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What can diabetics eat? That’s a natural question that people with diabetes may ask their doctors. With so many choices available to you, it’s only natural to wonder about which foods to avoid with diabetes. But a diabetes diet isn’t only about which, if any, types of foods are off limits. It’s also about focusing on moderate consumption of healthful foods and getting the most nutritional value out of your dietary choices. In that sense, a diabetes diet is beneficial for just about anyone.
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How to Make Your Carbs Count
Managing carbohydrate intake is one of the cornerstones of diabetes management. Simple carbohydrates, or sugars, are broken down rapidly to be used as energy. Compared to simple carbs, complex carbohydrates contain more fiber and other nutrients and are digested more slowly.
Your body needs carbohydrates as a primary energy source, but it’s important to choose them wisely. Complex carbohydrates and naturally occurring sugars (such as those found in fruits) should constitute the majority of your carbohydrate intake. So, consider these tips to guide you in making carb-smart selections as part of your diabetes diet:
- Eat a variety of fresh vegetables, frozen vegetables not packaged in sauce, or low-sodium/sodium-free canned vegetables. In particular, focus on non-starchy vegetables, which are generally low in calories and carbohydrates. Examples: dark green leafy vegetables (e.g. romaine lettuce, spinach, kale, arugula), asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cucumbers, peppers, and salad greens.
- Opt for fresh or frozen whole fruit instead of fruit canned with added sugar or syrup.
- Be smart with your starchy vegetables. Starchy vegetables—potatoes, green peas, corn, and acorn or butternut squash—can pack a nutritional punch, but choose them wisely. For example, try a baked sweet potato instead of french fries or a baked white potato topped with butter, cheese, bacon, or other unhealthy additions.
- Make great grain selections. Choose whole-grain bread or tortillas instead of white bread or tortillas made from refined flour, whole-grain cereals instead of sugar varieties, brown or wild rice instead of white rice, and whole-grain pasta instead of regular pasta. Other good grain options include whole oats/oatmeal, bulgur, quinoa, whole-grain barley, buckwheat, millet, and sorghum.
- Choose 100 percent fruit juice instead of sugary fruit drinks or punches.
- Curb your sweet tooth. Limit or avoid candy and other sweets as well as doughnuts, cakes, and other processed baked goods, all of which add “empty” calories while affording you little or no nutritional benefits.
Be Prudent with Your Protein
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) lists beans among its diabetes “superfoods” because of their high fiber, potassium, and magnesium content. And, since a half-cup of beans contains as much protein as an ounce of meat (without the saturated fat), they’re an ideal source of protein in the diabetes diet or any eating plan, regardless of whether you choose black, garbanzo (chickpeas), kidney, navy, or pinto beans. Seeds, tofu, and soy or other “meatless” products are other good protein sources, as are nuts and nut butters.
However, because nuts are relatively high in fat (albeit healthful fats), limit your consumption to about a handful, especially if you’re watching your weight. Note: All of these plant-based protein sources also contain varying amounts of carbohydrates, so factor them into your meal planning if you’re counting carbs.
Fish and seafood are other top choices for protein. Many medical organizations, including the ADA, recommend eating fish at least twice a week, substituting it for other, less healthful options, such as beef or processed meats (like bacon, sausage, and deli meats).
Similarly, eggs (preferably egg whites) and skinless chicken or turkey can provide the protein you need in your diabetes diet. Just be sure to choose baked or grilled poultry or fish instead of fried varieties.
Dairy products, such as milk, cheese, or yogurt, can supply you with protein as well as calcium. Choose low-fat or fat-free (skim) milk and cheeses, as well as low-fat yogurt. Try to avoid yogurt products with added sugar. And, if you’re lactose intolerant, try unflavored soy or almond milks.
Better Beverage Options
What you drink can have as much of an impact on your diabetes diet as what you eat, so don’t forget to factor in your beverage choices. Water is the clear choice for staying hydrated if you have diabetes, but it’s clearly not the most flavorful option. If you want to add some flavor, add a slice of lemon or lime, or a splash of lemon or lime juice.
Choose other low-calorie or no-calorie options, such as coffee (without added sugar or syrups), unsweetened tea, diet soda or other beverages. If you like fruit juice, pick brands that contain 100 percent juice with no added sugar. Avoid regular soda, sugar-sweetened teas, energy drinks and other beverages high in added sugar and calories.
Alcohol is generally safe for most diabetics when it’s consumed in moderation: no more than two standard drinks a day for men and no more than one standard drink daily for women or anyone over age 65. (A standard drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of liquor/spirits.) Choose light beer over regular or heavy craft beers, and use water, club soda, diet soda, or tonic water instead of higher-calorie drink mixers. (Keep in mind that alcohol can reduce blood-sugar levels for up to about 24 hours after drinking, so consume it with a meal; drink alcohol only if your blood sugar is under control. Ask your healthcare professional if drinking alcohol is safe for you.)
If you get hungry between meals, make sensible snack choices. Instead of gobbling up potato chips, pretzels, and candy, try these more healthful options:
- Enjoy a piece of fresh fruit. Cut up some fresh fruit in advance and keep it refrigerated in small bags for quick and easy retrieval later on.
- Throw together a mix of nuts and dried fruit.
- Prepare a tray of carrots, peppers, broccoli, or other raw vegetables; enjoy them with hummus.
- Make some fresh-popped popcorn (minus all the butter).
Portions Matter in a Diabetes Diet
Regardless of the food choices you make, portion control remains paramount in any eating plan, including a diabetes diet. One way to help you manage your portions is to follow the plating method recommended by the ADA:
- Fill half your plate with a variety of non-starchy vegetables.
- Fill a quarter of your plate with starchy vegetables and whole grains.
- Fill the remaining quarter of your plate with lean protein sources.
- Limit the depth of each food portion to about the thickness of the palm of your hand.
Carefully read the labels of all foods and beverages, and choose products that are low in added sugar, saturated fat and calories.
Finally, in addition to following these general dietary tips, it’s best to talk with a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, or other diabetes specialist. He or she can help you put together a diabetes diet tailored to your individual needs and goals.
For further reading, see these University Health News posts:
- “Glycemic Index Chart: GI Ratings for Hundreds of Foods“
- “How to Eat Healthy—and Why“
- “Prediabetes: Diet Advice That Can Keep You Healthy“
Originally published in 2016, this post is regularly updated.