If you were recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes or were diagnosed a while ago but are now ready to make diet changes, the prospect of giving up the foods you love may seem daunting. But you may be relieved to discover that a good diet for type 2 diabetes isn’t as tricky as you fear — and that you can still find joy in food while managing this disease. A healthy diet is a pillar of a successful diabetes management plan. Other pillars include taming stress, exercising regularly, and taking any medications as prescribed.
Is There an Ideal Type 2 Diabetes Diet?
How a Healthy Diet Can Help You Manage Type 2 Diabetes
Eating a healthy diet is important for everyone, regardless of diabetes status. But for people with this disease, nourishing foods eaten in the right portions provide two key benefits:
Reduced blood sugar Lowering blood sugar that is high can help reduce diabetes symptoms and lower the risk for health complications.
What Is a Good Diet for Type 2 Diabetes?
“There is no ‘diabetic diet,’” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDCES, the author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet and Belly Fat Diet for Dummies, and based in Vernon, New Jersey. “The guidelines are basically the same for healthy eating for everyone, with or without diabetes,” she says.
Work with your healthcare team to determine the right ratio of macronutrients and the best eating plan to accommodate your health risks and goals.
Top Diabetes-Friendly Foods to Eat
While no two diabetes diets will look the same, certain foods are considered staples for people with this disease because they support a healthy weight and blood sugar level. They include:
- Nonstarchy vegetables, such as broccoli and high-fiber fruit like apples
- Lean sources of protein, such as boneless, skinless chicken, turkey, and fatty fish, like salmon
- Healthy fats, such as nuts, nut butter, and avocado (in moderation)
- Whole grains, like quinoa and barley
- Nonfat or lowfat dairy, like milk and plain yogurt
Foods to Limit or Avoid With Type 2 Diabetes
Likewise, certain foods are known to throw blood sugar levels out of whack and promote unhealthy weight gain. Foods that should be limited or avoided if you have type 2 diabetes include:
- White bread and pasta
- Canned soups, which are high in sodium
- Microwaveable meals, which are usually high in sodium
- Sources of saturated fat, like bacon or fatty cuts of meat
A Diabetes Diet Sample Menu
Here are three days’ worth of diabetes-friendly meal ideas to get you started.
Breakfast Veggie omelet (1 whole egg plus 2 egg whites), topped with reduced-fat cheese, plus fruit
Snack Plain nonfat or lowfat Greek yogurt and berries
Lunch Salad (dark lettuce or leafy greens) topped with chicken breast and chickpeas with olive oil and vinegar dressing
Snack Celery and carrot sticks with nut butter
Dinner Grilled salmon, steamed broccoli, and quinoa
Breakfast Fruit smoothie made with low-fat milk; low-fat plain yogurt; and chia seeds (optional)
Snack Unsalted almonds with a piece of fruit
Lunch Turkey chili with reduced-fat cheese
Snack Sliced vegetables and hummus
Dinner Tofu and veggie stir-fry over brown rice
Breakfast Old-fashioned or steel-cut oatmeal made with low-fat milk and topped with fruit and nuts
Snack Roasted chickpeas
Lunch Turkey sandwich on whole wheat with sliced veggies
Snack Fat-free or low-fat cottage cheese with a sliced peach
Dinner Tray bake (all foods baked on the same tray) made with shrimp and roasted vegetables
What to Drink When You Have Diabetes
Your choice of drinks can make a difference in your blood sugar levels. Palinski-Wade recommends focusing on unsweetened beverages, such as water and seltzer. (To jazz it up, add a splash of 100 percent fruit juice, she says.)
If you like coffee or tea, you may notice that caffeine increases your blood sugar levels, so Palinski-Wade advises monitoring your glucose response after consuming these drinks to see where you stand.
Macronutrient Ratios for Type 2 Diabetes
You don’t need to worry about counting macros if you’re following a balanced diet rich in whole foods. But here are some basic guidelines to keep in mind.
That said, for people with type 2 diabetes, limiting carbs will help regulate blood sugar. “Although individual carbohydrate goals will vary based on age, activity level, medication, and individual insulin resistance levels,” says Palinski-Wade, “it’s imperative to avoid having too many carbohydrates in one sitting.”
