There’s no one-size-fits-all diabetes diet per se, but understanding how to make smart food choices is essential for keeping blood sugar in a healthy range.
Living well with diabetes means taking your medication as prescribed, managing stress, exercising regularly, and, equally important, knowing what foods are good and bad for keeping your blood sugar levels in a healthy range. (1,2,3)
If you’ve just been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, the prospect of giving up the foods you love may seem daunting or even devastating. But you may be relieved to know that a good diet for type 2 diabetes isn’t as complex or out of the ordinary as you might expect.
RELATED: Diabetes Food Advice You Should — and Shouldn’t — Follow to Manage Blood Sugar
What Is a Good Diet for Type 2 Diabetes?
In fact, a smart diabetes diet looks a lot like the healthy eating plan doctors recommend for everyone: It includes eating lots of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, enjoying whole-grain carbohydrates in moderation, fueling up with lean protein, and eating a moderate amount of healthy fats. (3) What it boils down to is that “There is no ‘diabetic diet’,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet and Belly Fat Diet For Dummies, and based in Vernon, New Jersey. “The guidelines are basically the same for healthy eating for everyone, with or without diabetes,” she says.
Still, eating when you have diabetes requires taking some steps that are specific to the disease. Though there isn’t a one-size-fits-all eating plan, knowing the basics is key for maintaining a high quality of life, reducing the risk of complications, and potentially even reversing diabetes. (4, 5)
Why Is It Important to Eat Well When Managing Type 2 Diabetes, and What Are the Risks if You Don’t?
Type 2 diabetes is characterized by a condition called insulin resistance, where the body can’t effectively use the hormone insulin to ferry glucose (blood sugar) to cells and muscles for energy. This causes glucose to accumulate in your blood at higher than normal levels, which can put your health in danger. (6)
Picking the right amounts of the right foods can help lower blood sugar levels and keep them steady, reducing diabetes symptoms and helping lower the risk for health complications, such as nerve damage, vision problems, heart disease, kidney damage, and stroke. (7)
RELATED: How to Prevent Type 2 Diabetes Complications
Eating well can also help you lose and maintain a healthy weight. In fact, losing just 5 to 7 percent of your body weight may help you better control type 2 diabetes, or prevent prediabetes from progressing into the full-blown form of the disease. (8)
Rather than trying to overhaul your lifestyle with quick fixes, create lasting habits by focusing on small, simple, and maintainable changes, Palinski-Wade says. Otherwise, you may feel overwhelmed and revert to your old, unhealthy eating ways — and regain weight you’ve lost. “Being consistent with change, no matter how small, is key to long-term weight loss success,” she adds. Here are four to get you started:
Pack in more veggies. Add in one extra serving of nonstarchy vegetables at dinner. Consider adding vegetables to a snack, too.
Fit in more fruit. Research shows that eating berries, apples, and pears is associated with weight loss. (9) Go figure, these are especially fiber-rich choices. Of course, all other fruits count, too — just be sure to factor them into your carbohydrate servings.
Stay active. Ultimately, you should aim to be active 150 minutes per week (that’s just 30 minutes five days per week). But initially, start out by walking 15 minutes a few times per week, and adding on time from there. This handy chart will show you how to build up slowly.
Nibble on something in the morning. Eating breakfast is one habit of long-term weight-losers. (10) A plain yogurt with fruit, nuts and fruit, or scrambled eggs and whole-grain toast are all diabetes-friendly breakfasts.
RELATED: 7 Easy Breakfast Ideas for People With Type 2 Diabetes
People who are overweight or obese are at a greater risk for developing diabetes in the first place. Being overweight or obese is also linked with increased risk of conditions such as certain types of cancer, osteoarthritis, fatty liver disease, and the aforementioned diabetes complications. (11)
Is It Important to Monitor Caloric Intake if You Have Diabetes?
While it can be helpful, it’s not absolutely necessary to track how many calories you’re taking in daily. “Although tracking calories can be beneficial when it comes to weight reduction, you can lose weight and still have a poor nutritional quality to your diet,” Palinski-Wade points out.
