Lean meat and meat alternatives are the best options for people with diabetes. Fatty and processed meats contain unhealthy fats that can increase cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.

In this article, we discuss healthful meat options and meats to avoid. We also talk about the benefits of a plant-based diet for diabetes and include ideas for meat alternatives.

A woman prepares a steak, which can be one of the healthy meats for diabetics.Share on Pinterest
Lean meats, including some cuts of beef, pork, and chicken, can be suitable food options for people with diabetes.

People with diabetes should choose lean meats to limit their intake of unhealthful fats. The Diabetic Exchange List can help with this.

The list, which a committee of the American Diabetes Association and the American Dietetic Association created, shows meat choices based on protein, fat, and calorie content.

The following sections show nutrients for a 1-ounce (oz) serving of meat. All portions contain 7 grams (g) of protein.

Very lean meat

Very lean meat has 1 g of fat and 35 calories per serving. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) list only turkey or chicken breast without the skin as being very lean.

Lean meat

Lean meat has 3 g of fat and 55 calories. These meats include:

  • some beef cuts, such as sirloin, flank steak, tenderloin, and chipped beef
  • lean pork, such as fresh, canned, cured, or boiled ham, Canadian bacon, and tenderloin
  • veal, except for veal cutlets
  • poultry, including chicken, turkey, and Cornish hen (without skin)
  • wild game, such as venison and rabbit, and including pheasant, duck, and goose without skin

It is important to note that certain meats, such as Canadian bacon and chipped beef, have a higher sodium content of 400 milligrams or more per serving.

Some meats are less healthful than the lean options but may be suitable for consumption in moderation.

Medium fat meat

Medium fat meat contains 5 g of fat and 75 calories per 1-oz serving. People should eat smaller portions of medium fat meats or include them in the diet infrequently. Medium fat meats include:

  • ground beef, chuck steak, and T-bone steak
  • pork chops, loin roast, and cutlets
  • roasted lamb and lamb chops and leg
  • veal cutlets, either ground or cubed and unbreaded
  • poultry with skin, ground turkey, and domestic duck or goose
  • liver, heart, kidney, and sweetbreads
  • 86% fat-free luncheon meat (although this is high sodium)

People with diabetes should avoid high fat and processed meats. High fat meats contain 8 g of fat and 100 calories per 1-oz serving. Meats to avoid include:

  • prime cuts of beef, such as ribs
  • pork products, such as spareribs, ground pork, and sausages
  • lamb patties made from ground lamb
  • processed meats, such as sausages, salami, frankfurter, hot dogs, corned beef, and luncheon meat

The amount of meat that people should eat each day varies according to individual factors, such as age, body size, and activity levels.

According to experts, someone eating a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet should consume 50 g of protein and less than 10% of calories from saturated fat.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), people should choose a variety of protein foods and replace some meats and poultry with fish and plant-based sources.

The EPIC-InterAct study found an association between meat consumption and type 2 diabetes.

The researchers followed more than 340,000 adults in eight European countries for over 11 years. They confirmed a higher risk among individuals with a higher meat consumption, specifically of red and processed meat.

In another large study of more than 63,000 Chinese adults, researchers found a higher risk of type 2 diabetes in people who ate red meat and those who ate poultry with a higher heme iron content.

These studies suggest the importance of a healthful diet in managing diabetes.

People with diabetes can replace some of the meat in their diet with the following alternatives:


The American Diabetes Association recommend that people include fish in their diet at least twice per week. Types of fish to include are:

  • fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, Albacore tuna, mackerel, herring, rainbow trout, and sardines
  • other fish, such as cod, halibut, haddock, and flounder
  • shellfish, such as crab, lobster, shrimp, scallops, clams, and oysters

According to some research, oily fish high in omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Plant-based foods

Plant-based alternatives to meat can be a healthful choice for people with diabetes.

A 2018 systematic review in the BMJ indicated that people with diabetes on plant-based diets experienced the following health improvements:

  • decreased HbA1c levels
  • more weight loss
  • improved cholesterol profile
  • less depression
  • less perceived pain and neuropathy symptoms

Plant-based protein alternatives include:

  • beans, legumes, and lentils
  • nuts and seeds
  • tofu and soy products
  • seitan made from wheat gluten

Whole grains, such as wheat, rice, and oats, also contribute to protein requirements on a plant-based diet by providing a variety of amino acids. A strict plant-based diet should include whole grains, protein sources, and healthful fats, such as avocado and olive oil.

Learn more about the best vegetables for type 2 diabetes here.

People with diabetes need to monitor how their diet and insulin medication affect their blood glucose levels. It is advisable to discuss any new changes to the diet with a dietitian.

These professionals can help someone plan their meals to make sure that they get sufficient essential nutrients while also balancing their blood sugar.

If a person finds it difficult to speak to a dietitian, they can talk to their doctor, who can provide dietary recommendations.

People with diabetes can include lean meat, fish, and plant-based alternatives in their diet. They should avoid meats high in saturated or trans fats to reduce the risk of high cholesterol and heart disease.

Where possible, people with diabetes should speak to a dietitian to help them plan their meals, particularly if they take insulin medication.