Figuring out the best foods to eat when you have diabetes doesn’t have to be tough.
To keep things simple, your main goal should be managing your blood sugar levels.
It’s also important to eat foods that help prevent diabetes complications like heart disease.
Your diet can have a major role in preventing and managing diabetes.
Here are the 16 best foods for people living with diabetes, both type 1 and type 2.
Best foods for people living with diabetes
1. Fatty fish
Salmon, sardines, herring, anchovies, and mackerel are great sources of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, which have major benefits for heart health.
Getting enough of these fats regularly is especially important for people with diabetes, who have an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
DHA and EPA protect the cells that line your blood vessels, reduce markers of inflammation, and may help improve the way your arteries function.
Research indicates that people who eat fatty fish regularly have a lower risk of acute coronary syndromes, like heart attacks, and are less likely to die from heart disease.
Studies show that eating fatty fish may also help regulate blood sugar.
A study involving 68 adults who had overweight or obesity found that participants who consumed fatty fish had significant improvements in post-meal blood sugar levels than participants who consumed lean fish.
Fish is also a great source of high-quality protein, which helps you feel full and helps stabilize blood sugar levels.
Summary: Fatty fish contain omega-3 fats that can help reduce inflammation and other risk factors of heart disease and stroke. Plus, it’s a great source of protein, which is important for managing blood sugar.
2. Leafy greens
Leafy green vegetables are extremely nutritious and low in calories.
They’re also very low in digestible carbs, or carbs absorbed by the body, so they won’t significantly affect blood sugar levels.
Spinach, kale, and other leafy greens are good sources of many vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C.
Some evidence suggests that people with diabetes have lower vitamin C levels than people without diabetes, and they may have greater vitamin C requirements.
Vitamin C acts as a potent antioxidant and also has anti-inflammatory qualities.
Increasing dietary intake of vitamin C-rich foods can help people with diabetes increase their serum vitamin C levels while reducing inflammation and cellular damage.
Summary: Leafy green vegetables are rich in nutrients like vitamin C as well as antioxidants that protect your heart and eye health.
Avocados have less than 1 gram of sugar, few carbohydrates, a high fiber content, and healthy fats, so you don’t have to worry about them raising your blood sugar levels.
Avocado consumption is also associated with improved overall diet quality and significantly lower body weight and body mass index (BMI).
This makes avocados an ideal snack for people with diabetes, especially since obesity increases the chances of developing diabetes.
Avocados may have properties specific to preventing diabetes.
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A 2019 study in mice found that avocatin B (AvoB), a fat molecule found only in avocados, inhibits incomplete oxidation in skeletal muscle and the pancreas, which reduces insulin resistance.
More research is needed in humans to establish the connection between avocados and diabetes prevention.
Summary: Avocados have less than 1 gram of sugar and are associated with improved overall diet quality. Avocados may also have properties specific to diabetes prevention.
Regular egg consumption may reduce your heart disease risk in several ways.
Eggs may decrease inflammation, improve insulin sensitivity, increase your HDL (good) cholesterol levels, and modify the size and shape of your LDL (bad) cholesterol.
A 2019 study found that eating a high-fat, low-carb breakfast of eggs could help people with diabetes manage blood sugar levels throughout the day.
Older research has linked egg consumption with heart disease in people with diabetes.
But a more recent review of controlled studies found that eating 6 to 12 eggs per week as part of a nutritious diet did not increase heart disease risk factors in people with diabetes.
What’s more, some research suggests that eating eggs may reduce the risk of stroke.
Summary: Eggs may improve risk factors for heart disease, promote good blood sugar management, protect eye health, and keep you feeling full.
5. Chia seeds
Chia seeds are a wonderful food for people with diabetes.
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They’re extremely high in fiber, yet low in digestible carbs.
11 of the 12 grams of carbs in a 28-gram (1-ounce) serving of chia seeds are fiber, which doesn’t raise blood sugar.
The viscous fiber in chia seeds can lower your blood sugar levels by slowing down the rate at which food moves through your gut and is absorbed.
Chia seeds may help you achieve a moderate weight because fiber reduces hunger and makes you feel full. Chia seeds may also help maintain glycemic management in people with diabetes.
A study involving 77 adults with overweight or obesity and a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes found that eating chia seeds supports weight loss and helps maintain good glycemic control.
Additionally, chia seeds have been shown to help reduce blood pressure and inflammatory markers.
Summary: Chia seeds contain high amounts of fiber, which may help you lose weight. They also help maintain blood glucose levels.
