Diabetes and high blood sugar go hand in hand. The type you have — type 2, type 1, or prediabetes — dictates how your body reacts to sugar in the blood. Since the reaction is often dependent on what you eat, diet is one of the best ways to help regulate fluctuating blood sugar levels.
The American Diabetes Association agrees that medical nutrition therapy is important at all levels of diabetes prevention and management.
When it comes to diabetes and dietary needs, Alison Evert, a registered dietitian (RD) and certified diabetes educator (CDE) at University of Washington Medicine, says to think of it less like a “diet” and more like an “eating plan.”
“Diet has a negative connotation and is usually a short-term thing that’s used to lose 10 pounds,” she says. Instead, a meal plan is something that should be constructed to fit your ongoing individual needs.
This means that people with diabetes — especially those who have T2 or have been diagnosed with prediabetes — can follow just about any trendy meal plan (like keto or paleo) they choose… with one caveat. “Carbohydrate component of the meal/snack is the main determinant of the post-meal blood glucose level,” Evert says.
Carbohydrates are usually thought of as anything with grains: pasta, bread, cereals, etc. But there are sneaky sources of carbs hiding in foods we might initially think belong in a different category.
The reason why carbohydrates should be monitored by people with diabetes is that your body breaks them down into sugars — mostly glucose — which raises blood sugar. Even though foods high in carbs don’t always necessarily taste sweet, that’s how your body reacts to them.
Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all eating plan for everyone. Studies have found improvements in blood sugar levels when carbs were restricted to
Main takeaway Anywhere from 20–90 grams of carbs daily might be healthy for someone with diabetes. To determine the right amount for you, the most important thing is to track your carb- and fiber-intake and then test your blood sugar two hours after eating. Then work with your medical team to decide what’s best for your body.
Additionally, foods that are naturally sweet, like fruit, can contain carbs in high numbers. According to the ADA, a small piece of fruit or a half cup of frozen or canned fruit can contain about 15 grams of carbs.
“A fruit smoothie (such as Jamba Juice) has over 100 grams of carbs, but it’s in a liquid form. It has the same amount of carbs as five pieces of fruit and a glass of milk. I don’t know if I could eat five pieces of fruit, but it’s pretty easy to drink down a smoothie,” Evert says.
That’s a good reason to be mindful of the nutrients you’re putting into your body.
Other sneaky sources of carbs
- Milk has a surprisingly high-carbohydrate content, meaning that tempting iced cafe mocha could have nearly 40 grams of carbs.
- Starchy veggies like sweet potatoes, white potatoes, and corn are sources of carbohydrates.
Because carbs quickly break down into sugar, one way to delay their digestion and absorption is to
There are two types of fiber: insoluble and soluble. When it comes to helping people with diabetes, look for soluble fiber.
Foods that are high in soluble fiber include:
- black beans
Managing carbs and coming up with a well-balanced meal plan is easier when using the Plate Method. Visualize a dinner plate. Fill half with non-starchy vegetables, one quarter with a protein, and the remaining quarter with a starch.
So, what goes on your plate?
Non-starchy vegetables (50 percent of your plate) are anything green: spinach, kale, broccoli, asparagus, green beans, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, and chard. Also, look for cauliflower, carrots, fennel, and radishes, or salad greens like romaine, arugula, or watercress.
Smart protein choices (25 percent of your plate) include: lean meats such as chicken or turkey breast, or fatty fish like salmon, shrimp, and whitefish (rockfish and halibut). Try to limit red meat or overly fatty meats like bacon or sausage.
Starches and things that should be counted as carbs (25 percent of your plate) include: peas, beans like kidney, chickpea, or black, and whole grains like barley, farro, buckwheat, or quinoa.
What about dessert?
When it comes to things like dessert, Evert says to think in moderation.
Shoot for fresh berries, dark chocolate, or single-serving items in order to curb temptation. Greek yogurt is a good option, as it’s usually lower in carbs and sugar than many other types of yogurt.
Remember, as Evert says “Rome was not built in a day.” If you’re into trying meal planning, start with a couple of meals per week and work up.
“No one can go from eating out all the time to making all their own meals,” she says.
As much as Evert stresses that each person is different — meaning each meal plan should be customized — it’s easier to be armed with a list when you’re a beginner.
