A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins can benefit a person with diabetes. At the same time, the person should limit their intake of white bread, sweets, and other highly refined foods.
Both sugary and starchy carbohydrates can raise blood sugar levels. But these foods, in the right amounts, can play a role in a balanced meal plan. The right amount and type of carbohydrates can be based on many factors, including a person’s activity levels and medications, such as insulin.
A dietitian can make specific recommendations. However, as a general rule, people should try to follow the Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate guidelines.
For people with diabetes, the keys to a beneficial diet, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), are as follows:
- Include fruits and vegetables.
- Eat lean protein.
- Choose foods with less added sugar.
- Avoid trans fats.
- Eat fewer processed foods, especially ultra-processed foods.
This article looks at some of the best foods for people with diabetes, as well as which foods to limit and how to ensure that a diet is balanced.
Green, leafy vegetables are full of essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. They also have a minimal impact on blood sugar levels.
Leafy greens, including spinach and kale, are a key plant-based source of potassium, vitamin A, and calcium. They also provide protein and fiber.
Green, leafy vegetables include:
- collard greens
- bok choy
People can eat these vegetables in salads, side dishes, soups, and dinners. Combine them with a source of lean protein, such as chicken or tofu.
Whole grains contain high levels of fiber and more nutrients than refined white grains.
Eating a diet high in fiber is important for people with diabetes because fiber slows the digestion process. A slower absorption of nutrients helps keep blood sugar levels stable.
Whole wheat and whole grains are lower on the glycemic index (GI) scale than white breads and rice. This means that they have less of an impact on blood sugar.
Good examples of whole grains to include in the diet are:
- brown rice
- whole grain bread
- whole grain pasta
Try substituting whole grain options for white bread or white pasta.
Fatty fish is a healthy addition to any diet. It contains important omega-3 fatty acids called eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid. These are sometimes known as EPA and DHA.
People need certain amounts of healthy fats to keep their body functioning and to promote heart and brain health.
The ADA reports that a diet high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats can improve blood sugar control and blood lipids in people with diabetes.
Certain fish are a rich source of both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. These are:
- albacore tuna
People can eat seaweed, such as kelp and spirulina, as plant-based alternative sources of these fatty acids.
Instead of fried fish, which contains saturated and trans fats, people can try baked, roasted, or grilled fish. Try pairing this with a mix of vegetables.
Beans are an excellent option for people with diabetes. They are source of plant-based protein, and they can satisfy the appetite while helping people reduce their carbohydrate intake.
Beans are also low on the glycemic index (GI) scale and are better for blood sugar regulation than many other starchy foods.
According to a report from North Dakota State University, beans may also help people manage their blood sugar levels. They are a complex carbohydrate, so the body digests them slower than other carbohydrates.
The same report suggests that eating beans may help with weight loss and could help regulate blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Among the many types of beans are:
Beans also contain important nutrients, including iron, potassium, and magnesium. They are highly versatile — a person might eat them in chili, stew, or a wrap with vegetables, for example.
When using canned beans, be sure to choose options without added salt. Otherwise, drain and rinse the beans to remove any added salt.
Nuts can be another excellent addition to the diet. Like fish, nuts contain fatty acids that help keep the heart healthy.
Walnuts are especially rich in a type of omega-3 called alpha-lipoic acid (ALA). Like other omega-3s, ALA is important for heart health. People with diabetes may have a higher risk of heart disease or stroke, so it is important to consume these fatty acids.
Walnuts also provide key nutrients, such as protein, vitamin B6, magnesium, and iron. People might add a handful of walnuts to their breakfast or a mixed salad.
Eating these fruits can be a great way to get vitamins and minerals without any carbohydrates. And research has shown that citrus fruits, such as oranges, grapefruits, and lemons, can be beneficial for people with diabetes.
Some researchers have found that two bioflavonoid antioxidants, called hesperidin and naringin, are responsible for the antidiabetic effects of oranges, for example.
Citrus fruits are also a great source of:
Berries are full of antioxidants, which can help prevent oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is linked with a wide range of health conditions, including heart disease and some cancers.
Studies have found chronic levels of oxidative stress in people with diabetes. This occurs when there is an imbalance between antioxidants and unstable molecules called free radicals in the body.
Blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries all contain high levels of antioxidants and fiber. They also contain important other vitamins and minerals, including:
- vitamin C
- vitamin K
People can add fresh berries to their breakfast, eat a handful as a snack, or use frozen berries in a smoothie.
Sweet potatoes rank lower on the GI scale than white potatoes. This makes them a great alternative for people with diabetes, as they release sugar more slowly and do not raise blood sugar as much.
