So, you’ve seen your doctor and your fears have been confirmed. The “D word” has entered into your life—and this uninvited guest won’t be leaving anytime soon. Diabetes can be a scary diagnosis, largely because it’s not a temporary one.|
Unlike a nasty cold or a sprained ankle, diabetes is not just an annoying hiccup that can be fixed and forgotten—it’s a chronic disease that has no cure. It can be daunting to realize that for the rest of your life, you’ll need to monitor your blood sugar and take steps to keep it at a safe level—but with the right treatment and adjustments, it is manageable.
What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes is all about insulin, the hormone that helps move the glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream into the cells so it can be used as fuel for the body. When the body is low on insulin does not make enough of it, or doesn’t process the insulin properly (a condition called insulin resistance), it leads to a buildup of glucose in the bloodstream, which causes blood sugar levels to spike.
With Type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks cells in the pancreas so they can’t produce insulin. If you have Type 2 diabetes, that means your pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin or your body doesn’t use it properly (or both).
Over time, elevated blood glucose levels can lead to serious health hazards, including higher risk of heart attack and stroke, kidney failure, loss of limbs and blindness. To prevent this, your doctor will likely recommend a modified diet and exercise plan, supplemented by insulin injections and/or diabetes medications as necessary.
How Will Diabetes Affect Your Diet?
You almost certainly have lots of questions, perhaps the biggest of which is, “What the heck am I allowed (and not allowed) to eat?” You may be wondering whether you’ll still be able to enjoy the foods you love, or if you’re destined to lead a tasteless, sugar-free life.
Don’t fear: A diabetes diagnosis doesn’t have to mean a lifetime of bland meals. The key is to choose more of the “good foods” and less of the “not-so-good” foods. As always, you can still enjoy some of your favorite indulgences, as long as you practice moderation and portion control.
Stephanie Perruzza, registered dietitian for KIND, says there are three key things to keep in mind when managing diabetes for your individual eating style: balance, consistency and portion control. “Choose balanced meals and snacks that offer a variety of nutrients like fiber, protein and healthy fats,” she suggests. “It’s important to eat consistent, evenly spaced meals throughout the day and watch your portion sizes to aid in blood sugar management.”
We asked some nutrition experts what those with diabetes should consider before choosing what goes on their plates—and what to eliminate.
7 Foods to Watch if You Have Diabetes
Registered dietitian Ilana Muhlstein refers to fruit juices as “liquid candy,” and says they should be largely avoided by those with diabetes. “Juices give you the sugars from all of the fruits without the fiber from the pulp, which is meant to help curb the sugar load in your blood stream,” she says.
For hydration, it’s best to stick to water or tea. And if it’s the fruit you crave, opt for a whole piece of fresh produce rather than just the juice.
Flavored Plain Yogurts
Those yummy, fruit-flavored yogurts may seem like the best of both worlds, but they could actually be sugar traps masquerading as health food. When buying yogurt, Muhlstein says it’s always best to make sure there are more grams of protein than grams of sugar.
“If you are buying a flavored plain yogurt, as opposed to a higher-protein Greek yogurt variety, you can expect as much as three times more sugars than protein, which can certainly spike your blood sugar,” she says. Instead, she recommends choosing plain Greek yogurt with real fresh fruit or Stevia mixed in, or find a yogurt that has more grams of protein than sugar on the label, such as Siggi's.
100-Calorie Packs of Cookies
These petite-sized snack bags may seem like a smart way to satisfy your sweet tooth without busting your calorie budget, but Rissetto says those pre-portioned packs of cookies might not be as innocent as they seem.
“While they’re only 100 calories, they’re still purely sugar and not helping your glucose levels,” she says. “If you’re looking for something sweet, [have] some fruit with a small amount of dark chocolate. The fat from the chocolate will help stabilize blood sugar and keep you feeling full longer.”
Sauces & Condiments with Hidden Sugars
Registered dietitian Dr. Catherine Metzgar is on the clinical team at Virta Health, a type 2 diabetes clinic that helps patients through nutritional intervention. She warns that people with diabetes should avoid foods that contain hidden sugars, which includes certain salad dressings, marinara sauces and barbeque sauces.
“Even though these foods don't taste sweet, just one tablespoon of conventional barbecue sauce has about six grams of sugar,” Dr. Metzgar warns. There are low-sugar versions of sauces and condiments, so check the label before dousing your sandwich or salad.
Pumpkin Pastries & Drinks
At first glance, pumpkin seems like an excellent choice for a diabetic, as the food itself is low in calories, high in fiber and low in sugar. However, Muhlstein points out that it’s not very sweet in and of itself, and is often supplemented with added sugars.
“When a bakery or coffee shop starts selling pumpkin scones, cookies, muffins and lattes, it is likely coated in sugar, maple syrup, honey and every other code name for sugar, and can be harmful for someone with diabetes,” she warns.
Instead, Muhlstein suggests getting canned pure pureed pumpkin—the only ingredient should be pumpkin—and whipping it up with plain Greek yogurt, or ricotta cheese and a pinch of stevia, cinnamon and nutmeg, to make your own delicious pumpkin mousse for breakfast or a quick snack.