Beans are affordable, nutritious, and super healthy.
Beans are a type of legume rich in B vitamins, beneficial minerals (calcium, potassium, and magnesium), and fiber.
They also have a very low glycemic index, which is important for managing diabetes.
Beans may also help prevent diabetes.
In a study involving more than 3,000 participants at high risk of cardiovascular disease, those who had a higher consumption of legumes had a reduced chance of developing type 2 diabetes.
Summary: Beans are cheap, nutritious, and have a low glycemic index, making them a healthy option for people with diabetes.
7. Greek yogurt
A long-term study involving health data from more than 100,000 participants found that a daily serving of yogurt was linked to an 18 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
It may also help you lose weight if that’s a personal goal.
Studies show yogurt and other dairy foods may lead to weight loss and improved body composition in people with type 2 diabetes.
The high levels of calcium, protein and a special type of fat called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) found in yogurt may help keep you full for longer.
What’s more, Greek yogurt contains only 6–8 grams of carbs per serving, which is lower than conventional yogurt.
It’s also higher in protein, which may promote weight loss by reducing appetite and thus decreasing calorie intake.
Summary: Yogurt may promote healthy blood sugar levels, reduce risk factors for heart disease, and help with weight management.
Nuts are delicious and nutritious.
Most types of nuts contain fiber and are low in net carbs, although some have more than others.
Research on a variety of different nuts has shown that regular consumption may reduce inflammation and lower blood sugar, HbA1c (a marker for long-term blood sugar management), and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
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Nuts may also help people with diabetes improve their heart health.
A 2019 study involving more than 16,000 participants with type 2 diabetes found that eating tree nuts — such as walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and pistachios — lowered their risk of heart disease and death.
Research also indicates that nuts can improve blood glucose levels.
A study with people with type 2 diabetes found that eating walnut oil daily improved blood glucose levels.
This finding is important because people with type 2 diabetes often have elevated levels of insulin, which are linked to obesity.
Summary: Nuts are a healthy addition to a balanced diet. They’re high in fiber and can help reduce blood sugar and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
Broccoli is one of the most nutritious vegetables around.
A half-cup of cooked broccoli contains only 27 calories and 3 grams of digestible carbs, along with important nutrients like vitamin C and magnesium.
Broccoli may also help manage your blood sugar levels.
One study found that consuming broccoli sprouts led to a reduction in blood glucose in people with diabetes.
This reduction in blood glucose levels is likely due to sulforaphane, a chemical in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and sprouts.
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Summary: Broccoli is a low-calorie, low-carb food with high nutrient value. It’s loaded with healthy plant compounds that may help protect against various diseases.
10. Extra-virgin olive oil
Extra-virgin olive oil contains oleic acid, a type of monounsaturated fat that may improve glycemic management, reduce fasting and post-meal triglyceride levels, and has antioxidant properties.
This is important because people with diabetes tend to have trouble managing blood sugar levels and have high triglyceride levels.
Oleic acid may also stimulate the fullness hormone GLP-1.
In a large analysis of 32 studies looking at different types of fat, olive oil was the only one shown to reduce heart disease risk.
Olive oil also contains antioxidants called polyphenols.
Polyphenols reduce inflammation, protect the cells lining your blood vessels, keep oxidation from damaging your LDL (bad) cholesterol, and decrease blood pressure.
Extra-virgin olive oil is unrefined, so it retains antioxidants and other properties that make it so healthy.
Be sure to choose extra-virgin olive oil from a reputable source, since many olive oils are mixed with cheaper oils like corn and soy.
Summary: Extra-virgin olive oil contains healthy oleic acid. It has benefits for blood pressure and heart health.
Also known as common flax or linseeds, flaxseeds have a high content of heart-healthy omega-3 fats, fiber, and other unique plant compounds.
A portion of their insoluble fiber is made up of lignans, which may help decrease heart disease risk and improve blood sugar management.
A review analyzing 25 randomized clinical trials found a significant association between whole flaxseed supplementation and a reduction in blood glucose.
Flaxseeds may also help lower blood pressure.
A 2016 study involving participants with prediabetes found that a daily intake of flaxseed powder lowered blood pressure — but it did not improve glycemic management or insulin resistance.
More research is needed to investigate how flaxseed can help prevent or manage diabetes.
But overall, flaxseed is beneficial for your heart and gut health.
Plus, flaxseeds are very high in viscous fiber, which improves gut health, insulin sensitivity, and feelings of fullness.