This shopping list is based on a few recipes that will help you kickstart your diabetes-friendly eating plan and lay the groundwork for the great things to come. Evert says that most of her clients are surprised after beginning a diabetes-friendly eating plan, saying it just looks like “eating healthy.”
These recipes can be kept as-is or scaled up for meal prepping for the week. After a week or so, the routine will be an easy new normal, allowing you to build your own personal cookbook of go-to, friendly, (and tasty) meals.
“The meal plan that’s successful is the one that the person can follow for the rest of their life,” Evert says.
Recipes you’ll be shopping for:
- Turkey spinach frittata
- Green salmon with barley and green beans
- Chicken breast with roasted fennel and tomatoes
- Salad with easy vinaigrette
- Greek yogurt and berry popsicles
Take an inventory of your current pantry and fridge situation. You’ll want to stock up on healthy cooking essentials like olive oil, while getting rid of high-carb temptations like white rice or bread, and processed items like chips or cookies.
Healthy Shopping Tip Try not to shop hungry and stick to your list — while also sticking to the outside of the grocery store, avoiding the middle aisles filled with processed temptations.
Consider buying things like farro or barley in bulk and making a large quantity alongside large tubs of salad mix and larger portions of protein. Cooking up a few cups of farro and a few pounds of chicken at a time means easy grain salads during the week, helping you to be prepared when hunger strikes.
The list below includes the amounts needed to recreate all recipes, but feel free to bulk up on a few in order to meal prep or cook for friends and family.
Pro-tip: Most recipes makes 2 servings. For those of you who love meal prepping, simply double or triple the recipes.
|Ingredient||How much the recipe needs|
|white onion||1 small|
|red onion||1 small|
|red bell pepper||1|
|salad mix||4 cups|
|cherry tomatoes||1 pint|
|basil, flat leaf parsley, cilantro||1 bunch each|
|green beans||1 pound|
|Ingredient||How much the recipe needs|
|ground turkey breast||1/2 pound|
|boneless, skinless chicken breast tenders||1 pound|
|salmon fillet||1 pound|
|part-skim shredded mozzarella cheese||1/3 cup|
|Greek yogurt (like Fage 0 percent milkfat)||1 1/2 cups|
|Ingredient||How much the recipe needs|
|red pepper flakes||1/4 teaspoon|
|sliced almonds||1/4 cup|
- 1-lb. salmon fillet, deboned
- 1 tsp. olive oil
- 1/2 cup hulled barley
- 2 cups water
- 1 clove garlic, smashed
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 tbsp. green sauce (recipe below)
- Preheat oven to 275°F.
- Combine barley, water, and garlic clove in a pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer for 40–60 minutes until nearly all water is absorbed and barley is tender. Remove garlic clove before serving.
- When barley has been cooking for about 20 minutes, prepare salmon.
- On a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, place salmon skin side down. Drizzle olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven.
- While barley and salmon are cooking, mix together green sauce and cook beans.
To serve: Divide salmon into two portions. Measure out 1/2 cup barley, half of the green beans, and one salmon portion. Plate and spoon a tablespoon of green sauce onto salmon.
Calories, Carbs, and Fiber Here’s how the macros for this recipe fit into your diet, per serving: 607 calories, 18.4 g carbs, 4.1 g fiber.
This sauce is a super easy condiment and wonderful to put on just about anything — chicken, salmon, turkey — or even mix into a bowl of quinoa or a salad for extra flavor.
Makes 1 cup.
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
- juice and zest of one lemon
- 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 bunch basil, stems removed
- 1 bunch flat leaf parsley, thick stems removed
- 1/2 bunch cilantro
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- Place garlic, red pepper flakes, lemon juice and zest, salt, and all herbs in a food processor. Pulse to combine. If there are too many herbs, add them in stages, briefly pulsing to make room.
- Once combined, keep the processor running while drizzling in olive oil, stopping once mixture is just combined.
- Scrape out into a bowl, serve immediately, or cover and refrigerate. Will keep for one week.
Green Beans with Almonds
- 1 lb. green beans, washed and trimmed of stems
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 2 tbsp. sliced almonds
- kosher salt and pepper, to taste
- Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add green beans and cook for 5 minutes.
- Drain and place in a bowl.
- Drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and top with sliced almonds.
- 2 medium fennel bulbs
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes
- 2 tbsp. + 1 tsp. olive oil
- a pinch salt and pepper
- 1-lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast tenders
- Preheat oven to 425°F.