Muhlstein calls pretzels “white bread with better PR.” While the low sugar content may initially make the salty snack seem like a good choice for diabetics, they’re also high in carbohydrates, low in fiber and low in protein. And because diabetes is a risk factor for high blood pressure, the high salt content makes pretzels a poor snack choice.
Instead, Muhlstein recommends snacking on high-fiber crisp breads or crackers, like the kinds by Wasa, GG Scandinavian or Mary's Gone Crackers.
8 Foods That Are Good Choices for Those With Diabetes
Before reaching for that apple or banana, you might want to consider hopping on the berry bandwagon. Metzgar recommends choosing berry fruits—like raspberries, strawberries, blackberries and blueberries—instead of higher-sugar fruits.
“Berry fruits are lowest in carbohydrates and pack a powerful punch when it comes to antioxidants,” she says. “Plus, they’re a rich source of fiber, making them a perfect fruit choice for morning yogurt or a quick afternoon snack."
“Cauliflower is so high in fiber, and works great as a swap for higher carbohydrate dishes, making it an excellent choice for someone with diabetes,” says Muhlstein. She also appreciates the veggie’s versatility—cauliflower can be steamed and mashed like potatoes, spiced and roasted or even turned into pizza crust for a low-carb alternative when you’re craving pizza.
Registered dietitian Toby Smithson, a certified diabetes educator and person living with diabetes herself, recommends oatmeal as a staple of any diabetic’s diet.
“Oatmeal is a whole-grain cereal that contains fiber and no fat, which makes it a diabetes-friendly and heart-healthy food choice,” she says. “People with diabetes are two to four times more likely to develop heart disease, so it’s good to choose foods that can help lower the risk of heart disease, such as foods with soluble fiber, like oatmeal.”
Due to its high fiber content, Smithson says the carbohydrate in oatmeal is absorbed slower than other ready-to-eat cereals, which can assist with better blood sugar control.
Research has shown that for people with diabetes, adding nuts to a meal or snack in place of carbohydrates can help to improve blood sugar control. In addition to being chock full of protein, nuts also contain fiber and heart-healthy fats.
“Consuming nuts is similar to strapping on a seat belt as a protective heart health component,” says Smithson. “Walnuts contain an extra bonus as a plant source of omega-3 fatty acids.”
Almonds are another great nut for controlling blood sugar levels and even preventing pre- diabetes, says Smithson. “Almonds are a low glycemic food, high in unsaturated fats and fiber, which all may be reasons they do not raise blood sugar levels when combined with a high-carbohydrate meal,” she says.
As always, portion control is important when snacking on nuts. SparkPeople’s registered dietitian nutritionist, Becky Hand, recommends using this resource for portion sizing.
If you have diabetes, Perruzza says refined starches, which can actually behave a lot like sugar when ingested into the body, should be among the first to go. “Whole grains—like quinoa, oats, amaranth and buckwheat—contain carbohydrates, but also provide nutrients like fiber, which slows down digestion and helps to manage blood sugar levels,” she says. Perruzza says it’s important to stick to portions of 1/3 to ½-cup of cooked grains when consuming whole grains as part of a meal.
Beans and Lentils
These versatile, plant-based foods serve as lean sources of protein and fiber, which help to slow absorption of glucose into the bloodstream. Lentils and beans are specifically high in soluble fiber, which has been found to decrease cholesterol levels. They’re also rich in iron, folate, phosphorus, potassium, manganese, magnesium, thiamine and zinc.
Muhlstein says lupini beans—a type of ancient Italian beans—have the highest amount of plant-based protein per calorie when compared to other beans. They’re also very high in fiber, making them an incredible choice for stabilizing your blood sugar and also for weight control.
However, Smithson points out that for people with diabetes, it’s important to consider that beans and legumes are also a source of carbohydrate. “This doesn’t mean you can’t have legumes, but it does mean that you will need to fit it into your carbohydrate choices for that meal,” she says.
Fish High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Because people with diabetes have a higher risk for heart disease, it’s more important for them to consume a heart-healthy diet. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to decrease triglyceride levels and lower the risk of heart disease.
Smithson recommends incorporating fish high in omega-3s—such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, lake trout, herring or Albacore tuna—as lean, heart-healthy protein sources. “Make sure your fish is cooked using a fat-free method—baked, grilled or broiled—in order to keep it low in fat content,” she suggests.
Perruzza recommends that diabetics add more non-starchy veggies to their diet. “Dark, leafy greens, Brussels sprouts, carrots and tomatoes are lower in carbohydrates and full of vitamins, minerals and fiber, so they have a lower impact on blood sugar levels,” she explains. “They are also lower in calories, and a great option to incorporate into meals like a salad or cooked side dish.”
Finding the Diabetes Diet That Works for You
It’s important to remember that these are all general guidelines, and there is no “one size fits all” diet for everyone with diabetes. If you’ve been diagnosed, Hand strongly encourages you to meet with a dietitian or certified diabetes educator who can assess your nutritional needs and customize a dietary plan that complements your activity level, lifestyle, medications, food preferences and other factors.