If you have prediabetes or type 2 diabetes and don’t take medication, cap carbs to no more than 60 grams (g) per meal (four carbohydrate servings).
Good sources of carbs include:
- Whole grains, like whole-wheat pasta and bread, brown rice, oatmeal, and quinoa
- Nonstarchy veggies, like peppers, eggplant, onion, and asparagus
- Starchy veggies, such as sweet potatoes and corn, are okay to eat in moderation, just mind the carbohydrate content
- Fresh, fiber-rich, whole fruit like raspberries, apricots, and pears
- Nonfat or low-fat dairy, like unsweetened yogurt and cottage cheese
- Beans and legumes, like black beans, chickpeas, and lentils
Limit unhealthy carb sources, which include sugar and refined grains like white bread and pasta.
- Beans, including black or kidney beans
- Whole nuts and nut butter
- Fish, such as tuna, sardines, or salmon
- Skinless poultry
- Low-fat or fat-free cottage cheese
- Reduced-fat cheese or regular cheese in small amounts
- Lean beef, like sirloin or tenderloin
Fat is not the enemy, even if you have diabetes! Learn to tell unhealthy fats from healthy fats and enjoy them in moderation, as all fats are high in calories.
Type matters more than amount: Aim to limit saturated fat to no more than 10 percent of total calories, Palinski-Wade advises.
- Oils, including canola, and safflower
- Nuts, such as almonds, peanuts, and walnuts
- Olive oil
- Seeds, including sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower
Do I Need to Count Calories When Managing Type 2 Diabetes?
While it can be helpful, it’s not absolutely necessary to track how many calories you’re taking in daily. “Although tracking calories can be beneficial when it comes to weight reduction, you can lose weight and still have a poor nutritional quality to your diet,” Palinski-Wade points out.
Therefore, if you do count calories, make sure you’re also focused on healthy food choices. You can track your food intake, she says, which will let you “monitor portions as well as how certain foods and mealtimes impact blood glucose levels,” she says.
- About 1,200 to 1,600 calories a day for small women who are physically active, small or medium-size women interested in weight loss, or medium-size women who are not physically active
- About 1,600 to 2,000 calories a day for large women interested in weight loss, small men at a healthy weight, medium-size men who aren't physically active, or medium-size or large men interested in weight loss
- About 2,000 to 2,400 calories a day for medium-size or large men who are physically active, large men at a healthy weight, or medium-size or large women who are very physically active
Can I Eat Sugar if I Have Type 2 Diabetes?
Yes, but eat no more than 10 percent of your total calories from added sugars, Palinski-Wade recommends. This is no different from the guidelines for everyone, meaning you can still enjoy a few bites of dessert if you’d like.
Tips for Getting Started With a Diabetes Diet
Rather than trying a complete overhaul all at once, create lasting good habits by focusing on small, simple, and maintainable changes, Palinski-Wade says. Otherwise, you may feel overwhelmed and revert to any previous unhealthy eating habits. “Being consistent with change, no matter how small, is the key to long-term weight loss success,” she adds.
Here are some of the basic rules for building — and then sticking with — a diabetes meal plan.
Consult the experts. Connect with your primary doctor and a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) who is also a certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES) — search for one near you at EatRight.org — to figure out how many carbohydrates you should eat per meal based on your individual needs as well as the optimal eating approach for your preferences and health goals.
Veg out. Add in one extra serving of nonstarchy vegetables at dinner. Consider adding vegetables to snacktime, too.
Beware of sauces and dressings. Sugar hides in many condiments, like ketchup, barbecue sauce, and marinades. Always read the label, and choose the lower-sugar option that best fits your diet and goals.
Simplify beverages. Instead of reaching for sweetened drinks, opt for water (sparkling without added sugar also counts!), unsweetened tea, and coffee.
Choose dairy mindfully. Opt for nonfat or low-fat (1 percent) with milk, cottage cheese, and plain yogurt. Also, remember that while these sources offer protein, they are also another source of carbs, so you need to factor them into your carb allotment. Unsweetened nondairy milk, such as soy and almond milk, are also diabetes-friendly.
Dining Out When Managing Type 2 Diabetes
It can seem tough to navigate a menu when you’re eating out, but it’s not impossible. Enjoy your time with friends and eat delicious food with these guidelines from Palinski-Wade.