- Trim fennel bulbs and halve lengthwise. Further slice into 1/2-inch thick wedges.
- Rinse and dry cherry tomatoes. Slice in half.
- In a glass baking dish, toss both fennel and tomatoes with 2 tablespoons olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and a few grinds of fresh ground pepper.
- Place in oven and roast, stirring once halfway through, for 25–30 minutes.
- While fennel and tomatoes are roasting, preheat grill pan over medium heat or use a sauté pan. Pour remaining olive oil in a bowl and place the chicken tenders. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, turn to coat evenly. Sauté or grill until cooked through.
To serve: Divide fennel and tomatoes with chicken evenly.
Serving suggestion: a side salad of leafy greens with vinaigrette
Calories, Carbs, and Fiber Here’s how the macros for this recipe fit into your diet, per serving: 305 calories, 24 g carbs, 9.2 g fiber.
Makes 6 servings
- 2 tsp. olive oil
- 1/2-lb. ground turkey breast
- 1/2 bunch of spinach, roughly chopped
- 1 small white onion, chopped
- 1 small red bell pepper, chopped
- 6 egg whites
- 3 eggs
- 1/3 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
- a pinch of coarse ground salt and pepper
- Preheat oven to 400°F.
- In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together eggs, egg whites, salt, pepper, and cheese. Set aside.
- In a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat, sauté turkey until cooked. Remove from pan, drain fat, and wipe with a paper towel.
- Place skillet back on burner and add onion, spinach, and bell pepper. Sauté until soft. Drain any accumulated liquid from the vegetables and add turkey back in. Pour egg and cheese mixture over the top and cook until the eggs are beginning to set around the edges.
- Place skillet on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 8–10 minutes, or until eggs are completely set.
- Remove from oven and slice. Leftovers should be stored in an airtight container and reheated in the toaster oven until just warmed.
Calories, Carbs, and Fiber Here’s how the macros for this recipe fit into your diet, per serving: 155 calories, 4.1 g carbs, 1.1 g fiber.
- 4 cups salad mix
- 4 radishes, sliced
- 1 carrot, grated
- 1 cup canned, no salt-added chickpeas, rinsed
- 1/4 cup sliced red onion
- 1 avocado, sliced
- 3 tbsp. easy vinaigrette (recipe below)
- In a large bowl combine all ingredients.
- Drizzle with dressing and toss.
- 3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp. red wine or Bragg’s apple cider vinegar
- a pinch of salt
- a couple turns fresh ground pepper
- Place all ingredients in a mason jar with a lid. Shake to combine.
- Store in the fridge.
Calories, Carbs, and Fiber Here’s how the macros for this recipe fit into your diet, per serving: 542 calories, 36.3 g carbs, 10 g fiber.
- 2 cups (or two small clamshell containers) blackberries
- 1 1/2 cups Fage 0 Greek yogurt
- 2 1/2 tbsp. honey
- 1/4 cup sugar (or try it sugar-free or with a substitute)
- 6 Dixie cups or popsicle molds
- Place the blackberries and sugar in a small saucepan over medium-low heat.
- Heat, occasionally stirring, until the sugar dissolves and the blackberries start to give up their juices and break apart, about 10 minutes.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool. The mixture will thicken a bit as it cools.
- Once cooled, puree the mix and strain the seeds if you so desire.
- In a separate bowl, combine the yogurt and the honey (add a twist of black pepper if you like) and mix in blackberry mixture.
- Pour into Dixie cups or popsicle molds, and freeze for 3 hours.
Calories, Carbs, and FiberHere’s how the macros for this recipe fit into your diet, per serving: 287 calories, 34.1 g carbs, 2.6 g fiber.
Ideally, counting carbs, thinking about what’s on your plate, and planning out what the proper eating plan looks like for you should now seem a little less daunting.
These recipes were chosen not only because they’re a good way to have a great plate, but they’re easy to achieve and satisfying.
Of course, changing your everyday diet and adopting a new eating plan can take time — especially when we’re also supposed to remember to focus on portion control and remember to stay hydrated. Just take your time and try your best to think and plan ahead.
Before you know it you’ll be writing your own shopping list and planning your plates with ease.
Jackie is a food writer and recipe developer living in Seattle. Her work has appeared in Zagat.com, Eating Well, Serious Eats, The Seattle Times, and more. You can find more of her writing on her website.