The best foods for diabetes are most often whole foods that are not processed, such as fruits and vegetables. Including these extra-healthy power foods in your diet will help you meet your nutritional needs as well as lower your risk of diabetes complications such as heart disease. Of course, the foods on this list shouldn’t be the only foods you eat, but incorporating some or all into your diabetes meal plan will help improve your overall health.
The Best Foods for Diabetes
If you already follow a healthful meal plan filled with whole grains, fresh fruits and veggies, and lean protein, congratulations! You’re on your way to a long, healthy life and are taking a major step in controlling your weight and blood sugar levels. Plus, you’re probably already eating a bunch of the foods on this list.
For those who are taking the baby-steps approach to eating better, this list is even more helpful. Not only are these power foods high in fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins and minerals, they’re also familiar and easy to find. That means you don’t have to hunt down any exotic ingredients or shop at specialty grocery stores to find foods that will help you get on track with a healthful meal plan.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away — specifically the cardiologist. A 2012 study at Ohio State University published in the Journal of Functional Foods found that eating just one apple a day for four weeks lowered LDL (bad)
cholesterol by 40 percent. The professor leading the study explained that not all antioxidants are created equal, and that a particular type of antioxidant in apples had a profound effect on lowering LDLs, a contributor to heart disease. The study was funded in part by a grant from the U.S. Apple Association, among other supporters.
This crunchy fruit also appears to offer protection against diabetes. The Harvard School of Public Health examined the diets of 200,000 people and found that those who reported eating five or more apples a week had a 23 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared with subjects who did not eat any apples.
More good news: A medium-size apple contains 3 grams of fiber, which includes both soluble and insoluble fiber. How ’bout them apples?
Do remember, however, that one small apple has about 15 grams of carb. Some of the large apples in the grocery store are equivalent to two servings of fruit.
Based on taste alone,asparagus is a favorite food for many. But you’ll really love that it’s a nonstarchy vegetable with only 5 grams of carb, 20 calories, and almost 2 grams of dietary fiber per serving. It’s especially high in an antioxidant called glutathione, which plays a key role in easing the effects of aging and many diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
One example is the preliminary research reported in 2012 in the British Journal of Nutrition, which suggests that asparagus can help keep blood sugar levels in check and increase insulin production.
Another plus for asparagus is its folate content — a 1/2-cup serving, or about six 1/2-inch spears, provides 33 percent of the 400 micrograms of folate recommended daily. The American Heart Association advises eating foods containing folate and other B vitamins to help lower homocysteine levels, a risk factor for coronary heart disease.
Avocados are known for their heart-healthy monounsaturated fat content. When substituting these fats for saturated fat, they can improve cholesterol levels, decreasing your risk of heart disease, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
There is even a positive connection between avocados and diabetes: The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study in 2008 that found that women who reported eating the highest amount of good fats — unsaturated vegetable fats, such as those found in avocados — were 25 percent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes compared with women who ate the least amount.
Technically, an avocado is a fruit, but because of its high fat content — 4 grams in 1/4 of a medium-size avocado — it should be treated like a fat. That same serving of avocado contains a respectable 2 grams of fiber with just 2 carb grams.
In addition to guacamole, you can use avocados in salads and sandwiches, or make a salad dressing by pureeing it with a little lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil.
If you want to speed up the ripening process, put an under-ripe avocado in a brown paper bag, close it, and leave it on your kitchen counter for a day or two.
There may just be something to that old line, “Beans, beans, the magical fruit.” Of course, you probably know that beans are high in fiber and a good source of protein, but now there are even more reasons to include them in a diabetic diet. In a 2012 study, researchers found that eating about a cup of legumes daily resulted in better blood sugar control (for both blood glucose and A1C) and lower blood pressure.
Further, consuming more fiber may lower the risk of a first-time stroke, according to the American Heart Association (AHA) journal Stroke. The researchers concluded that every 7-gram increase in total dietary fiber was associated with a 7 percent lower risk of a first-time stroke.
The AHA recommends getting at least 25 grams of dietary fiber daily. A 1/2-cup serving of cooked navy beans has more than 9 grams of fiber and counts as one starch and one lean meat.
Other delicious varieties of beans include black, kidney, garbanzo, white, lima, and pinto. You can cook dry beans or use canned beans, but remember to look for low-sodium versions.
