A diabetes-friendly diet involves managing carb intake and portions and focusing on whole, unprocessed foods to help stabilize blood sugar levels.

Managing diabetes through diet is a cornerstone of effective treatment, regardless of whether you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Understanding how different foods affect your blood sugar levels can make a significant difference in your overall health and well-being.

Let’s explore how to start and sustain a diabetes-friendly diet, which can empower you to effectively manage your condition.

A diabetes-friendly diet focuses on stabilizing blood sugar levels by managing carbohydrate intake and selecting low glycemic index (GI) foods. The GI measures how quickly a food raises blood sugar after eating.

The body digests foods with a low GI, like lean protein and whole grains, slowly, leading to a gradual rise in blood sugar levels. This helps maintain blood sugar stability and prevents spikes. Managing portion sizes also helps avoid overeating, which can cause blood sugar spikes.

Recommended foods when living with diabetes

Here’s a list of recommended foods for people living with diabetes:

  • Non-starchy vegetables: leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, tomatoes
  • Whole grains: brown rice, quinoa, whole grain bread
  • Lean proteins: skinless poultry, fish, tofu, and legumes like beans and lentils
  • Healthy fats: avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil
  • Fruits: berries, apples, and citrus fruits (eat fruits in moderation, focusing on lower sugar options like these)

Also be sure to stay hydrated and drink plenty of water throughout the day.

While diabetes guidelines have long suggested low fat dairy, newer research challenges this. A 2019 study found that higher intake of full fat dairy foods was linked to a lower risk of diabetes, while low fat dairy food intake didn’t show a significant association.

Additionally, studies suggest that a large number of new type 2 diabetes cases worldwide are linked to:

  • a low intake of whole grains
  • a high intake of refined rice and wheat
  • a high intake of processed meat

A 2017 research review shows that the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and olive oil, has been associated with numerous health benefits, including improved glucose metabolism and decreased risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.

People with diabetes often follow a low carb diet to manage blood sugar levels. Carbs are broken down into glucose, raising blood sugar. By reducing carb intake, a person can control blood sugar and reduce complications.

Healthy carbs in a diabetes-friendly diet are high in fiber and have a low GI, digesting more slowly. Examples include whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.

Experts recommend limiting refined carbs like white rice and bread because they spike blood sugar quickly.

What are the 3 types of carbs?

The three types of carbohydrates are starches, sugars, and fiber.


Starches are complex carbohydrates made up of long chains of glucose molecules. They’re found in foods like bread, rice, pasta, and potatoes.

Starches are broken down into glucose during digestion, which can raise blood sugar levels. However, choosing whole grain starches, which contain more fiber, can help slow the digestion process and minimize blood sugar spikes.


Sugars are simple carbohydrates that are naturally present in foods like fruits (fructose) and milk (lactose) and added to many processed foods (added sugars).

Consuming too much added sugars can lead to spikes in blood sugar levels and contribute to weight gain, which can worsen diabetes.

It’s important for people with diabetes to limit their intake of added sugars and focus on natural sources of sugars found in whole foods like fruits.


Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that the body cannot digest. It helps regulate blood sugar levels by slowing the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream and promoting a feeling of fullness.

Fiber is found in foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Including fiber-rich foods in a diabetes-friendly diet can help improve blood sugar control and lower the risk of heart disease.

How does carb counting work?

Carb counting involves tracking the grams of carbohydrates in foods and drinks to manage blood sugar levels. Here’s how it works:

  • Identify total carbohydrate grams: Check food labels or use an app to find the total carbs in a serving. Generally, a person following a low carb diet tries to stick to 3–45 grams of carbs per meal and around 15 grams of carbs per snack.
  • Track carb intake: Use a food diary or app to record carbs at meals and snacks.
  • Adjust medication: Based on carb intake, adjust insulin or medication per the guidance of your doctor.
  • Learn to estimate: Over time, you’ll get better at estimating carbs, simplifying blood sugar management.

The diabetes plate method is a simple guide that helps you plan your portions without the need for counting or measuring.

Use a 9-inch plate and fill:

  • half with non-starchy vegetables
  • one-quarter with lean protein foods
  • one-quarter with complex carbohydrates or whole grain carbohydrates

To complete your meal, add a glass of water or a zero-calorie drink, like tea or sparkling water.

Here’s how it can be applied to breakfast, lunch, and dinner:


  • half a plate of spinach and tomato omelet
  • a quarter plate of whole grain toast
  • a quarter plate of mixed berries


  • half a plate of mixed greens salad with cucumbers and bell peppers
  • a quarter plate of grilled chicken breast
  • a quarter plate of quinoa


  • half a plate of roasted broccoli and cauliflower
  • a quarter plate of baked salmon
  • a quarter plate of sweet potato

What is the importance of portion control?

Portion control is important for managing weight and blood sugar levels. It involves eating the right amount of food to meet your body’s needs without overeating.

To achieve portion control, you can:

  • use smaller plates and bowls
  • measure out servings of food
  • learn and listen to your hunger and fullness cues
  • at restaurants, share meals, order smaller portions, or ask for a to-go box for leftovers

Portion sizes refer to the amount of food you choose to eat at one time. Serving sizes are standard measurements used for food labels and dietary guidelines.

Here are some tips for reading food labels for diabetes-friendly eating:

  • Serving size: Check the serving size to understand how much you’re eating. Remember, serving size is not the same as portion size. It’s OK to have more than one serving; it’s just about understanding how much you are consuming.
  • Total carbs: Focus on total carbohydrates to manage blood sugar levels. Ideally, consume a similar amount of carbs at each mealtime to help achieve steady blood sugar management.
  • Fiber: Choose foods high in fiber to help manage blood sugar and feel full. Try to consume at least 25–30 grams of fiber per day.
  • Added sugars: Limit foods with added sugars, which can spike blood sugar levels.
  • Protein: Include protein in meals and snacks to help maintain muscle mass and feel full longer.
  • Fats: Choose healthier fats, like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive oil, and try to avoid trans and saturated fats.
  • Sodium: Limit high sodium foods to help manage blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease.

Signs that a food may not be diabetes-friendly include:

  • high levels of added sugars
  • high total carbohydrate content
  • low fiber content
  • high levels of trans fats or saturated fats
  • high levels of sodium

Sticking to a diabetes-friendly diet can be easier with these tips:

  • Regular meal routine: Eating meals and snacks at consistent times can help regulate blood sugar levels.
  • Meal prep: Prepare meals in advance to avoid frequently buying less desirable food choices when you’re busy.
  • Healthy snacks: Keep nutritious snacks on hand to prevent overeating or choosing options that aren’t diabetes-friendly.
  • Read labels: Pay attention to food labels to make informed choices about carbohydrate content and serving and portion sizes.
  • Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and avoid mistaking thirst for hunger.
  • Physical activity: Incorporate regular physical activity into your routine to help manage blood sugar levels and maintain a moderate weight.
  • Work with a registered dietitian: A dietitian can provide personalized guidance and support to help you make sustainable changes to your diet and lifestyle.

Starting a diabetes-friendly diet is a key step toward managing blood sugar levels and promoting overall health. By focusing on whole, unprocessed foods and using the diabetes plate method, you can simplify portion planning and make healthier choices.

Regular monitoring of blood sugar levels and working closely with doctors and dietitians can help you create a personalized plan that meets your needs. Start today and take the first step toward improving your well-being and quality of life.