What Can I Eat If I Have Diabetes?

It's hard to put together a diabetic diet menu or diabetic food list that accounts for all the many factors that you'll need to consider to live healthily, but with the help of the American Diabetes Association, we've put together a brief guide for how to eat with diabetes.

Diabetic diet plans look largely the same as any healthy diet plan, though with a higher emphasis on slow-burning carbs to keep your blood glucose at a stable, healthy level throughout the day. There are numbers of ways to plan meals when living with diabetes; you can count raw carbs, check foods for their glycemic indices, utilize food choice lists or the diabetes exchange system, and so on.

Some people with diabetes prefer to eliminate carbs completely or greatly lower their carb intake, though low-carb high-fat diets should only be undertaken after confirming the suitability with your doctor. Most find sugar content and glycemic index the two most important factors in assessing meals: sugar content due to the significant impact all forms of sugar can have on blood glucose, and glycemic index to help identify foods which may cause glucose spikes regardless of sugar content.

How to Eat with Diabetes

Crafting a diet plan around your diabetic lifestyle can seem like a daunting task. It’s not as hard as you may think. The first step in creating a delicious diabetes-friendly diet is to know what your body needs. We’re breaking it down so you can fully understand everything you need to live a happy, healthy, and delicious life.

Grains

What to Eat with Diabetes | Healthy Grains

There are two significant approaches to grain consumption with diabetes:

  1. Focusing on eating the right grains
  2. Writing off grains completely.

If you’re going to eat grains on a regular basis, you want to make sure you’re eating whole grains—true whole grains, intact and fibrous. Many modern whole grain products are processed to a degree that renders them too easily digested; whole grains ground to finest powder can cause glucose spikes in the same way simple white wheat flour might. If you’re not ready to give them up completely, don’t fret. Just make sure you’re eating the right grains.

Good Grains

  • Oats
  • Rye
  • Quinoa
  • Buckwheat
  • Brown Rice.

Bad Grains

  • White flour
  • White rice
  • and various ‘whole grain’ products

These are typically highly processed whole grains and lots of sugar should be avoided when possible.

Some diabetics prefer to avoid them completely, obtaining fiber and healthy carbohydrates from vegetables and starches exclusively. This makes it easier to avoid accidentally eating high-GI grains or being surprised by unexpected glucose spikes and falls, but can feel quite limiting for those who enjoy bread and pasta.

You can, of course, split the difference, eating the grains you like but in very limited servings—eating bread or pasta the same way you might eat candy or cake.

Starches

What to Eat with Diabetes | Healthy Starches

As with grains, starchy foods come in a wide variety of glycemic indices. Starches can be broadly divided into three categories:

1. Rapidly Digestible Starches

Rapidly digestible starches are found in white grain products and freshly cooked potatoes. These cause significant increases in blood glucose levels, which can be detrimental to your health.

2. Slowly Digestible Starches

Slowly digestible starches are found in cooled potatoes and pasta, whole grain products, and legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils, etc), which can cause a minor impact on blood glucose levels. These are not the best, but when consumed in small amounts, they can be a good addition to your diet.

3. Resistant starches

Resistant starches are found in some beans, which act as dietary fiber and thus do not impact blood glucose at all.

It’s worth noting that individual foods may contain all three of these types in different amounts, and small differences in preparation can greatly change the digestibility of the natural starches in a food (hence the difference between fresh hot pasta and potatoes and cooled pasta and potatoes).

Cutting down on starch-heavy foods can be a challenge at first, but there’s a trick to make it a bit easier. Rather than filling up on small amounts of your favorite starchy foods, try replacing them with starchy vegetables.

Starch-heavy vegetables can be a great replacement in your daily diet. Try incorporating more of these vegetables into your diet:

  • Acorn squash
  • Butternut squash
  • Corn
  • Green Peas
  • Parsnip
  • Plantain
  • Potato
  • Pumpkin

Sugar

What to Eat with Diabetes | Natural Sugars

Sugars will be your biggest area of concern when living with diabetes.

While you don’t have to write off sugars completely, it’s important that you keep track of your intake—no matter the source.

You may not know it, but there is sugar in just about everything we eat. Some foods that you might not know are high in sugar are:

  • Bread
  • Sauces
  • Fruit
  • Beverages

Sugar is as prevalent in these sources as they are in obvious foods like candies and pastries.

Some foods may have high sugar content but a low glycemic index, such as fruit. Small amounts of these foods can be safely consumed, but large amounts will lead to a sustained high blood sugar that can be difficult to lower.

If you need a sugar in your coffee, you don’t have to worry—there are alternatives you can use that can give you the same taste. Try using natural sweeteners like honey or agave. These can offer significantly better glycemic impact, but should still be consumed in moderation.

You should also pay close attention to anything containing artificial sweeteners, as the exact impact on insulin levels varies greatly across individuals with different sweeteners.

Protein

What to Eat with Diabetes | Lean Proteins

Protein is necessary for any diet, but when you have diabetes, choosing the right proteins is crucial. Chicken, fish, meats, and cheese are the most common forms of protein, and having a healthy balance is important for any diet.

You can still enjoy your favorite meats, but you’ll need to choose a leaner cut.

Here’s a simple breakdown of some lean proteins you should consider:

Fish & Seafood

  • Salmon
  • Tuna
  • Herring
  • Trout

Poultry

  • Skinless Chicken Breasts
  • Skinless Turkey
  • Skinless Cornish Hen

Game

  • Venison
  • Rabbit
  • Goose

Beef

All beef should be trimmed of fat on the following cuts:

  • Round
  • Sirloin
  • Cubed
  • Flank
  • Porterhouse
  • T-bone steak
  • Tenderloin

Fats

What to Eat with Diabetes | Healthy Fats

Diabetics need not pay special attention to fat in their diet, outside of consideration of the pure caloric content. The low-carb diets preferred by many diabetics are by necessity are high-fat diets, as excess protein isn’t an option.

Regardless of the proportion of fats to proteins and carbohydrates, it’s best to stick to healthy fat sources.

Saturated fats, especially those from non-meat sources, should be kept to a minimum, while trans fats should be wholly avoided in all circumstances. The healthiest fat sources for diabetics and other dieters include:

  • Fish
  • Dairy
  • Plant-based oils
  • Nuts

Drinks

What to Eat with Diabetes | Sugar-Free Drinks

Diabetics should be extremely alert to the content of all beverages, as many drinks contain exceptionally high levels of simple carbohydrates.

In addition to obvious sources of trouble such as alcoholic beverages and sodas, you should watch out for sugar content in vegetable and fruit juices, milk, coffee drinks, and similar products.

Jumpstarting Your Healthy Diet

If you’re just getting started with building your healthy diet, we can help. We’ve partnered with the American Diabetes Association to create a series of meals that are perfect for those living with diabetes. These meals can help you learn the basics of eating with diabetes, while also showing the versatility of diabetic-friendly foods. Take a look at our full offering by clicking below.