating styles that may be helpful to consider.

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Illustration by Brittany England

The Diabetes Plate Method is an easy way to think about and plan balanced, diabetes-friendly meals without having to measure, calculate, or count carbohydrates.

The Diabetes Plate Method divides a standard 9-inch plate into three sections. You fill half your plate with nonstarchy vegetables, one-quarter of your plate with protein foods, and the remaining quarter with carbohydrate foods such as whole grains and fruits.

The half of your plate containing nonstarchy vegetables can include foods such as:

  • broccoli
  • spinach
  • kale
  • green beans
  • mixed salad greens
  • carrots
  • squash
  • cauliflower
  • zucchini
  • cabbage
  • okra
  • tomatoes
  • asparagus
  • Brussels sprouts
  • mushrooms
  • cucumbers

The quarter containing protein foods may include:

  • lean poultry or meat
  • fish or seafood
  • eggs
  • cheese
  • plant-based protein foods such as black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, lentils, nuts and nut butter, tofu, edamame (soybeans), and hummus

The quarter of your plate filled with carbohydrate foods could include:

  • whole grains
  • whole grain foods such as whole grain bread and pasta
  • starchy vegetables such as potatoes
  • fruit
  • yogurt
  • milk

Higher carbohydrate foods have the most significant impact on your blood sugar. Limiting your portions of these foods to one-quarter of your plate can help you manage your blood sugar.

There is no specific place on your plate for healthy fats such as monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, but you can incorporate them for flavor, fullness, and — importantly — heart health.

You can wash down your meal with water or another calorie-free drink, such as unsweetened tea, sparkling or infused water, or a diet beverage.

The DASH eating plan was originally developed to help treat or prevent high blood pressure (hypertension). But it may also lower the risk of other diseases, including diabetes. And it may have the additional benefit of helping you lose weight.

People following the DASH plan are encouraged to reduce portion sizes and eat foods rich in blood pressure-lowering nutrients such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium.

The DASH eating plan includes:

  • Lean protein: fish, poultry
  • Plant-based foods: vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds
  • Dairy: fat-free or low fat dairy products
  • Grains: whole grains
  • Healthy fats: vegetable oils

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute advises people with diabetes who are following this plan to limit their sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day. You may have a lower sodium limit if you have certain other health conditions. The plan also limits sweets, sugary beverages, and red meats.

This style of eating is inspired by traditional foods from the Mediterranean region. This meal plan is rich in oleic acid, a fatty acid that occurs naturally in animal- and vegetable-based fats and oils. Countries that are known for eating this way include Greece, Italy, and Morocco.

Mediterranean-type food choices may be successful in lowering fasting glucose levels, reducing body weight, and reducing the risk of metabolic disorder, according to a 2020 review of studies.

Foods you eat on this plan may include:

  • Protein: poultry, salmon, other fatty fish, eggs
  • Plant-based foods: fruits, vegetables such as artichokes and cucumbers, beans, nuts, seeds
  • Healthy fats: olive oil, nuts such as almonds

If following a Mediterranean eating plan, you can eat lean red meat occasionally. And you may consume wine in moderation, as it might boost heart health. But remember never to drink alcohol on an empty stomach if you’re taking medications that raise your insulin level.

You can read more about the Mediterranean diet.

The paleo diet centers on the belief that the processing of foods is to blame for chronic disease. Followers of the paleo diet eat only what they believe our ancient ancestors would have been able to hunt and gather.

Foods eaten on the paleo diet include:

  • Protein: meat, poultry, fish
  • Plant-based foods: nonstarchy vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts (excluding peanuts)
  • Healthy fats: olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, flaxseed oil, walnut oil

The paleo diet may be a good option for people with diabetes who do not have kidney disease.

The results of a small, short-term 2017 study suggest that a paleo diet may improve blood sugar regulation and insulin sensitivity in people with type 2 diabetes.

But a 2019 ADA report suggests that studies on the paleo diet are small and few, with mixed results.

Gluten-free eating is popular.

For people with celiac disease, eliminating gluten is necessary to avoid damage to the colon and the body. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes your immune system to attack your gut and nervous system. It also promotes body-wide inflammation, which could lead to chronic disease.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and all foods made from these grains.

You can ask your doctor for a blood test for celiac disease. Even if it comes back negative, you could have a non-celiac gluten intolerance. Talk with your healthcare team about whether a gluten-free meal plan is right for you.

While anyone with diabetes can follow a gluten-free plan, it may be unnecessarily restrictive for those without celiac disease.

It’s also important to remember that “gluten-free” does not necessarily mean “low carb.” Plenty of gluten-free foods are highly processed and high in sugar. There is usually no need to complicate meal planning by eliminating gluten unless you have to.

Some people with diabetes focus on eating a vegetarian or vegan diet.

This type of eating may help reduce weight, fasting glucose, and waist circumference.

Vegetarians typically avoid eating meat but may eat other animal products, such as milk, eggs, and butter.

Vegans do not eat meat or any other type of animal product, including honey, milk, and gelatin.

Foods that are healthy for vegetarians and vegans with diabetes include:

  • beans
  • soy
  • dark, leafy vegetables
  • nuts
  • legumes
  • fruits
  • whole grains

While a vegetarian or vegan eating style can be a healthy option, it’s important to plan meals carefully so you don’t miss out on vital nutrients.

Vegetarians and vegans may need to get some nutrients through supplements, including:

  • Calcium: Found largely in animal products such as dairy, calcium is an important nutrient that contributes to the health of your bones and teeth. Broccoli and kale can help provide necessary calcium, but vegans may need to take a supplement. This nutrient may also be found in fortified soy milk.
  • Iodine: Required for metabolizing food into energy, iodine is mainly found in seafood. As a result of not eating seafood, vegetarians and vegans may have trouble meeting their iodine needs. Iodized salt may provide most of the necessary iodine. Supplements may be beneficial, but taking too much iodine can damage your thyroid.
  • Vitamin B12: Since only animal products contain vitamin B12, you may need to take a B12 supplement if you’re following a strict vegetarian or vegan eating pattern. Nutritional yeast and some fortified breakfast cereals may also contain this nutrient.
  • Zinc: High protein animal products are the main food sources of zinc. A supplement may be necessary for those eating vegetarian or vegan. But some vegetarian-friendly foods, including beans, lentils, and whole grains, do contain zinc.

Consult a qualified healthcare professional before starting any new supplements to make sure they are safe for you.

In addition to choosing the best foods to eat to help with any recommended weight loss, exercising regularly is crucial when you have diabetes. Those lifestyle strategies can help you lower your blood sugar and A1C levels, which can help you avoid complications.

If you’re concerned about your weight, you may choose to consult a healthcare professional or dietitian. They can help you find a meal plan suited to your specific nutritional needs and weight loss goals. They will also help you avoid complications from some short-term diets and pills that could interact with prescription medications.