Try using beans as your main protein source a couple of times a week plain, in salads, in soups, or as a substitute for ground beef in Mexican dishes, such as bean tacos or burritos. Beans are good for your wallet, too — they are about the cheapest protein source around.
Blueberries are part of the family of fruits containing flavonoids, known for their many health benefits, including heart health. In addition, blueberries’ high fiber content may reduce the risk of diabetes and cognitive decline, and help keep blood sugar more level, says Joanne M. Gallivan, MS, RD, director of the National Diabetes Education Program at the National Institutes of Health. “Recent studies have also shown that berries have an anticancer effect by inhibiting tumor growth and decreasing inflammation,” Gallivan says.
One of the specific types of antioxidants found in blueberries are anthocyanins, which give them their blue color. Recent research links eating foods rich in anthocyanins with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. The researchers found that people who ate two or more servings of blueberries weekly reduced their risk of developing type 2 by 23 percent, even after adjusting for age, weight, and lifestyle factors. While these results are promising, it should be noted that further studies are needed to determine the causal relationship between eating blueberries and decreased chances of developing diabetes.
Enjoy fresh blueberries May through October, or buy frozen berries anytime.
This nonstarchy vegetable makes just about every superfood list, and it’s easy to see why. For starters, it has more vitamin C per 100 grams than an orange, plus it’s high in the antioxidant beta-carotene, which the body uses to make vitamin A. This dark green vegetable’s vitamin A power promotes healthy vision, teeth, bones, and skin. It is also rich in folate and fiber, all with minimal calories and carbs.
Broccoli is a member of the cruciferous vegetable family, which includes other veggies such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and bok choy. What makes this class of veggies unique is the high levels of sulfur-containing compounds known as glucosinolates. Perhaps better known for their potential anticancer effects, these compounds may also have a role in reducing heart disease risk and heart-related deaths. In a study reported in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2011, researchers found that cruciferous vegetable consumption was associated with a reduced risk of death from heart disease. Their recommendation: “Increase consumption of vegetables, particularly cruciferous vegetables and fruit, to promote cardiovascular healthy and overall longevity.”
One serving of broccoli is 1 cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked. You can enjoy it raw with hummus or a low-calorie dressing, or use it chopped in eggs, pizzas, pastas, salads, and stir-fries. The key to great-tasting cooked broccoli: Don’t overcook it. The stem portion should be barely tender, and the broccoli should be bright green.
Cooked or raw, carrots are a healthy addition to any meal plan. While cooked carrots have the rich texture of starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, they are classified as nonstarchy veggies because they don’t contain a lot of carbohydrate. A 1-cup serving of raw carrots has about 5 grams of carb, as does a 1/2-cup cooked serving. According to the American Diabetes Association, five baby carrots are considered a “free food” and do not need to be counted in a meal plan.
Carrots are noted for their high vitamin A, made from the antioxidant beta-carotene in carrots. This vitamin is necessary for good vision and immune function, and it may help prevent the development of some cancers, according to the Mayo Clinic.
There are now even more good reasons to eat your carrots: According to a study reported in 2013 from the Stanford University School of Medicine, beta-carotene may even help lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes among people who have a genetic predisposition for the disease.
Enjoy raw carrots with a low-calorie dip or salad dressing; shred them for salads; finely chop them and add to soup, chili, or spaghetti sauce; or roast them in the oven. Pureed cooked carrots also make satisfying soups.
They’re not just for holiday dinners anymore. There are now good reasons to enjoy this power-packed fruit year-round. Although best known for helping to prevent urinary tract infections, cranberries — with their abundant phytonutrients, including anthocyanins — may be especially beneficial in a diabetic meal plan.
There is also a growing body of evidence that the antioxidants found in cranberries may reduce the risk of heart disease by reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol, maintaining or improving HDL (good) cholesterol, and lowering blood pressure.
Fresh cranberries, which contain the highest levels of beneficial nutrients, are at their peak from October through December. As cranberries grow wild in the northern regions of the United States, they are readily available in all regions during the fall months and almost always are sold packaged in plastic bags. Choose bags of cranberries with firm, plump, red berries with no signs of leakage. Uncooked cranberries can be kept in the refrigerator about a week. One cup of whole, unsweetened berries has only 51 calories and 13 grams of carb, and they are a good source of vitamin C. Fortunately, you can freeze cranberries to use throughout the year.
