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A healthy diet can help manage diabetes

Someone is squeezing a lemon and juice is pouring onto a bowl of salad.

There are no foods a person with diabetes absolutely can't eat, but maintaining a proper balance of healthy foods is important.

Were you recently diagnosed with diabetes? Healthy eating should be an important part of your treatment plan. What you eat can make a difference when it comes to your blood sugar levels, your risk of serious complications—like heart disease—and even how you feel from day to day.

But what can you eat?

That's the most common question people ask when they're diagnosed with diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA).

For starters, you don't have to worry about eating special diabetes foods that taste bland. There's no such thing as diabetes foods, in fact. Eating right when you have diabetes is more about choosing a healthy variety of foods—including many of your favorites.

You can even occasionally enjoy a little cake, pie or other sweet treat.

Nutrition basics

Since each person's food needs may be slightly different, it's best to work with your healthcare team to create an individualized meal plan. Tell them what your favorite foods are so, together, you can figure out ways to include them.

As you plan your new eating strategy, keep these general principles in mind:

Know your carbs. Because carbs can quickly and dramatically raise blood sugar levels, you'll want to watch your intake.

Carbs are found in foods with natural sugars, such as fruits and juices, as well as in sugar-sweetened beverages, candy, ice cream and baked goods. Carbs are also found in starches, such as rice, corn, pasta, breads, beans and potatoes.

Even foods labeled sugar-free, no sugar added and reduced-sugar may still contain carbohydrates. That's why it's best to check nutrition labels for the total carbohydrate content in all packaged foods.

Your healthcare team can help you plan how many carbs you should eat each day. When choosing carbs, the ADA says you should:

  • Include plenty of nonstarchy vegetables, like lettuce, broccoli, cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans. They will boost your blood sugar less than starchy veggies like peas, corn, lima beans and potatoes. They're OK to eat too, but in smaller amounts.
  • Cut back on highly refined grains, such as white bread, white rice and processed cereals. Instead, choose whole versions of grains, such as whole-wheat breads, tortillas and pastas; brown rice; and oatmeal.
  • Include whole fresh, frozen or canned fruits, from apples to berries to melons, in your diet.
  • Limit sugar-sweetened beverages, such as sodas and sweet teas and juices. Choose zero-calorie drinks, like ice water flavored with a slice of lime or lemon.
  • Eat fewer processed snacks or snacks with added sugars, including chips, cakes, cookies and candies.

Limit saturated and trans fats. While carb control can help you manage your blood sugar, limiting saturated and trans fats can help protect your heart. These fats raise your blood cholesterol levels, which increases your risk for heart disease—one of the most common diabetes complications.

Foods high in saturated or trans fats include:

  • Fatty meats such as ground beef, hot dogs, sausage and bacon.
  • Full-fat dairy products, such as whole milk.
  • Butter, lard, stick margarine and shortening.
  • Processed foods and snacks.

To help limit saturated and trans fats:

  • Switch to low-fat or nonfat milk, yogurt and cheese.
  • Choose healthier cooking oils, like olive or canola, and use just a small amount.
  • Read nutrition facts panels and ingredients lists on food labels. Trans fats may be listed in the ingredients as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil.

Watch your calories. Too many calories can cause you to put on pounds, which can make diabetes more difficult to control. If you already have pounds to lose, managing your calories can help you reach your healthy weight goals.

Read food labels for information about calories. You can get an idea of how many calories you need to maintain your weight using this calculator.

A plate to live with

There are different diabetes eating plans, including low-carb plans and those that resemble a Mediterranean-style diet. Again, talk to your healthcare team to learn more. In the meantime, here's one easy approach to help get you started.

Think of your plate as having three sections:

Section one: Fill half your plate with nonstarchy veggies.

Section two: Fill a quarter of your plate with whole grains or starchy veggies.

Section three: Fill the rest of your plate with a protein—for example, a modest skinless chicken breast portion.

For dessert, enjoy a small piece of fruit or half a cup of fruit cocktail. If you choose to have a slice of cake or other sweet treat, do so only once in a while, and keep it small.

Learn more

For more free information about diabetes and diet, call 800.DIABETES (800.342.2383). You can also learn more about diabetes in the Diabetes health topic center.

Reviewed 1/14/2021

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