Summary: Flaxseeds may help reduce inflammation, lower heart disease risk, decrease blood sugar levels, and improve insulin sensitivity.
12. Apple cider vinegar and vinegar
Apple cider vinegar and plain vinegar have many health benefits.
Although it’s made from apples, the sugar in the fruit is fermented into acetic acid. The resulting product contains less than 1 gram of carbs per tablespoon.
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According to a meta-analysis of six studies, including 317 people with type 2 diabetes, vinegar has beneficial effects on fasting blood sugar levels and HbA1c.
Apple cider vinegar may have many other healthful properties, including antimicrobial and antioxidant effects. But more studies are needed to confirm its health benefits.
To incorporate apple cider vinegar into your diet, begin with 4 teaspoons mixed in a glass of water each day before each meal. Note that you may want to put 1 teaspoon per glass of water so that the taste is not as strong. Increase to a maximum of 4 tablespoons per day.
Summary: Apple cider vinegar may help improve fasting blood sugar levels, but more research is needed to confirm its health benefits.
Strawberries are high in antioxidants known as anthocyanins, which give them their red color.
They also contain polyphenols, which are beneficial plant compounds with antioxidant properties.
A 2017 study found that a 6-week consumption of polyphenols from strawberries and cranberries improved insulin sensitivity in adults with overweight and obesity who didn’t have diabetes.
This is important because low insulin sensitivity can cause blood sugar levels to become too high.
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A 1-cup serving of strawberries contains about 53.1 calories and 12.7 grams of carbs, three of which are fiber.
This serving also provides more than 100% of the reference daily intake for vitamin C, which provides additional anti-inflammatory benefits for heart health.
Summary: Strawberries are low-sugar fruits that have strong anti-inflammatory properties and may help improve insulin resistance.
For its tiny size and low calorie count, garlic is incredibly nutritious.
One clove (3 grams) of raw garlic, which is roughly 4 calories, contains:
- Manganese: 2% of the daily value
- Vitamin B6: 2% of the daily value
- Vitamin C: 1% of the daily value
- Selenium: 1% of the daily value
- Fiber: 0.06 grams
Research indicates that garlic contributes to improved blood glucose management and can help regulate cholesterol.
Although many studies that determine garlic is a proven healthy option for people living with diabetes include abnormal dietary amounts of garlic, the meta-analysis cited above only included servings from 0.05–1.5 grams.
For context, one clove of garlic is around 3 grams.
Research also indicates that garlic can help reduce blood pressure and regulate cholesterol levels.
Summary: Garlic helps lower blood sugar, inflammation, LDL cholesterol, and blood pressure in people with diabetes.
Squash, which has many varieties, is one of the healthiest vegetables around.
The dense, filling food is fairly low in calories and has a low glycemic index.
Winter varieties have a hard shell and include acorn, pumpkin, and butternut.
Summer squash has a soft peel that can be eaten. The most common types are zucchini and Italian squash.
Like most vegetables, squash contains beneficial antioxidants. Squash also has less sugar than sweet potatoes, making it a great alternative.
Research shows that pumpkin polysaccharides, which are also found in squash, improved insulin tolerance and decreased levels of serum glucose in rats.
Although there’s very little research on humans, a small study in humans found that squash decreased high blood glucose levels quickly and effectively in people with diabetes who were critically ill.
More studies with humans are needed to confirm the health benefits of squash.
But the health benefits of squash make it a great addition to any meal.
Summary: Summer and winter squash contain beneficial antioxidants and may help lower blood sugar.
16. Shirataki noodles
Shirataki noodles are wonderful for diabetes and weight management.
These noodles are high in the fiber glucomannan, which is extracted from konjac root.
This plant is grown in Japan and processed into the shape of noodles or rice known as shirataki.
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Glucomannan is a type of viscous fiber, which helps you feel full and satisfied.
What’s more, it’s been shown to reduce blood sugar levels after eating and improve heart disease risk factors in people with diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
In one study, glucomannan significantly reduced levels of fasting blood glucose, serum insulin, and cholesterol in rats with diabetes.
A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of shirataki noodles also contains just 3 grams of digestible carbs and just 10 calories per serving.
However, these noodles are typically packaged with a liquid that has a fishy odor, and you need to rinse them very well before use.
Then, to ensure a noodle-like texture, cook the noodles for several minutes in a skillet over high heat without added fat.
Summary: The glucomannan in shirataki noodles promotes feelings of fullness and can improve blood sugar management and cholesterol levels.
