The Best and Worst Foods for Diabetes

The Best and Worst Foods for Diabetes

If you have diabetes, planning meals may seem at times like a walking on a tight rope. You can eat this, but not that. You can have some of this, but none of that.

We’re here to make it easier for you. We teamed up with Francine Pack, RD, CDE, a certified diabetes educator with Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose, California, to give us the low-down on some of the best and worst foods for your diet.

Ban all fats from your diet? Don’t think of it. Some—such as monounsaturated fats—can lower cholesterol and help protect heart health. Fats to forget? Saturated and trans fats. “Saturated fats increase LDL cholesterol numbers,” Pack says. In addition, “there’s a lot of research around saturated fats increasing insulin resistance,” she says.

Best bets:

  • Avocado
  • Nuts like pecans, peanuts, walnuts and almonds 
  • Olive and canola oil
  • Peanut Butter
  • Pumpkin and sunflower seeds
  • Fatty fish, such as salmon and albacore tuna

Worst offenders:

  • Butter, lard
  • Cream sauces
  • High fat red meats, such as 20 percent ground beef, T-bone steaks, ribs, pork shoulder roast and pork chops
  • Processed meats, such as hot dogs and sausage
  • Whole-fat dairy products

Dairy is an excellent source of calcium and protein—but stick with low- to fat-free dairy products. Pack notes that if you’re used to whole milk, it can be a shock to your taste buds to make the switch, so do it gradually. “Go from whole to 2 percent first, or try mixing whole milk with 2 percent before getting down to 1 percent,” she says.

“All fruits are healthy, high in fiber and provide important nutrients you’re not going to get in other foods,” says Pack. The key: portion control. “Half a banana has as much carbs as a three-quarters cup of mandarin oranges or one cup of raspberries, which is considerably more food to eat,” she says. “It’s not that you shouldn’t eat a banana or kiwi, it’s how much you eat at one time.” While dried fruits can be a healthy choice, the recommended portion size is tiny and can be hard to limit, she adds.

Best bets:

  • Fresh fruits
  • Frozen fruits
  • Canned fruits in its own juice or water

Worst offenders:

  • Canned fruits with added sugar or in syrup
  • Fruit juice or punch with added sugars
  • Jam, jelly and preserves
  • Dried fruits with added sugars

Like fruit, vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber and low in calories. But not all veggies are alike when it comes to diabetes. Non-starchy vegetables, like broccoli, tomatoes and carrots, are low in carbs. But starchy vegetables (think potatoes and corn) are one of the main sources of carbohydrates, so carb counters should eat them in moderation.

Best bets:

  • Fresh vegetables served raw, steamed, roasted or grilled
  • Dark, leafy greens like kale, collards and spinach  
  • Steamed frozen vegetable
  • Canned vegetables low in sodium
  • 100 percent vegetable juice-low or reduced sodium

Worst offenders:

  • Canned or frozen vegetables with added sodium, fat or sugar
  • Vegetables cooked with butter or creamy sauces

Beans and legumes are a great carbohydrate source. While high in fiber, vitamins and minerals, this filling carbohydrate is also high in protein, making it a good substitute for other protein sources, such as red meats. Just remember to include them in your carb counting.

When it comes to grains, whole grains are the most nutritious—full of vitamins, minerals and fiber. “Whole wheat, high fiber and less processed foods provide the best response on blood sugar and are the healthiest for you,” Pack says. But buying whole grain foods can be tricky. The package may tout whole grain as an ingredient, but it may be a small amount. The whole grain should be listed first on the nutrition label.

Best bets:

  • Bread, crackers and pasta made with 100 percent whole wheat flour
  • Oatmeal
  • Bran cereal
  • Brown and wild rice
  • Quinoa
  • Bulgur
  • Whole grain barley
  • Popcorn

Worst offenders:

  • Foods such as bread, pasta, cereal and crackers made with refined grains
  • Instant rice or instant noodles

Plan your plate
Now that you know the worst foods for diabetes, it's time to plan your plate. Here's a simple formula:

  • Fill half of your plate with non-starchy veggies
  • Fill ¼ with whole grains like brown rice and quinoa, or starchy veggies like corn and potatoes
  • Fill the remaining quarter with a lean protein such as chicken, fish or beans.
  • Add a serving of fruit or dairy (or both) as your meal plan allows.

Learn more about meal planning from the American Diabetes Association.

Medically reviewed in June 2019.

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