Sweet potatoes are also a great source of:
- vitamin A
- vitamin C
People enjoy sweet potatoes baked, boiled, roasted, or mashed. For a balanced meal, add a source of lean protein and green, leafy vegetables or a salad.
Probiotics are the helpful bacteria that live in the human gut and improve digestion and overall health.
A person should choose a plain variety with no added sugar. Probiotic yogurt contains live, active cultures called Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium, which may be advertised as on the label.
People can add berries and nuts to yogurt for a healthy breakfast or dessert.
People often call chia seeds a superfood because of their high antioxidant and omega-3 contents. They are also a good source of plant-based protein and fiber.
In one small-scale trial from 2017, people who were overweight and had type 2 diabetes lost more weight after 6 months when they included chia seeds in their diets, compared with those who ate an oat bran alternative. The researchers therefore believe that chia seeds can help people manage type 2 diabetes.
People can sprinkle chia seeds over breakfasts or salads, use them in baking, or add water and let them congeal to make a pudding dessert.
As the ADA reports, no single diet offers more benefits to a person with diabetes than another.
However, research suggests that low carb diets may be useful. Some people may try this with or in place of medical treatment, according to their doctor’s guidance.
A low carb diet can help reduce cravings, lower blood sugar levels, and boost energy. It may also help people with diabetes maintain a moderate weight.
Learn more about low carb diets for diabetes and find meal plans here.
Low carb diets also have variations, including:
The ketogenic, or “keto” diet, is very low in carbs. It allows for a maximum of 30 grams (g) of carbs each day.
This may help people with diabetes improve glycemic control and maintain a moderate weight. It may also reduce the risk of diabetes in people who do not have the condition.
According to a
The Paleolithic, or “paleo” diet, focuses on unprocessed foods similar to those that humans would have eaten thousands of years ago when hunting.
Researchers behind a small
Vegetarian or vegan diets
Low fat vegan diets may also help improve cholesterol levels.
Learn about weight loss diets for people with diabetes here.
One way to manage diabetes with dietary changes is to balance high and low GI foods. High GI foods increase blood sugar more than low GI foods.
When choosing high GI foods, limit the portions and pair them with sources of protein or healthy fat to reduce the impact on blood sugar and feel fuller for longer.
Foods high on the GI scale include:
- white bread
- puffed rice
- white rice
- white pasta
- white potatoes
People with diabetes may also wish to limit or balance portions of the following foods:
Carbohydrates are an important part of all meals. However, people with diabetes benefit from limiting their carbohydrate intake in a balanced diet or pairing carbs with a healthy protein or fat source.
High GI fruits
Most fruits are low on the GI scale, though melons and pineapple rank high. This means that they can increase blood glucose faster and higher than other fruits.
Saturated and trans fats
Unhealthful fats, such as saturated and trans fats, can make a person with diabetes feel worse. Many fried and processed foods, including fries, chips, and baked goods, contain these types of fats.
People with diabetes should limit or avoid sources of refined sugar, such as store-bought or homemade sweets, cakes, and biscuits.
The American Heart Association recommend consuming no more than
Drinks that contain a lot of sugar, such as energy drinks, some coffees, and shakes, can disrupt a person’s insulin levels, leading to an imbalance.
Foods that are high in salt can raise blood pressure. Salt may appear as “sodium” on a food label.
The ADA recommends limiting the sodium intake to under 2,300 milligrams per day, regardless of a person’s diabetes status.
Drinking alcohol in moderation should not carry serious risks for people with diabetes and should not affect long-term glucose control.
People using insulin or insulin secretagogue therapies may have a higher risk of hypoglycemia linked to alcohol consumption.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that women who drink alcohol limit it to up to one drink per day and that men limit it to up to two drinks per day — regardless of a person’s diabetes status.
For people with gestational diabetes, it can help to develop a meal plan with a healthcare professional.
This may involve carefully accounting for carbohydrates to make sure that the person has enough energy but keeps their blood sugar levels under control.
People with gestational diabetes benefit from a balanced diet of fiber, vegetables, fruit, protein, healthy fats, and legumes, including the foods listed above.
People with diabetes can work with a healthcare professional to develop a personalized nutrition plan.
Having a healthy, balanced diet that contains the foods listed above can help people with diabetes manage their condition and prevent complications by:
- controlling blood sugar levels
- lowering inflammation
- reducing the risk of heart disease
- increasing antioxidant activity
- reducing the risk of kidney disease
Pregnant people with gestational diabetes can work with a healthcare professional to create a meal plan that helps them and their baby stay safe and healthy.