Serving sizes for different forms of cranberries:
1/2 cup fresh
2 tablespoons dried
1/2 cup cranberry juice cocktail
1-1/2 cups light cranberry juice cocktail
Add cranberries to smoothies, salads, chutneys, or muffins. Be sure to look for reduced-sugar or sugar-free cranberry products.
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating fish twice a week. Unlike many meats, seafood is low in unhealthy saturated fat and cholesterol, plus it’s a good source of omega-3 fatty acids — particularly fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines, halibut, and albacore tuna. According to the American Heart Association, omega-3 fatty acids lower the risk of arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats), which can lead to sudden death. Omega-3s also decrease triglyceride levels, slow the growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque, lower blood pressure, and curb inflammation. Further, ongoing studies are evaluating their effectiveness for decreasing the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
One downside of eating fish is some kinds may contain high levels of mercury, notably shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. While children and pregnant women are advised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to avoid eating these varieties, the benefits of eating fish outweigh the potential risks for middle-aged and older men and women, as long as the amount of fish is eaten within FDA and Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. Eating a variety of seafood helps minimize the amount of mercury in your diet.
The serving-size guideline for seafood is the same for meat and poultry: 3 ounces. Even though fish might be more expensive than other protein sources, preparing it at home rather than ordering it in a restaurant keeps the cost down.
Sometimes good things come in threes, and that’s certainly true of flaxseed:
1. It contains alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which can be converted into omega-3 fatty acids, offering similar benefits of those found in fish.
2. Flaxseed is a good source of lignans, antioxidants that have been shown to help prevent heart disease and cancer, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
3. A 1-tablespoon serving of whole flaxseed contains a respectable 3 grams of fiber, both soluble and insoluble, and just 3 grams of carb — but note that it does have 55 calories.
Recent research makes a strong case for including flaxseed in a diabetic diet:
• The National Institutes of Health states that flaxseed is possibly effective for lowering hemoglobin A1C in people with type 2 diabetes, a measure of average blood sugar levels over two to three months.
• In a small study reported in the Journal of Dietary Supplements in 2011, researchers found that when people with type 2 diabetes supplemented their diets with ground flaxseed, fasting blood glucose levels decreased 19.7 percent, total cholesterol decreased more than 14.3 percent, triglycerides lowered 1.5 percent, and low-density LDL (bad) cholesterol declined 21.8 percent.
• In an analysis of 28 scientific studies, researchers concluded flaxseed significantly reduced total and LDL (bad) cholesterol.
• Another study found that people who added 30 grams of ground flaxseed to their diets experienced a drop of 15 points in systolic and 8 points in diastolic blood pressure levels.
While there are no specific recommendations, most health authorities recommend eating 1-2 tablespoons of flaxseed daily, either in whole or ground (milled) form. Enjoy the nutty-flavor seed on cereal, on salads, or mixed into quick breads and smoothies.
Garlic, the edible bulb from a plant in the lily family, has served as both a medicine and flavoring agent in cooking for thousands of years. It has been used to treat high cholesterol, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancers. So does it really work? Here is what the current science says, according to the National Institutes of Health:
• Some evidence indicates consuming garlic can slightly lower blood cholesterol levels for short-term use, but other studies conclude it has no effect.
• Preliminary research suggests garlic may slow the development of atherosclerosis, a condition that can lead to heart disease or stroke.
• Evidence suggests garlic may slightly lower blood pressure, especially in people who have high blood pressure.
Joanne M. Gallivan, RD, director of the National Diabetes Education Program at the National Institutes of Health, has this kitchen tip: “Garlic has been shown to have many healthful benefits, including lowering the risk for many cancers. But the way you treat it while preparing a dish can enhance its cancer-fighting properties. A recent study showed that letting garlic rest for about 10 minutes before it is used in cooking may enhance its cancer-fighting benefits. Chopping or crushing garlic helps to produce the active compounds that give it the distinct smell and healthful sulfide compounds. But heating it immediately after it is chopped inactivates the cancer-fighting properties.”
The serving size for fresh garlic is 1 clove, which has 1 gram of carb. It’s a great addition to pasta sauces, stir-fries, and many shrimp dishes.
