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Food choices are a key part of managing diabetes. Eating fewer carbohydrates, limiting highly processed foods, and choosing more natural food options can help you manage your blood sugar.

When you have diabetes, your body has difficulty using the glucose (sugar) that comes from the food you eat. As of 2023, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over 38.4 million people in the United States have diabetes. Most of those people have type 2 diabetes.

If glucose levels are consistently above your target range, it can lead to health complications. Common health complications include:

Weight loss and exercise have shown enormous potential for preventing and treating type 2 diabetes. In some cases, they have even put type 2 diabetes in remission.

Maintaining a diabetes-friendly diet is more complex than just cutting carbs. Don’t let that deter you, though. It can be pretty easy to follow a diabetes-friendly diet, especially if you get into the habit of meal planning.

Planning your meals might take a little bit of time, but you’ll reap the rewards later. If you’ve already decided what you’re making each night of the week and have your refrigerator stocked, you’re that much closer to a healthy meal.

Getting into a routine of meal planning makes staying on track with a healthy eating plan easier. It’s especially useful on days when life gets busy or stressful.

All it takes is a one-day commitment to get on the right path, said Toby Smithson, MSNW, RDN, LDN, CDE, co-author of Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition for Dummies and a former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

She suggested following these tips:

  • Pick one day per week where you can set aside a couple of hours for meal planning. This could be a weekend day or another non-working day. If you have children, look for a day when you don’t have to transport them around for various activities.
  • To get started, write a menu for the week. Scour Pinterest or your favorite food blogs for ideas, and write down a shopping list as you go. Then hit the grocery store using your list as a guide.
  • If you want to make this process even quicker, consider using a meal-planning website such as Plan to Eat. Websites and apps like this allow you to quickly save and categorize recipes from any website, blog, cookbook, or meal plan. Plan to Eat also automatically creates a grocery list for you.
  • After you’ve done this for several weeks, you’ll have a great database of recipes you enjoy. It’ll become easier to make your plan because you’ll be able to spend less time finding recipes. And, of course, you can always add new recipes as you come across them, so you don’t get bored.
  • If cooking daily isn’t feasible for you, give yourself a break. Try cooking in bulk when you can. You can also look for meals that are easy to freeze and reheat later.

As you put together your meal plans for the week, follow these tips to find the best foods for you that are both tasty and diabetes-friendly.

Here’s your chance to go wild! Every fruit and vegetable has its own set of nutrients and health benefits.

Try to choose fruits and vegetables in a range of colors, and include some in every meal or snack.

Non-starchy vegetables are the lowest in calories and carbohydrates, so they’re a great choice for people with diabetes. Some options include:

You’ll need to count the carbs in your fruits and starchy vegetables just as you would for any other carbohydrate food group. This doesn’t mean you need to avoid them — just be sure the amount you’re eating fits into your overall meal plan.

Shelley Wishnick, a registered dietitian and diabetes clinical manager at the medical equipment company Medtronic, recommended that people with diabetes stick to 1 serving of fruit per meal. Grab half a banana, a fruit the size of your fist, or half a cup of chopped fruit.

When shopping for fruits and vegetables, look for choices that are in season to save some money. Frozen produce is also a budget-friendly option that’s convenient for busy mornings or weeknights.

Choose fatty fish for heart health and brain protection. Seafood that contains omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon or canned tuna, is a great option. This is because omega-3 fatty acids support a healthy heart. Other options for fish may include trout, catfish, and cod.

Try to get at least 2 servings of fish per week.

When it comes to meat, stick with options like:

Aim to fit 1 or 2 servings of lean meat per day into your meal plan.

Registered dietitian Jill Weisenberger, author of The Overworked Person’s Guide to Better Nutrition, advised against bacon and sausages. These foods don’t offer a lot of protein and can be high in sodium and fat.

You may want to consider limiting your red meats and processed meat. They’ve been linked to colon cancer, a condition you’re at a higher risk of if you have diabetes.

The legume family includes the following foods:

Aim for at least 1–2 servings per day. Although these foods are rich in carbohydrates, they’re a great source of fiber and plant protein. This makes them an ideal carbohydrate choice over other starches, such as rice, white pasta, and bread.

Some studies in a 2019 research review suggest that yogurt is good for people with diabetes and may help prevent it for those at risk of the condition. Greek yogurt is a good option because it’s higher in protein and lower in carbs than traditional yogurt.

Just watch out for added sugars in yogurts. They can hide in flavorings and add-ins, such as granola or cookie bits. Overall, options that are lower in calories, added sugar, and saturated fat are better if you have diabetes.

Cottage cheese is another great low carb dairy option that’s also high in protein.

Unsweetened soy milk is a nondairy milk option that’s also a source of protein. Other nondairy milks — like flax, almond, or hemp milk — and yogurt made from them often contain little or no protein. Learn more about nondairy milks.

You can stock up on fruits and veggies, too! Read the nutrient label to avoid products with lots of additives, sugar, or sodium. When choosing frozen vegetables, opt for plain vegetables instead of ones with sauces.

These are always handy to keep stocked because frozen produce lasts longer than fresh produce and can be great for saving time when you’re pulling together dinner in a pinch.

Frozen fish and shrimp are other good choices. They’re quick to cook and keep longer than fresh versions, said Weisenberger. She likes these for pulling together a wholesome meal on a busy day.

When you’re hankering for something sweet, there’s no need to ditch dessert altogether. Restrictive diets aren’t a good long-term solution and can often do more harm than good.

Instead, be smart about what you eat. Stick to single-serving desserts and stock your freezer with only one type at a time. This can help you avoid eating more than an intended serving.

It’s best to limit processed foods when you can, but that’s not always possible. Whether it’s breakfast cereal, crackers, or snack bars, certain keywords can help you find options that are better for you. In general, check the packaging for these words:

Instead of buying a lot of processed snack foods, consider reaching for some nuts. In addition to heart health benefits, some nuts, such as almonds, may even help increase insulin sensitivity — a good thing for people with diabetes.

Eating too many carbs can cause blood sugar spikes, so try to take care when choosing grains. It helps to read labels for serving sizes and total carbohydrates, as it’s easy to overeat these foods.

When possible, choose whole grains. These are higher in fiber, protein, and other nutrients, so they’ll keep you fuller for longer. Some options include:

You might find that baked goods and products made from flour, even whole wheat flour, cause your blood sugar to spike. If this is the case for you, look for whole grains that are minimally processed, naturally higher in fiber, and in their whole food form.

Pairing these intact whole grains with healthy fats or protein can help reduce blood sugar rises.

Canned fruits and vegetables are other good choices when fresh produce isn’t available. As with frozen foods, it’s important to watch out for added sugars and sodium. Choose fruits canned in juice, not syrup, and look for low sodium vegetables.

For people with diabetes, your diet is the best natural medicine for your body. Because foods can directly affect your blood sugar, choose wisely to make sure the food you’re eating has a positive effect.

In simple terms, refined carbs and highly processed or sugary foods often lead to elevated blood sugars. If you can, stick to a balanced diet that focuses on:

  • plenty of vegetables and fruits
  • whole grains
  • high fiber foods
  • lean animal and plant proteins
  • healthy fats