The diabetes diet: the best foods to control diabetes
What should you eat if you have diabetes? If you’re confused by this question because you’ve heard a lot of conflicting information, you’re hardly alone. Fortunately, the answer should be quite simple: Eat foods that don’t raise blood sugar very much. This means low-carbohydrate foods.
Although low-carb diets were routinely prescribed for people with diabetes more than 100 years ago — often with excellent results — recommendations to eat more carbs became the standard once insulin and diabetes medications were available.1 Unfortunately, diabetes medications can not cure the underlying problem, especially not in type 2 diabetes.
However, going back to the time-honored approach of eating low-carb foods can help control blood sugar in type 1 diabetes and potentially reverse type 2 diabetes, while reducing the need for medications.
In this comprehensive guide, you’ll learn exactly what to eat for diabetes.
1. The diabetes diet: what to eat and what to avoid
There are many delicious foods that you can and should enjoy on a low-carb diabetes diet. Here’s a list of the best foods to eat — and the ones to stay away from.
Foods to eat
- Meat of all types: Ground beef, steak, roast beef, pork chops, ribs, sausage, bacon, pork roast, chicken, turkey
- Seafood of all types: fish, shrimp, scallops, oysters, clams, mussels, crab, lobster
- Canned fish of all varieties: tuna, salmon, sardines, anchovies
- Luncheon meat: ham, roast beef, pastrami, salami, pepperoni, turkey, chicken
- Tofu, tempeh
Full-fat dairy products
- Cheese: all varieties
- Greek yogurt, ricotta cheese, or cottage cheese (limit to one-half cup)
- Butter, ghee
- Sour cream and cream cheese
- Natural oils (olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, nut oils of all types)
- Chicken fat (schmaltz)
- Duck fat
- Coconut milk
All non-starchy vegetables, including:
Greens, all types
Heart of Palm
Onions (small amounts)
Sugar snap peas
Berries (limit to one-half cup per day)
Nuts (limit for weight loss)
- Brazil nuts
- Macadamia nuts
- Coconut (unsweetened)
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Herbs and spices (no added sugar)
- Hot sauce
- Mustard (plain)
- Tomato salsa (limit to 2 tablespoons)
- Soy sauce or tamari
- Water (still or sparkling)
- Dry wine (limit to 1 glass per day, consumed with a meal)
Foods to avoid
Avoiding any foods that aren’t on the list above will help prevent blood sugar elevations, or spikes. This includes many foods that most people agree are not good for your health, like:
- Sugar in any form: white sugar, brown sugar, coconut sugar, honey, maple syrup, agave
- Cakes, pies, cookies, ice cream, candy, and other sweets
- Pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs, burritos, and similar foods
- White bread, white rice, pasta, and potatoes
- Soda, punch, sweetened tea and coffee, sweet alcoholic beverages
However, there are also some foods on the “avoid” list that may surprise you, such as:
- Whole grains (cereal, pasta, bread, tortillas, rice)
- Sweet potatoes
- Beans and lentils
- All fruit juice and most fruit (other than berries)
Why should you avoid eating these foods — even those that are typically considered healthy? Because they all raise blood sugar once they have been digested and absorbed by your body (learn more here).
Diabetes breakfast tips
A good diabetes breakfast needn’t be elaborate or time-consuming; in fact, it can even be skipped altogether if you’re not hungry. There’s also no rule that your first meal must contain traditional breakfast fare, like eggs. Although eggs are always an excellent choice, last night’s leftovers are great too — and a huge time saver on busy mornings.
Here are a few quick and easy breakfasts to get your day off to a good start:
Diabetes meal tips
What can you eat for lunch when sandwiches are off the table? How do you plan a balanced dinner without potatoes, pasta, or rice? No need to worry — the options are unlimited!
