The diet can play an essential role in managing diabetes. Understanding how certain foods affect insulin and blood sugar levels can help a person make informed choices about what to eat and when.

A person with diabetes can eat a balanced, healthy diet without giving up the foods they enjoy. The important factors in an effective diabetes diet include moderation and careful food choices to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.

When a person eats carbohydrates, the body releases the hormone insulin. Insulin helps the body use and store these carbohydrates, lowering blood sugar levels. In a person with diabetes, the body does not release or use insulin as it should, causing their blood sugar levels to remain high.

A person with diabetes should speak with a doctor or dietitian before making any significant dietary changes.

In this article, we identify some of the best foods for stabilizing insulin and blood sugar levels. We also look at certain foods a person with diabetes should avoid or eat only in moderation.

Visit our dedicated diabetes hub here.

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These vegetables are an excellent addition to almost any diet, including those suitable for people with diabetes.

There are two main types of vegetables: starchy and non-starchy. Starchy vegetables are rich in carbohydrates, which can raise a person’s blood sugar levels.

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends eating at least 3–5 servings of vegetables each day. They define a serving as half a cup of cooked vegetables or one cup of uncooked vegetables.

Some examples of non-starchy vegetables include:

Most vegetables are available frozen, canned, or fresh. If a person is not eating them raw, roasting and steaming them are two easy preparation methods. Cooking vegetables in moderate amounts of olive oil is also a good way to get more healthy fats into a person’s diet.

Whole grains offer a more healthy alternative to highly processed or refined grains. They contain the endosperm, bran, and germ of a grain. Refined grains contain only the endosperm, offering less nutritional benefit.

The main difference is that whole grains have more fiber, whereas refined grains only include the starchy part of the grain. Eating the starchy endosperm alone may cause a person’s blood sugar levels to rise rapidly.

Look for products with 100% whole-grain ingredients. Some popular examples include:

  • whole-grain crackers
  • popcorn
  • brown rice
  • whole-wheat pasta
  • whole-grain cereals
  • quinoa
  • whole oats or oatmeal
  • whole-grain breads, pitas, and tortillas

A person can incorporate whole-grain products into meals or snacks to help manage their blood sugar levels.

According to a review from 2017, in addition to helping manage diabetes, consuming whole grains may help prevent cardiovascular disease and several types of cancer, including gastric, pancreatic, and colorectal cancer.

There are several different types of dietary fat. Whereas some types may negatively impact health in excess, other types may help promote good health.

Healthy fats may be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Omega-3, a fatty acid abundant in oily fish, is one example. Trans and saturated fats can increase levels of harmful cholesterol in the blood. This can contribute to the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Eating more unsaturated fats and less saturated fats can help lower the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Consuming unsaturated fats in place of saturated fats can also help lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels and improve blood sugar control. People often refer to LDL cholesterol as “bad” cholesterol.

Many foods are rich in unsaturated fats. Some examples include:

Learn about healthy and unhealthy fats here.

Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and herring, tend to have high amounts of protein and omega-3 fatty acids.

The high protein content is particularly healthy for people with diabetes, as it has a low impact on blood sugar. It is filling and provides essential nutrients to help the body grow and repair.

Consumption of omega-3 fatty acids may reduce a person’s risk of heart failure and support cognitive function.

People with diabetes should try adding fatty fish to their diet twice per week.

As with other foods, preparation is key. Avoid sugary marinades and try grilling the fish instead of frying it.

Cacao is a bean-like seed. Grinding these seeds produces a powder that is bitter and full of nutrients. Manufacturers use it to create chocolate.

Cacao contains flavonoids, which may help regulate blood sugar levels. A 2017 review points to the findings of several small studies, which suggest that cacao may help insulin resistance and slow the progression of type 2 diabetes.

An easy way to add cacao to the diet is by eating dark chocolate, as it has more cacao than milk chocolate. However, dark chocolate still contains sugar, and consuming too much might still cause a spike in blood sugar. As such, a person should consume dark chocolate in moderation.

While dark chocolate typically contains less sugar than milk chocolate, brands may differ, and it is important to check the label for the sugar content.

Protein is an essential nutrient in meats, fish, and plant-based foods, such as nuts, beans, and legumes.

Research suggests that protein does not increase blood sugar levels and can help a person feel fuller for longer. High-protein diets may also help people reach and maintain a moderate weight more effectively than moderate- or low-protein diets.

Learn more about weight loss and diabetes here.

However, a 2016 study found that high protein intake can have mixed results in regards to the risk of developing type 2 diabetes depending on the source of the protein.

Earlier short-term studies indicate that a high-protein diet may decrease a person’s blood sugar levels.

However, on a longer-term basis, a diet that contains too much animal protein may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. A diet with plenty of plant-based proteins, on the other hand, may modestly decrease this risk.

A person with diabetes should favor foods with lots of protein but little saturated fat. Some examples include:

  • fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna
  • skinless poultry, such as chicken and turkey
  • beans, such as lima, kidney, or black beans
  • lentils
  • nuts and seeds
  • soybeans and tofu
  • low fat dairy products, such as low fat Greek yogurt

A person can easily add protein to a meal. For example, beans are an excellent addition to salads, as are roasted chicken breasts without toppings.

Discover more high-protein foods here.

There are several foods that a person with diabetes should limit or eat only in moderation.

The following can cause a person’s blood sugar and insulin levels to spike:

  • sugary drinks, such as soda, juices, and sports drinks
  • processed foods and baked goods, which often contain trans fats
  • white rice, bread, and pasta
  • breakfast cereals with added sugar
  • yogurts with added sugar
  • honey and maple syrup
  • flavored, sugary coffee drinks
  • French fries

Learn more about which foods to limit in a diabetes diet here.

Diabetes can cause a range of symptoms and health issues. Maintaining regular insulin and blood sugar levels can have a range of benefits, including:

Effective diabetes management can also reduce the risk of more severe complications, including:

Blood sugar tracking

A person can use devices to track their blood glucose levels.

Blood glucose monitors are portable devices that give people a snapshot of their blood glucose levels. To use these devices, a person must obtain a blood sample via a small prick on their finger. The monitor can then assess this blood sample.

Continuous glucose monitors constantly measure blood glucose levels throughout the day. These devices use a small implant under the skin to get continuous readings.

This information allows people with diabetes to assess trends in blood glucose and manage these levels accordingly.

Learn more about continuous glucose monitors here.

To stay healthy, people with diabetes need to manage their blood sugar and insulin levels.

In addition to medications, lifestyle and dietary changes are an essential part of diabetes management. Certain foods can help promote stable blood sugar levels, while others can make them less stable.

By eating a balanced diet filled with whole grains, vegetables, legumes, lean protein, nuts, and seeds, a person can better control their blood sugar and insulin levels.