Best Foods for People With Diabetes

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 Privitera, a registered dietitian, certified diabetes care and education specialist and a certified personal trainer with the Center for Community Health & Prevention at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “It’s about variety. It’s about portion control.”

Still, for any type of diabetes (including Type 1 diabetes, when the pancreas produces little or no insulin, and gestational diabetes, occurring during pregnancy) 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? Rebecca Ringer, a clinical dietitian with Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, California, says “a good rule of thumb is to fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables, a quarter with lean protein and the remaining quarter with whole grains or pulses, such as beans, peas or lentils.”

The following healthful options can also be part of your healthy, balanced diet.

Non-starchy vegetables

People with diabetes should eat more non-starchy vegetables, Ringer says. “According to a 2019 Consensus Report by the American Diabetes Association, a variety of eating patterns are appropriate for the management of diabetes, however, emphasis should be placed on increasing intake of non-starchy vegetables and whole foods over highly processed foods when possible.”

Emily Rice, staff dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, agrees that non-starchy vegetables are important because they’re “high in fiber, vitamins and minerals. Fiber adds bulk without extra calories of carbohydrates, which leads to feeling satisfied and slowing digestion to reduce blood sugar spikes.”

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. Non-starchy foods also contain a lot of water.

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 starchy veggies. 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.

Rice notes that when fresh veggies aren’t available, “frozen and canned vegetables are also great options,” just be sure to look for no-salt added and sauce-free options.

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.

You could try a spinach salad, for example, topped with pumpkin seeds, sliced apples and your favorite healthy dressing.

Broccoli

Of course, no single food takes the place of a well-balanced diet in controlling diabetes. However, research suggests that a compound found in broccoli, called sulforaphane, could be beneficial in lowering glucose levels in some people with diabetes. The compound has also been found to impair glucose production in cultured cells and improve glucose tolerance in rats, though additional research is needed.

That’s not to say you should limit yourself to that cruciferous darling alone. There’s a long list of other non-starchy veggie options that are great as well, including:

— Artichoke.

— Asparagus.

— Brussels sprouts.

— Carrots.

Cauliflower.

— Cucumbers.

Mushrooms.

— Onions.

Tomatoes.

And while steamed broccoli is fine, for an added kick of flavor, roast it with garlic and red pepper flakes.

Whole grains

Whole grains are a great choice. Eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet (which stands for dietary approaches to stop hypertension) are optimal for people with diabetes, in part, because they tend to include lots of veggies and whole grains. Of course, any diet still needs to be individualized to the person following it, and you’ll need to keep up with regular blood sugar checks.

Whole grains to try could include:

— Oats.

— Rye.

— Farro.

Quinoa.

— Bulgur wheat.

While you need to watch your carbs, that doesn’t mean you can’t have whole-grain bread, pasta or brown rice. Although whole grains are a starch and thus a carbohydrate, they’re a non-digestible carbohydrate, “which doesn’t spike the blood sugar,” Privitera points out. “So basically it will pass through the system without having any effect on blood sugar.”

Fatty fish

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.

Nuts

When it comes to lean protein, you don’t have to limit yourself to animal-based sources. There are plant-based protein options, as well — though you’ll need to watch carbs — and those includes nuts. “They’re great for snacking, sprinkling on a salad, combined into a sauce and so much more,” Rice says.

Nuts also serve as a healthy source of fat and fiber. You can have anything from almonds to walnuts — a mixed variety is a good choice. Rice says nuts are a “great source of fat, fiber and protein — all these nutrients lead to slowing digestion and decreasing blood sugar spikes.”

For a good source of omega-3s fatty acids specifically, 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. Varieties that are made just from the nuts themselves, with no added salt, are the best option.

Seeds

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 grams 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.

Legumes

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, and they’re good for metabolism.

You can’t go wrong having a variety of beans. “There’s really none that I would ever recommend staying away from,” Privitera says. While beans contain starch (a carb), she notes that they’re high in fiber. That fibrous quality helps the blood sugar remain stable.

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.

— Bean “burgers” as good options.

Or make a hummus from chickpeas or white beans to dip with low-carb veggies.

Berries and other fruit

It’s wise to generally stay away from things like sugary fruit juices that can spike blood sugar. However, fiber-rich fruit are encouraged. Berries are a lower sugar fruit and full of antioxidants. They make a great choice as part of a well-rounded diet for someone with diabetes.

But all fruit, when paired properly, can be fair game — from berries to citrus to apples. It just helps to think about what you’re eating with them, says Taylor Wooten, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator with UF Health Diabetes Education and Nutrition at UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville. She suggests pairing naturally sweet fruit with a protein source to avoid a big jump in blood sugar. So if you really like apples, for example, go ahead and have them with some unsweetened peanut butter.

If you’re using frozen or canned fruit, Rice recommends choosing products that are packed in 100% fruit juice or water “instead of a syrup to reduce the sugar content.”

Diet is one part of a comprehensive approach to managing diabetes.

Just as paying careful attention to what you eat is important, so is getting plenty of exercise and taking your medication, like insulin, which may be prescribed for some people whose diabetes can’t be controlled through lifestyle changes alone.

Being physically active and losing weight, if you have obesity or are overweight, 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.

So how much exercise should you get? Ringer points to guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services that recommend adults get a minimum of 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity a week. She also cautions that you should consult your doctor before significantly increasing physical activity.

See a registered dietitian for tailored advice.

Rice notes that each person is unique, and your dietary needs might be a little different from someone else who has diabetes. Therefore, it’s best to “ask your doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian” for tailored advice.

Ringer agrees, noting that “medical nutrition therapy delivered by a dietitian can be as or more effective than medications in managing diabetes and decreasing A1C,” a measure of blood glucose levels over time.

These are nine best foods to help manage diabetes:

— Non-starchy vegetables.

–Leafy green vegetables.

–Broccoli.

–Whole grains.

–Fatty fish.

–Nuts.

–Seeds.

–Legumes.

–Berries and other fruit.

More from U.S. News

Diabetes Exercise Tips to Stay Safe While Being Active

What Are the Causes of Diabetes?

13 Healthy Desserts That Are Tasty

Best Foods for People With Diabetes originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 12/15/21: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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