Little changes can make a big difference:
- Use lettuce in place of bread for sandwiches and burgers
- Shred cauliflower and pan-fry in oil to make cauliflower “rice” for a low-carb burrito bowl, or as a side dish for meat or fish
- Cut zucchini into spirals to make noodles, aka “zoodles”; saute in butter and garlic, then top with chicken or protein of choice
- Boil cauliflower until tender, then blend together with butter, cream, and salt to make mashed “faux-tatoes” as a side dish for turkey or other protein
Check out these delicious diabetes-friendly recipes:
Popular keto meals right now
Diabetes dessert tips
Although it’s not recommended on a regular basis, occasionally enjoying a sugar-free dessert is entirely compatible with low-carb diabetes eating. Unlike people who eat low-carb exclusively for weight loss purposes, those with diabetes can’t indulge in conventional high-carb sweets without risking a dramatic, potentially damaging, increase in blood sugar — even if medication is adjusted. Here are several delicious options for diabetes-friendly treats to enjoy every now and then:
Diabetes snack tips
Like desserts, snacks don’t necessarily need to be part of your daily diet. However, if you do get hungry in between meals and feel you need to eat, choose cheese, olives, eggs, or other foods on this list of healthy snacks:
Keto snacks – the best and the worst
GuideAre you hungry on your keto diet, but it’s not meal-time? Then keto snacks can be the answer. Snacks can buy you some time, allowing you to delay meals to fit your busy schedule. Check out some great keto snack options and common snacking mistakes to avoid.
2. How do different foods affect blood sugar?
The diabetes foods list above contains sources of three broad categories known as macronutrients (major nutrients): carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Instead of being 100% protein, fat or carbs, though, many foods are actually a combination of two or all three — nuts, seeds and yogurt, for example. But how does each macronutrient affect your blood sugar?
Of the three macronutrients, carbs raise blood sugar the most — especially in people who have diabetes. This is why the American Diabetes Association recently announced that regardless of the style of your diet, reducing carbohydrate intake improves blood sugar control.2 The two types of carbs that raise blood sugar are starches and sugars:
Starches: long chains of sugar units that are linked together
Examples: grains, rice, pasta, potatoes, peas, corn
Sugars: two sugar units that are linked together
Examples: fruit, milk, table sugar, honey
After carbs are consumed, they are broken down into single sugar units in your digestive tract and absorbed into your bloodstream. This causes your blood sugar to rise immediately. As a result, eating starchy foods like rice and bread can raise blood sugar as much as sweet foods.3
Importantly, one portion of the carbs in whole plant foods isn’t digested and absorbed into the bloodstream: fiber.4 For this reason, fiber that occurs naturally in foods generally doesn’t raise blood sugar. The digestible, non-fiber portion of carbs is often referred to as “net carbs,” which are calculated by subtracting fiber from the total carbs a food contains.
For example, if you consume one-third of a cup of white rice, which has about 15 grams of carbs and zero fiber, your body absorbs all of the carbs, leading to a spike in blood sugar. By contrast, 3 cups of chopped cauliflower also has about 15 grams of carbs, including 7 grams of fiber. If you eat the cauliflower, you’ll only get 8 grams of net carbs, and your blood sugar will increase much less and more gradually due to the lower net carbs and a slowing effect from the fiber. Furthermore, 3 cups of chopped cauliflower is probably more than you’d be able to consume at one sitting, and consuming a smaller portion would further reduce your net carb intake.
Just as carbohydrates are made up of chains of sugar (glucose) molecules, the protein you eat is made up of linked chains of individual units called amino acids. During digestion, these chains are broken down into those amino acids, which are absorbed into your bloodstream.
Although responses among different people vary slightly, consuming a moderate amount of protein at one time generally has little effect on blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes who produce insulin. However, in people with type 1 diabetes, or those with type 2 who have progressed to no longer producing insulin, consuming moderate to large amounts of protein may raise blood sugar — although more gradually and to a lesser extent than carbs do — unless a small amount of insulin is injected.5
Dietary fat has very little effect on blood sugar. In fact, consuming pure fat all by itself is unlikely to increase your blood sugar at all. Including fat at a meal delays the rate at which carb-containing foods are broken down and absorbed. This can help prevent blood sugar spikes if carbs are kept low. However, studies conducted on people with type 1 diabetes have shown that consuming a high-fat, high-carb meal can prolong the time that blood sugar remains elevated after eating.6 This is why it’s especially important to avoid eating meals that are high in both fat and carbs.
3. How many carbs can I eat if I have diabetes?
What should your daily carb intake be? Although lower is generally better, exactly how many carbs you can tolerate is somewhat individual. You and your friend may both have diabetes, yet after eating an identical meal, your own blood sugar may be higher or lower than your friend’s an hour or two later. What’s more, one of you may no longer have blood sugar in what is considered the normal, healthy range.