Foods to avoid
Just as important as figuring out which foods you should include in a diet for diabetes is understanding which foods you should limit.
This is because many foods and drinks are high in carbs and added sugar, which can cause blood sugar levels to spike. Other foods could negatively impact heart health or contribute to weight gain.
Here are a few foods that you should limit or avoid if you have diabetes.
1. Refined grains
Refined grains like white bread, pasta, and rice are high in carbs but low in fiber, which can increase blood sugar levels more quickly than their whole-grain counterparts.
According to one research review, whole grain rice was significantly more effective at stabilizing blood sugar levels after eating than white rice.
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2. Sugar-sweetened beverages
Not only are sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, sweet tea, and energy drinks lacking important nutrients, but they also contain a concentrated amount of sugar in each serving, which can cause blood sugar levels to spike.
3. Fried foods
Fried foods have a lot of trans fat, a type of fat that has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease. What’s more, fried foods like potato chips, french fries, and mozzarella sticks are also typically high in calories, which could contribute to weight gain.
People with diabetes are generally advised to limit their alcohol intake. This is because alcohol can increase the risk of low blood sugar, especially if consumed on an empty stomach.
5. Breakfast cereal
Most varieties of breakfast cereal are very high in added sugar. Some brands pack as much sugar into a single serving as some desserts.
When shopping for cereal, be sure to check the nutrition label carefully and select a variety that is low in sugar. Alternatively, opt for oatmeal and sweeten it naturally with a bit of fresh fruit.
Candy contains a high amount of sugar in each serving. It typically has a high glycemic index, meaning it’s likely to cause spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels after you eat.
7. Processed meats
Processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, salami, and cold cuts are high in sodium, preservatives, and other harmful compounds. Furthermore, processed meats have been associated with a higher risk of heart disease.
8. Fruit juice
Although 100% fruit juice can be enjoyed from time to time in moderation, it’s best to stick to whole fruit whenever possible if you have diabetes.
This is because fruit juice contains all the carbs and sugar found in fresh fruit, but it’s lacking the fiber needed to help stabilize blood sugar levels.
Creating a plan
There are several strategies you can use to plan a healthy, well-rounded diet for diabetes.
The plate method is a simple and effective way to support healthy blood sugar levels without tracking or measuring your food. It requires you to adjust your portions of certain food groups on your plate to create a nutritionally balanced meal.
To get started, simply fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables, such as leafy greens, broccoli, squash, or cauliflower.
One-quarter of your plate should consist of proteins, like chicken, turkey, eggs, fish, tofu, and lean cuts of beef or pork.
The remaining quarter of the plate should contain a good source of carbohydrates, including whole grains, legumes, starchy vegetables, fruit, or dairy products.
Finally, be sure to pair your meal with a low-calorie beverage to help you stay hydrated, such as water, unsweetened tea, black coffee, or club soda.
The glycemic index can be an effective tool for maintaining blood sugar levels. It’s used to measure how much certain foods increase blood sugar levels and categorizes them as high, low, or medium GI food based on their glycemic index.
If you use this method, stick to foods with a low or medium glycemic index whenever possible, and limit your intake of foods that have a high glycemic index.
You can find more information about the glycemic index and how to use it to improve blood sugar control in this article:
Carb counting is a popular method used to manage blood sugar levels by monitoring the amount of carbohydrates you consume throughout the day.
It involves tracking the grams of carbs in the foods you eat. In some cases, you may also need to adjust your dosage of insulin based on the amount of carbs you consume.
The number of carbs you should eat for each meal and snack can vary quite a bit depending on factors like your age, size, and activity level.
Therefore, a registered dietitian or doctor can help you create a customized plan for carb counting based on your needs.
Eating healthy with diabetes doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming.
Here’s a 1-day sample menu with some easy meal ideas to help get you started:
- Breakfast: omelet with broccoli, mushrooms, and peppers
- Morning snack: handful of almonds
- Lunch: grilled chicken salad with spinach, tomatoes, avocado, onions, cucumber, and balsamic vinaigrette
- Afternoon snack: Greek yogurt with sliced strawberries and walnuts
- Dinner: baked salmon with herb quinoa and asparagus
- Evening snack: sliced veggies and hummus
The bottom line
When diabetes is not well managed, it increases your risk of several serious diseases.
But eating foods that help keep blood sugar, insulin, and inflammation in check can dramatically reduce your risk of complications.
Just remember, although these foods may help manage blood sugar, the most important factor in healthy blood sugar management is following an overall nutritious, balanced diet.