It’s no wonder the popularity of this leafy green, nonstarchy vegetable has soared in recent years: It’s tasty, highly nutritious, and a versatile ingredient in the kitchen.
“A 1/2-cup serving of cooked kale has only 18 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrate. It contains almost all the important nutrients, from vitamin A to zinc,” says Connie Crawley, RD, LD, Nutrition and Health Specialist at the University of Georgia Extension Service. “When you go to the farmer’s market, there are so many varieties to choose from, you are bound to find one that you like. It can be steamed, sauteed, microwaved, or stir-fried.”
Like spinach, kale is one of those green leafy veggies associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. In one meta-analysis of several studies, people who ate the most green leafy vegetables were 14 percent less likely to develop diabetes than those consuming the least amounts.
Kale (and spinach) contains two pigments, lutein and zeaxanthin, that are beneficial for eye health. According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, sunlight, cigarette smoke, air pollution, and infections can cause free radicals to form. These two pigments seem to snuff out free radicals before they can harm the eyes’ sensitive tissues. They also appear to be protective against cataracts.
Carolyn Washburn, Extension assistant professor at Utah Sate University, has these tips for selecting, storing, and cooking with kale:
• You can buy kale year-round. Avoid kale that has wilted, yellowed, or insect-damaged leaves. Smaller bunches will be more tender.
• Wash kale in a vegetable wash or vinegar and water. Dry it with a paper towel, and fold in half for cutting. The spine of kale is often tough, so it is best remove it.
• Use kale within five days of purchase. The longer you store it, the stronger and more bitter the flavor becomes. Wrap unwashed kale in damp paper towels in a plastic bag, and store in the vegetable crisper.
When you’re craving something sweet, make tracks to the melon aisle, where you’ll find many varieties including watermelon, cantaloupe, muskmelon, honeydew, casaba, crenshaw, Persian, and pepino. While all of these are bursting with healthy nutrients, the most common types contain some unique properties:
Watermelon: Like tomatoes, watermelon is a good source of the antioxidant lycopene, which may help protect against some cancers and cell damage associated with heart disease. The American Heart Association has certified fresh watermelon for its Heart-Check program as being low in saturated fat and cholesterol. When selecting watermelon, look for ones without bruises or dents. Store whole melons at room temperature for up to 10 days. One serving is 1-1/4 cups cubed.
Honeydew: A 1-cup serving of honeydew contains 51 percent of the daily value for vitamin C, and like other melons, it gives you a sense of fullness without a lot of calories. Select melons that feel heavy, have a slight fragrant scent, and don’t have bruises or soft spots
Cantaloupe: This succulent melon gives you a double-whammy: Cantaloupe is an excellent source of both vitamins C and A. Vitamin A supports good eye health, because it helps prevent macular degeneration and improves night vision, according to the American Diabetes Association. Look for cantaloupes that have well-defined netting, feel heavy, and have a strong odor. One serving is 1 cup cubed.
In a nutshell, nuts are one of the healthiest food choices you can make. According to the Mayo Clinic, most nuts contain at least one or more of these heart-healthy substances: unsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, vitamin E, plant sterols, and L-arginine, which makes artery walls more flexible and less prone to blood clots.
There is also increasing evidence that nuts can improve blood sugar control in type 2 diabetes. In a Canadian study published inDiabetes Care in 2011, researchers found people with type 2 diabetes who ate 2 ounces of mixed nuts daily saw a decrease in blood sugar levels and LDL (bad) cholesterol. The study was funded in part by the International Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research Foundation and the Almond Board of California, among other supporters.
Because they don’t require refrigeration and are highly portable, nuts are a great snack choice. One caution: Because nuts are high in calories, it’s best to portion them before eating, rather than eating them out of a bag or can. Serving sizes:
• Almonds, cashews, or mixed nuts 6 nuts
• Peanuts 10 nuts
• Pecans 4 halves
• Hazelnuts 5 nuts
• Pistachios 12 nuts
Nut butters, such as peanut butter and almond butter, are other ways to enjoy nuts’ health benefits. The serving size is 1 tablespoon, which also works as a meat/protein replacement.
Avoid salted, sugared, honeyed, or chocolate-covered varieties, because they add calories, carbs, and salt.