Your daily diet is a critical part of your type 2 diabetes treatment plan. Loading up on healthy foods for diabetes (whole grains, fiber-filled veggies, lean protein, and limited processed foods and sweets) can help improve your insulin resistance and blood sugar control. It can also help with weight loss or weight maintenance, which is also key for keeping your blood sugar levels in check.
And the opposite is true. A diet filled with not-so-healthy foods can sabotage your diabetes treatment plan and worsen disease progression. That said, you don’t need to avoid these foods at all costs; it’s fine to eat them on occasion, particularly on special occasions. But best to keep these out of your shopping cart on a regular basis.
1. Skip over sweets. While eating too much sugar alone doesn’t cause diabetes, per se, a diet filled with pastries for breakfast, an afternoon cookie snack, and a couple of ice cream scoops for dessert isn’t doing your diabetes any favors. “You can have dessert with diabetes,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a nutritionist and cookbook author in New York City. “But you have to plan for them.” That might mean looking at a restaurant menu ahead of time to decide what sweet treat you want, and then ordering an entree that’s lower in carbs to compensate. (Here are more menu tricks to help you lose weight.)
2. Cut out sugar drinks. Sugar-laden beverages are one of the worst things you can consume if you have diabetes or heart disease. A study published in the medical journal Diabetes Care found that people who drink sugary beverages often (1-2 cans a day or more) have a 26% greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes than people who rarely consume them. (Bone up on the benefits of drinking enough water here.)
3. Swap out refined carbs. We all love a heaping pile of pasta or a crusty loaf of white bread. But the more you can change out processed carbs for whole-grain versions, the better it is for your diabetes. Whole grains contain more fiber, which helps prevent blood sugar spikes after meals, as well as other good-for-you vitamins and minerals. Bored of brown rice? Here are other healthy whole grains to consider adding to your diet.
4. Avoid fast food. While you can certainly seek out healthier options on some fast food menus, on the whole, these options tend to skimp on whole grains and fiber and heavy up on saturated fat and sodium. If fast food is part of your daily or weekly routine, look for little ways to start edging it out. Maybe you could start making smoothies at home in the morning, instead of grabbing a drive-thru breakfast, for example.
5. Cut down on bad fats. Cutting out fast food and processed baked goods will automatically help in this department, but you should also seek out other ways to limit saturated fat and trans fat and replace it with heart-healthier options like omega-3s and monounsaturated fatty acids. Keep in mind that diabetes significantly raises your risk of cardiovascular disease, and these unhealthy fats are also bad for your arteries and blood pressure.
6. Forgo fried foods. Does diabetes mean you can never have French fries or mozzarella sticks again? No, especially if your diabetes is well-controlled. But trying to keep these foods, which are often high in unhealthy fat and sodium, out of your daily diet is a wise move. “As a matter of fact, I call fries foods ‘the F-word,’” says certified diabetes educator Sandra Arevalo, RDN. “Fried foods just give you extra fat and calories that you don't need.” At restaurants, seek out choices that are prepared by grilling, baking, steaming, and sautéing, all of which are healthier cooking options.
7. Watch your sodium intake. “People with diabetes are an increased risk of developing high blood pressure, so it's really important to keep to the 2,300 milligrams a day of sodium that’s recommended,” says Largeman-Roth. If you have high blood pressure or known heart disease, your doctor may recommend you consume even less sodium each day. Most of the sodium we eat is found in processed foods that don’t even necessarily taste salty (think cereal, condiments like salad dressing, canned foods, etc.). Start reading ingredient labels and try to pick foods with less than 500 mg of sodium per serving.
No one’s saying cutting out these foods is easy, but the more you try, the better you will manage your diabetes, weight control, and other complications like heart disease risk. “It's very difficult for people to make dietary changes, and you could make the argument that one of the reasons why people end up with diabetes is because they've had certain habits. They've grown up a certain way. And they're used to eating foods,” says internist Paul Knoepflmacher, MD, an instructor in medicine at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “It's hard for people to change. But I think that, if you explain what's at stake here, which is really their life and their health and their well-being, people can be motivated to make changes.”