What Should You Eat If You Have Diabetes?

Maureen Robb's picture
By Maureen Robb on August 29, 2018

Are you feeling overwhelmed because you have diabetes?

You aren’t alone. Many people with this metabolic disorder struggle daily to manage their blood sugar.

They say it’s a tricky balancing act. It can also be depressing and anxiety-producing.

Yet it’s critical. If your blood sugar is too high or too low, it can wear you out, making it hard to just get through the day. It can also make you feel weak and shaky.

Worse—if left untreated over time—diabetes can lead to complications like heart disease, kidney failure, blindness and limb amputations.

A Delicate Balance

Diabetes, a disease characterized by high blood sugar, has unfortunately reached epidemic proportions in the U.S.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30.3 million people have diabetes, or 9.4 percent of the U.S. population.

If you are one of them, what should you eat? 

Selecting carbohydrates is key.

“You should choose foods with heart-healthy, complex carbohydrates and eat them in moderation,” said Gwinn Firing, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with Carilion Clinic.

“These should include more whole fruits and vegetables and whole grains,” she said. “We recommend half a plate of fruits and veggies at meals.”

Eating fewer refined carbohydrates—foods high in added sugars—is also recommended. Such foods include sweets, regular soda and sweet tea.

“Our approach at Carilion Clinic Diabetes Management is to show our clients how to fit all foods into their eating plan to maintain normal blood sugars,” Firing added. “In all actuality it is the blood glucose readings that determine if a food works or not in the eating plan.”

Checking your blood sugar levels on a regular basis will help you see if you need to adjust your carbohydrate intake.   

Recommended Foods

If you’re struggling with diabetes, Firing recommends following these food guidelines issued by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

They recommend grains such as:

  • Whole wheat
  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Buckwheat
  • Corn
  • Teff
  • Quinoa
  • Millet
  • Amaranth
  • Brown or wild rice
  • Sorghum
  • Oats

Protein sources such as:

  • Lean cuts of beef and pork
  • Skinless poultry
  • Fish
  • Venison and other wild game
  • Dried beans and peas
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Egg whites

Vegetables and fruits including:

  • Asparagus
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Cucumber
  • Kale
  • Onions
  • Peas
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Turnips
  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cherries
  • Grapes
  • Oranges
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Strawberries
  • Watermelon

And other foods including:

  • Dairy products such as nonfat and low-fat milk, yogurt and cottage cheese
  • Unsaturated oils such as corn, olive, peanut, sunflower and canola oils
  • Seeds and nuts
  • Avocadoes

Foods to Eat Less Often

There are also a variety of foods you’ll want to limit, Firing said.

They include grains such as:

  • Cornbread, biscuits or “quick” breads made with baking soda
  • Store-bought stuffing mix or bread crumbs
  • Instant potatoes, noodles and other grains made by adding hot water
  • Starchy packaged foods like macaroni and cheese or seasoned rice or noodle dishes
  • Snack foods containing partially hydrogenated oils, including crackers, all kinds of chips, cheese puffs, butter-flavored popcorn and snack mixes
  • Cereals with more than 300 mg of sodium per serving

Protein sources such as:

  • Hot dogs, bacon and sausage
  • Cold cuts like bologna or salami, cured meats and corned beef
  • Poultry with the skin
  • Smoked or fried fish, poultry and meat
  • Eggs and egg yolks (limit of two to four each week)
  • Salted nuts and seeds
  • Meat substitutes high in sodium (more than 300 mg per serving) or saturated fat

And other foods including:

  • Cream or half & half
  • Sour cream
  • Cheese
  • Frozen or canned vegetables with salt
  • Fresh vegetables cooked with butter, salt, cream sauce or cheese
  • Fried vegetables
  • Sauerkraut, pickles, olives and other pickled vegetables
  • Butter or stick margarine
  • Shortening
  • Trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils
  • Candy and desserts
  • Bouillon cubes
  • Ketchup, barbecue sauce and soy sauce
  • Salsa

A Learning Curve

As you can see, there’s definitely a learning curve if you’re diagnosed with diabetes. But as time goes on and you become familiar with the food guidelines, eating right does get easier.

Also, don’t forget the other elements of a healthy lifestyle—especially maintaining a healthy weight and exercising.

How much exercise should you aim for? About 30 minutes on most days.

Yes, living with diabetes can be a challenge, but more resources are available than ever before.

If you need help, don’t hesitate to seek out a registered dietitian, or to talk to your doctor.

To schedule an appointment with Carilion Clinic Diabetes Management, call 540-224-4360.

Learn how eating more whole foods can also help you lower your blood pressure.