Diabetes can lead to a range of complications, but the right diet — including healthful snacks — can help manage blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of symptoms and complications.
Snacks for people with diabetes can help keep blood sugar in check. Keeping blood glucose steady can slow the progression of the disease and reduce the risk of complications.
Eating small amounts regularly, including small meals with snacks in between, can help a person keep their blood sugar levels stable throughout the day.
When people first have a diagnosis of diabetes, they may wonder if they can still eat their favorite foods. In fact, a wide range of snacks are suitable for people with diabetes.
Healthful snacks include foods that are high in protein and fiber and low in processed carbohydrates and sugars.
Protein is crucial for the growth and repair of body tissues. It also helps a person to feel full, which helps reduce the risk of overeating.
Some studies have suggested that a high-protein diet may be good for a person with diabetes, but not all research supports this.
A study published in 2017 concludes that it seems to depend on the type of protein, as some types appear to increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and its complications, while others may help protect against it.
Healthful options include:
- vegetable-based protein foods, such as nuts, seeds, legumes, and soy products
- some low-fat animal products, such as low-fat dairy and yogurt
Snacks that are satisfying and rich in protein include:
- roasted chickpeas
- beans, such as kidney, black, or pinto beans
- tempeh and tofu
- soy nuts
- apples or celery with almond butter
- almonds, walnuts, or pistachios
- trail mix, particularly if it does not contain sweetened ingredients
- turkey or smoked salmon roll-ups
- plain yogurt, particularly Greek yogurt mixed with berries
- low-sodium cottage cheese mixed with fresh fruit
- diced avocado with cherry tomatoes and pine nuts
- snap peas or other raw veggies with hummus
People should take care to avoid those that are also high in fat and sodium, such as processed meats, and nut bars with added sugar.
It is important to check the label of any premade snacks and to take any carbs, especially from added sugars, into account.
Animal or vegetable protein?
Some animal proteins, such as red meat, appear to increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
If consuming meat, opt for lean meats such as chicken, turkey, and fish. When choosing poultry, such as chicken, avoiding the skin can reduce saturated fat intake and be healthier for the heart.
However, plant-based proteins continue to be best for overall heart health and diabetes management. Low-fat dairy products and vegetable-based protein, such as nuts, beans, legumes, and tofu, are a better snack option than a burger or salami.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that an average adult woman should consume around 46 g of protein each day, and a man should consume around 56 g.
However, protein needs will vary based on numerous factors including height, weight, activity level and state of health.
Protein should represent 10–35 percent of a person’s daily calorie intake.
A study published in 2018 suggests that a high-fiber diet can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 20–30 percent.
This study noted these effects came mainly from whole grains or insoluble cereal fiber, which does not break down in the body.
However, other studies have shown that a combination of insoluble and soluble fiber in the diet can be beneficial. People should eat a variety of different fibers.
Good sources of fiber include:
- vegetables and fruits
- nuts and seeds
- whole grains and whole oats
People with diabetes can try some of these high-fiber snacks:
- smoothies blended with high-fiber, non-starchy vegetables
- sprouted, whole-grain breads
- whole-grain, bean or chickpea pastas
- oatmeal, mixed with fresh berries or sliced banana for additional sweetness and fiber
- figs dipped into Greek yogurt
- kale or spinach chips, which can satisfy a chip craving without the added sodium and fat
- carrots dipped in hummus offer protein and fiber in a low-sodium snack
- sweet potato foods, including baked sweet potato fries, cooked whole sweet potatoes, or sweet potato toast
People can sub sweet potatoes for toast by toasting thinly sliced sweet potato for three or four cycles. Top with regular choices of toppings.
Whole-grain breads and bean pastas are an excellent way to manage carbohydrate cravings. To increase their nutritional value, people can try adding almond butter to whole-grain bread, or eating high-fiber bean pasta mixed with vegetables.
Whole fruits are a good choice. Juicing breaks down some of the nutrients, reducing the amount of fiber and increasing the sugar content by comparison.
Fiber is an essential part of the diet. For a person with diabetes, food that is high in fiber has the following advantages:
- Carbs with high-fiber take longer to digest than those in low-fiber foods, reducing the chance of a blood sugar spike.
- Fiber provides bulk, and a person will feel full for longer and be less likely to overeat.
- Fiber passes through the digestive system without breaking down, limiting the intake of calories and boosting gastrointestinal health.
- It helps keep the blood vessels healthy and lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- High-fiber foods are often rich in other nutrients, and this benefits overall health.
According to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, women aged 19–30 years should consume 28 g of fiber a day, and men 33.6 g.