Have an appetizer before you leave. It’s tempting to “save up” calories throughout the day to help plan for a night out, but that approach can backfire. You’ll be famished by the time you get there and less likely to make a healthy choice when you order. Eat a small, healthy snack before you go, like some nuts or a low-fat plain yogurt. “This can help decrease hunger and prevent overeating,” she says.
Visualize your plate. Ideally, your plate should look very similar to the way it does at home — with a couple of small tweaks: ½ nonstarchy vegetables (steamed if possible), ¼ lean protein, and ¼ whole grains. “You want to be careful not to eat too many carbs at one sitting, and avoid meals packed with saturated fat,” says Palinski-Wade.
Sip smart. Alcohol stokes your appetite, so if you do have alcohol (make sure to talk to your doctor first if you’re on medication), do so near the end of the meal. Limit it to one glass.
Low-Carb Dieting for Type 2 Diabetes
Another review concluded that low-carb diets drop blood glucose levels and allow people to use less medication or eliminate it completely. The authors recommend it as a first-line treatment for diabetes.
Best and Worst Diet Plans for Diabetes
Adherence to a popular diet plan is not required to manage diabetes, but you may like the direction it offers. A professional who is an RDN and CDCES can help you follow one of these approaches safely.
Best Diet Plans for Managing Type 2 Diabetes
The two that are suggested for people with diabetes time and again are the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. Unlike so-called “diets” (many of which are designed only for the short term), these eating approaches aim to set the foundation for building and maintaining lifelong habits.
DASH diet “The DASH diet has been found to be beneficial at reducing blood pressure levels, a key risk factor for heart disease and kidney disease. Because both of these disease risks are elevated with diabetes, this style of eating may promote a reduction in the risk of comorbid conditions associated with diabetes,” Palinski-Wade explains.
Diet Plans to Discuss With Your Healthcare Team
While it’s best to talk to your doctor before you start any diet plan, it’s especially important to talk to them if you’re interested in the following:
Intermittent fasting (IF) IF requires you to limit the time period in which you eat to a certain number of hours per day, or to eat a very low number of calories on certain days. Some research (small studies and animal trials) has shown benefits from IF to fasting glucose and weight. That said, skipping meals may hinder blood sugar control or cause low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), especially if you’re on insulin or a sulfonylurea, so talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits before you attempt it.
Diet Plans to Avoid
Any diet that is gimmicky, not backed by research, is too restrictive, or makes too-good-to-be-true promises (like losing x amount of weight in a certain amount of time) is one to skip.
Results of Following a Diabetes-Friendly Diet
Your specific results depend on where you started before embarking on your diabetes-friendly diet journey. But Palinski-Wade notes that there are short- and long-term results you can expect.
Pretty quickly, you should see benefits to your blood sugar at the outset. “You will start to see your daily blood glucose readings improve within a few days,” she says. Then you’ll notice your A1C start to get better in three to six months. “These are a measurement of your blood sugar levels on average of the past three months, so consistent improvement for at least three months needs to happen to see this number decrease,” Palinski-Wade adds.
If your doctor advises you to lose weight, making these diet changes along with increasing your activity level can help you lose weight and shed body fat. Be careful about monitoring the scale too closely in the early days. “It’s important to note that if your blood sugar levels were uncontrolled and weight loss resulted from this, you may notice an initial weight gain as blood sugar comes back to a normal level. Do not be discouraged. Generally, this weight gain is minimal, and once blood sugar stabilizes, weight stabilizes as well,” she says.
Your diet is one of the main tenets of good diabetes management. “What you eat can help or hinder insulin resistance,” says Palinski-Wade.
While it seems like there is a lot to remember, the basic tenets boil down to simple, nutritious eating.
In the end, you can cut through the noise by considering a few things when you sit down to eat: Aim for “a well-balanced diet limited in simple sugars and rich in whole plant-based foods, such as vegetables and fruit, along with lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy, plant-based fats,” she says.
Remember that and you don’t need to follow a ton of rules — even when you have type 2 diabetes.
For more advice on eating to manage type 2 diabetes, check out Diabetes Daily's article “How 7 People With Diabetes Are Rocking Their A1C While Eating 7 Different Ways”!
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