Monitoring blood sugar response
If you keep net carbs very low (under 10 grams per meal), your blood sugar is likely to remain well controlled at all times. If you want to experiment with eating slightly more carbs, make sure to test your blood sugar to determine your personal carb tolerance. Try to measure your blood glucose before eating and then at 1 and 2 hours after eating. Keep a log of your blood sugar readings along with what you ate, and adjust your carb intake as needed based on your results.
Understanding HbA1c — the long-term blood sugar
GuideThis guide will help you interpret your HbA1c results, and explain why HbA1c is an important way to measure metabolic health. We’ll also explain reasons for occasional unexpected variations in HbA1c results and the strengths and weaknesses of the test.
4. Diabetes meal planning: keep it simple
There are just three steps to planning a meal to keep blood sugars low. Start with adequate protein, include healthy fat, and keep your carbs low and consistent across meals.
Start with adequate protein
Protein is important for maintaining muscle, preventing bone loss, and helping to control appetite, among its many other functions. Make sure to include a good source at each meal, but keep portion sizes moderate, about 3-6 ounces (85-170 grams) of meat, poultry, fish, or tofu; or 3-6 eggs.
Include healthy fat
Fat is the macronutrient that has the least effect on blood sugar, adds richness and flavor to meals, and provides the majority of your energy needs on a low-carb diabetes diet. Remember to choose from the natural sources in the list above rather than industrial seed oils (like soybean, corn, or canola oil) or margarines, mayonnaise and other spreads made from them.
Keep carbs low and consistent across meals
With diabetes, it’s not just how many carbs you consume per day that matters; your carb intake at each meal is important because it can affect your blood sugar for several hours. It’s best to aim for roughly the same amount of net carbs (10 grams or less) at each meal instead of eating most of your carbs at one sitting. Remember that testing your blood sugar will confirm whether your blood sugar remains within the healthy range.
Healthy fats on a keto or low-carb diet
Guide Fat is one of the three macronutrients (“macros”) found in food. On a keto or low-carb diet, fat is your primary energy source, so choosing healthy types and eating the right amount is important. Here’s a guide to everything you need to know about fat on a carb-restricted diet.
Carbohydrates on a keto or low-carb diet
Guide Carbohydrates, or “carbs”, are one of the macronutrients found in food. They supply one of the body’s potential energy sources. A low-carb or keto way of eating restricts carbs in order to promote weight loss and improve health. Here’s a guide to understanding what carbs are and the possible benefits of reducing them in your diet.
5. Sample 14-day diabetes meal plan with recipes
Here is a two-week diabetes meal plan featuring delicious recipes based on real food. With the exception of one dinner that has 11 grams of net carbs, each meal contains 10 or fewer grams of net carbs:
This meal plan is the first week of our free 14-day keto diet plan. As a member you’ll get it complete with a shopping list and the possibility of changing the number of servings. This meal plan will give you a great variety of keto dishes and helps you stay below 20 grams of carbs per day.
If there are any foods or recipes on the meal plan you either don’t like, don’t eat, or are unable to prepare, feel free to replace them with different items. Simply choose anything that appeals to you from among the 300+ keto recipes available at Diet Doctor — or create your own meals by selecting foods from the diabetes foods list.
Interested in additional diabetes meal plans? We have several other meal plans available with Diet Doctor Plus, our membership program, including:
Quick-prep recipes meal plan: Do you have a limited amount of time to prepare and cook meals? All of the recipes in this meal plan take 15 or fewer minutes to put together.
5-ingredient recipes meal plan: If you prefer recipes that don’t have a long list of ingredients, you’ll love our meal plans featuring recipes with no more than 5 ingredients.
Budget-friendly meal plan: Are you concerned about the cost of switching to a low-carb diabetes diet? Here’s a meal plan that contains a variety of affordable recipes.
An effective diabetes diet doesn’t have to be complicated; in fact, it can be surprisingly simple and enjoyable. By eating delicious whole foods that are naturally low in carbohydrates, you’ll be on your way to reversing type 2 diabetes or achieving optimal blood sugar control with type 1 diabetes.