An article published in 2015 recommends that people with diabetes should eat at least this much fiber each day.
Fat is an essential nutrient, but it is important to choose the right type and the right amount, because high fat levels in the body are a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
Saturated and trans fats, present in many meats and premade goods, are not healthful options.
The following foods provide fats that can be beneficial for people with diabetes:
- oily fish, such as salmon and sardines
- olive oil and olives
- nuts such as almonds, pistachios or walnuts
- canola, sunflower, safflower, flaxseed and soybean oils
- peanut or almond butter, without added fat or sugar
- seeds such as sesame, flax, or chia
People need fat, but they should choose the right sort and consume it in moderation, because it can lead to weight gain and other problems.
In a review published in 2018, scientists found evidence that some types of fat may offer some protection from diabetes, but more research is needed.
For adults, 20–35 percent of their calorie intake should come from fats, depending on individual factors. A doctor can advise about this.
While reducing the use of table salt can help, but up to 75 percent of sodium intake comes from salty processed foods rather than adding salt to meals.
Fresh fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed nuts contain little sodium. People can ensure a lower salt content by making snacks and baked goods at home.
Some foods are not healthful for people with diabetes, especially those that raise blood sugar rapidly.
- Sugary foods can raise blood sugar and cause weight gain. Sweets such as cookies, cupcakes, and candy are high in sugar.
- Drinks such as soda, sweetened fruit juices, energy drinks, and some alcohol mixers also contain high levels of sugar. Adding these beverages to an otherwise healthful snack can cause blood sugar levels to spike.
- Energy bars, some snack bars, and snacks that contain dried fruit may advertise as healthful, but they can contain a lot of added sugar. Look for bars that use only fruit for sweetening and contain healthful fats from nuts and seeds.
People should always check the label to see how much sugar there is before consuming a snack.
Healthful snacking with diabetes is not just about choosing the right foods. Knowing which foods to avoid, how to manage cravings, and how fluid intake affects appetite is also vital.
The following strategies support healthful snacking with diabetes.
Drink water instead of soda
Thirst can feel like hunger, and drinking water throughout the day can help a person feel full.
However, limit the intake of sodas, sweetened juices, and other sweetened drinks, as these can contain a lot of sugar.
Coffee and tea are suitable in moderation, but adding sugar, cream, and other flavoring agents can increase their calorie content and elevate blood sugar.
People should also limit or avoid diet sodas and other diet drinks that contain artificial sweeteners, as research has not shown that these products are safe for everyone to use, and there may be risks.
Limit processed and prepackaged foods
This can reduce sodium and sugar intake. Check the nutrition label of any premade foods.
No matter how healthful a snack is, eating too much of it can lead to unhealthy weight gain and disrupt blood sugar levels.
Consulting a snack’s nutrition facts makes it easier for people to eat a single serving. Nutrition facts also provide information about calorie, protein, sugar, and carbohydrate content.
Eat little and often
Spacing meals evenly throughout the day can help prevent blood sugar dips and spikes and stave off feelings of hunger that can lead to overeating. It is better to eat five to seven small snacks or meals instead of three large meals.
Follow a regular routine
Eat meals and snacks at the same time each day, and keep track of foods consumed and their carb content.
Avoid fried foods
French fries, fried meats, and fried fast foods can lead to weight gain, increasing the risk of complications with diabetes.
Healthful snacks for people with diabetes promote feelings of fullness, reducing any urges to snack on unhealthy packaged foods and sweets. There are healthful foods in every food group, so having diabetes does not mean a person has to stop enjoying their food.
No single snack is perfect, and no food can provide perfect nutrition. That is why it is important to eat a wide variety of foods and to try a range of snacks.
The choice of snack will also depend on individual needs, as everyone’s situation is different. A person who has a diagnosis of diabetes should ask their healthcare provider registered dietitian to recommend suitable options.
I often hear that I need to follow a high-protein diet because I have type 2 diabetes. Is this true?
Getting adequate protein is necessary for many reasons, including feeling full for longer, curbing cravings, and reducing the spike in blood sugar when combined with carbohydrates.
Although eating a high protein diet may work for some people, it is not necessary to manage type 2 diabetes.
Consuming a well balanced diet consisting of an adequate amount of healthy, lean proteins and fats and portion-controlling carbohydrates is best for long-term, sustainable management of diabetes.
For specific carbohydrate and protein amounts, it is best to speak with a dietitian as these amounts will vary based on a number of factors including height, weight, activity level, and medications.
Natalie Olsen, RD, LD, ACSM EP-C Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.