Therefore, if you do count calories, make sure you’re also focused on healthy-food choices. You can also track your food intake, she says, which will let you “monitor portions as well as how certain foods and mealtimes impact blood glucose levels,” she says.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends the following calorie guidelines for people who are managing diabetes: (12)
- About 1,200 to 1,600 calories a day for small women who are physically active, small or medium-sized women interested in weight loss, or medium-sized women who are not physically active
- About 1,600 to 2,000 calories a day for large women interested in weight loss, small men at a healthy weight, medium-sized men who aren’t physically active, or medium-sized or large men interested in weight loss
- About 2,000 to 2,400 calories a day for medium-sized or large men who are physically active, large men at a healthy weight, or a medium-sized or large women who are very physically active
How Cutting Carbs Can Help You Stabilize Unbalanced Blood Sugar Levels That Result From Diabetes
The best course of action is managing the amount of carbohydrates you eat. “Although individual carbohydrate goals will vary based on age, activity level, medication, and individual insulin resistance levels, it’s imperative to avoid having too many carbohydrates in one sitting,” says Palinski-Wade. For reference, if you have prediabetes or type 2 diabetes and don’t take medication, cap carbs to no more than 60 grams (g) per meal (four carbohydrate servings).
The best sources of carbohydrates for someone with diabetes are fiber-rich sources from whole foods, which can help improve glucose control. These include fruits, vegetables, fat-free or low-fat dairy, and whole grains. Limit sugar and refined grains, like white bread and pasta.
Why You Should Include Fiber in Your Diabetes Meal Plan
An excellent way to trim your waistline and stabilize blood sugar is reaching for foods high in fiber. Fiber isn’t digested by the human body, so fiber-rich foods with carbohydrates do not raise blood sugar levels as quickly because they are processed more slowly. Fiber-rich foods can also help you feel fuller for longer, aiding weight loss, helping prevent obesity, and maybe even warding off conditions such as heart disease and colon cancer. (13)
Unfortunately, most adults don’t eat enough fiber. (14) Whether a person has diabetes or not, they should aim to follow the same recommendations. Women should get at least 25 g of fiber per day, while men need at least 38 g per day, Palinski-Wade says.
What Are the Best Sources of Carbohydrates for People With Type 2 Diabetes?
You can find carbohydrates in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and beans, and dairy. Don’t shy away from them, either, as they supply necessary vitamins, minerals, and fiber, the NIH points out. (15) Good sources of carbs include:
- Whole grains, like whole-wheat pasta and bread, brown rice, oatmeal, and quinoa
- Nonstarchy veggies, like peppers, eggplant, onion, and asparagus
- Starchy veggies are okay to eat in moderation, just mind the carbohydrate content. Examples include sweet potatoes and corn.
- Nonfat or low-fat dairy, like unsweetened yogurt and cottage cheese
- Beans and legumes, like black beans, chickpeas, and lentils
RELATED: 5 Tricks for Getting Enough Fruits and Veggies
What Are the Best Types of Proteins When Managing Type 2 Diabetes?
One-quarter of your plate should contain a source of lean protein, which includes meat, skinless poultry, fish, reduced-fat cheese, eggs, and vegetarian sources, like beans and tofu. (3) Enjoy these diabetes-friendly options: (16)
- Beans, including black or kidney beans
- Nut butter
- Fish, such as tuna, sardines, or salmon
- Skinless poultry
- Low-fat or fat-free cottage cheese
- Reduced-fat cheese or regular cheese in small amounts
- Lean beef, like sirloin or tenderloin
What Are the Best Sources of Healthy Fats if You Have Type 2 Diabetes?
Fat is not the enemy, even if you have diabetes! The key is being able to tell unhealthy fats from healthy fats and enjoying them in moderation, as all fats are high in calories.
But type matters more than amount: Aim to limit saturated fat to no more than 10 percent of total calories, Palinski-Wade advises.
Consider opting for these sources of healthy fat, per the American Diabetes Association (ADA): (17)
- Oils, including canola, corn, and safflower
- Nuts, such as almonds, peanuts, and walnuts
- Olive oil
- Seeds, including sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower
What Are the Best Sources of Dairy When You Have Type 2 Diabetes?
The goal with dairy is to choose sources that are nonfat or low-fat (1 percent) to save on saturated fat. Also, remember that while these sources offer protein, they are also another source of carbs, so you need to factor them into your carb allotment.
- Nonfat or 1 percent milk
- Nonfat or low-fat plain yogurt (as well as Greek yogurt)
- Nonfat or low-fat cottage cheese
- Nondairy milk, like soy milk or almond milk
- Reduced-fat cheese