First, aim for a well-balanced diet.
Diet plays a pivotal role in controlling diabetes. But experts stress that when it comes to managing this chronic disease, it’s not about fixating on a few foods but having a balanced plate. “There’s really no specific food that I would say either to consume or really … even not to consume,” says Melissa Roth, a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer at the Center for Community Health & Prevention at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York. “It’s about variety. It’s about portion control.”
Still, for any type of diabetes (including Type 1, when the pancreas produces no insulin, or gestational, occurring during pregnancy, or Type 2, associated with insulin resistance and/or obesity) food choices matter. And whatever the food group, finding healthful options you like is key to maintaining a diet that helps control blood sugar.
Not sure where to start? In addition to consulting with a physician, like an endocrinologist, who specializes in diabetes management, a registered dietitian nutritionist can help you build a meal plan that fits you.
Here’s how some healthful options fit into the bigger picture:
It’s recommended that people with diabetes consider eating more non-starchy vegetables rather than starchy vegetables (like white potatoes, yucca or plantains). Half of what’s on the plate should be non-starchy vegetables, notes Taylor Wooten, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator with UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Florida.
Non-starchy vegetables are generally low in carbs, so they are less likely to cause huge spikes in blood sugar. These nutrient-packed veggies are full of fiber, and that indigestible roughage slows down absorption of carbs or sugars to help stabilize blood sugar. While fiber is also a type of dietary carb, it’s the two other main types, starches and sugar, that primarily drive up blood sugar.
For that reason, how foods are paired can make all the difference. Creating a plate with lots of non-starchy vegetables allows for a smaller quantity of starches on the (rice, pasta, quinoa, farro or barley). And the concept also applies to having a protein with a carb. Such pairings can help keep blood sugar levels steady, avoiding the kind of blood glucose spike that can occur with a carb overload.
Leafy green veggies
Dark leafy greens, which are a non-starchy vegetable, make a list of foods touted by the American Diabetes Association. Spinach, collards and kale are nutritional powerhouses, loaded with vitamins and minerals that include A, C, E and K, as well as iron, calcium and potassium, the ADA notes. And don’t forget additional leafy green options like cabbage and bok choy, adds Amy Kimberlain, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator based in Miami and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Whole grains are a better choice than refined grains Grains in general are carbs so they will impact blood sugar levels, but because whole grains are absorbed slower by the body – they will cause less fluctuations in blood sugar levels.Whole grains to try could include oats, rye, farro, quinoa or bulgur wheat. Although whole grains are a starch and thus a carbohydrate, they contain more fiber “which leads to less spikes in the blood sugar,” Roth points out.
Experts recommend people with diabetes fill the remaining quarter of a portion-controlled plate with lean protein. One great choice for that is omega-3 fatty acid-rich fish like salmon, sardines or tuna. A single 4-ounce portion of salmon contains 1,200 to 2,400 milligrams of the omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA; while the same-sized portion of yellowfin tuna contains about 150 to 350 mg of DHA.
Omega-3s are not only beneficial for brain health, but can improve heart health. So as an alternative to unhealthy fats, these can undercut the increased cardiovascular risk associated with having diabetes.
What you get from the sea can also serve as a nice complement to other lean animal-based protein choices like chicken without the skin, turkey or eggs.
For seafood, try grilled salmon with lemon, dill and black pepper over a bed of mixed greens with cucumbers and red onion drizzled with olive oil.
When it comes to lean protein, you don’t have to limit yourself to animal-based sources. There are plant-based options, as well — though you’ll need to watch carbs — and those include nuts.
Nuts also serve as a healthy source of fat and fiber. You can have anything from almonds to walnuts — a mixed variety is encouraged.
For another good source of omega-3s, though, try walnuts. A single 1-ounce handful of black walnuts contains more than 2 1/2 grams of the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA.
Nuts can be eaten as a snack that doesn’t directly impact blood sugar, sprinkled on a salad or as a nut butter, Kimberlain notes. Peanut butter, cashew butter and almond butter are all good options. Just make sure to get the versions that have no added sugar, and only nuts as the ingredient.
Just like nuts, certain seeds like chia seeds and flaxseed also contain a significant dose of omega-3 and are another nice choice for healthy plant-based protein and fat for someone with diabetes.
Chia, flax and hemp seeds all contain omega-3 fatty acids, as well as fiber, Kimberlain notes. Chia seeds contain a whopping 5 g of ALA per ounce. And all seeds provide an extra portion of protein, which can be sprinkled in with other foods.
Pairing protein from seeds with carbs, like mixing a handful in with oatmeal, can help to stave off more significant increases in blood sugar from those carbs.
Black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas — whatever a person’s preference, it’s beneficial to include legumes. That’s because they contain many nutrients, including iron, potassium and magnesium, says Kimberlain.
You can’t go wrong having a variety of beans. “There’s really none that I would ever recommend staying away from,” Roth says.
Opt for dry bagged legumes, or if you get canned beans, choose lower-sodium options. Kimberlain suggests bean salads, like three-bean salad; lentil soup, which is loaded with fiber; and bean “burgers” as good options. Or make a hummus from chickpeas or white beans to dip with low-carb veggies.
Diet is one part of a comprehensive approach to managing diabetes.
Just as paying careful attention to what you eat is important, so is exercise and medication, like insulin, for those whose diabetes can’t be controlled through lifestyle changes alone.
Being physically active and losing weight, if overweight or obese, can improve insulin sensitivity (combating insulin resistance that characterizes Type 2 diabetes), which helps control blood sugar. “So I always tell people after a meal to go for a walk,” Kimberlain says.
Good foods to help manage diabetes
— Non-starchy vegetables, such as leafy greens and broccoli.
— Whole grains.
— Fatty fish.
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Update 03/17/22: This story was previously published and has been updated with new information.