What makes a food “super”? When it comes to type 2 diabetes, it’s not just about foods that pack lots of nutrients. For a diabetes-friendly diet, you also need foods that will help keep your blood sugar (glucose) levels in check. There is no one single best food for type 2 diabetes. Instead, the best diet for type 2 diabetes is one that is based on whole foods and is rich in fiber, protein, and a moderate amount of healthy carbohydrates.
It’s true that people with type 2 diabetes need to watch their carb intake, but they don’t have to follow a fad low-carb diet. On the contrary, says Leah Kaufman, RD, CDCES, of Leah Kaufman Nutrition in New York City, the best diet for people with type 2 diabetes is “a well-balanced diet that has a healthy amount of carbs, protein, healthy fats, and vegetables per meal.”
While changing your diet won’t cure diabetes, it can lower your risk for type 2 diabetes complications, such as heart disease and neuropathy (nerve damage). Prioritizing a healthy eating plan is even more crucial now, as the novel coronavirus rages on in the United States and beyond. That’s because people with diabetes are among the groups at a higher risk for complications from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Keeping your blood glucose in check has never been more important, and food can play a big role in that effort. In fact, diet affects type 2 diabetes in several ways, including glucose regulation, heart health, weight maintenance, and mood.
How can you tell a good food from a bad one when it comes to managing diabetes? “Look for items that contain healthy fats and are high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber,” says Sue McLaughlin, RD, CDCES, at Burgess Health Center in Onawa, Iowa. It’s also crucial to eat a wide variety of foods to make sure you’re getting a healthy mix of macronutrients, phytochemicals, and essential fatty acids.
Unsure where to start? Check out these 11 tips for adding more superfoods to your diabetes diet!
1. Swap Out Meat for Beans and Lentils for Less Fat and More Fiber
No matter which type of bean you choose, you’ll also gain a significant amount of your daily fiber needs from a 1 cup serving. For example, according to the Mayo Clinic, 1 cup of baked beans offers 10 grams (g) of fiber, while 1 cup of black beans has 15 g. Women need an average of 21 to 25 g of fiber per day, while men need between 30 and 38 g. According to an article published in the January-February 2017 issue of the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, only about 5 percent of the U.S. population meets that threshold, and yet a high-fiber diet is associated with a reduced risk of various diseases, including type 2 diabetes, obesity, stroke, heart disease, and even some cancers. (Just be sure to increase your intake of fiber slowly, and drink plenty of water, to reduce diarrhea, per the Mayo Clinic.)
Other legumes offer similar health benefits that are key in managing diabetes. In a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Canadian researchers found that eating beans, chickpeas, and lentils was associated with improved blood glucose control, reduced blood pressure, and lower cholesterol and triglyceride (fat found in the blood) levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Those qualities are important because people with diabetes are at a higher risk for heart problems than the general population, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
What’s more, beans are good sources of magnesium and potassium. Diabetes is associated with magnesium deficiency, notes an article published in August 2015 in the World Journal of Diabetes, and potassium plays a role in further boosting heart health because it helps regulate blood pressure, notes the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
2. Eat Salmon for Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Many types of seafood are good for people with diabetes. According to the NIH, salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines, and herring are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which promote heart health by helping lower the blood fats called triglycerides. Just be sure to avoid or limit your consumption of fish with high levels of mercury, such as tilefish, swordfish, marlin, and king mackerel, as outlined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Eating fish twice a week, which is recommended by the American Heart Association, has other far-reaching benefits: A study published in the American Journal of Kidney Diseases found that fish may protect people with diabetes against kidney problems. Fish is considered a diabetes-friendly food as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. Choose blackened or grilled fish over fried preparations.
3. Consider Tree Nuts for Other Sources of Healthy Fats
Loaded with fiber and protein, nuts are filling and contain high levels of unsaturated fats, the kind that contribute to HDL, or “good” cholesterol, making them a boon to your heart health. But when it comes to stabilizing blood sugar, polyunsaturated fats in tree nuts — such as almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, and pistachios — are especially beneficial. (As a side note, peanuts aren’t tree nuts; they’re legumes.)
In a review and meta-analysis published in July 2014 in BMJ Open, Canadian researchers looked at data from 12 clinical trials and found that eating two servings of tree nuts a day lowered and stabilized blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes and unhealthy cholesterol levels (dyslipidemia), and stabilized metabolic syndrome.
“Plant-based healthy fats can improve lipid levels,” says Kaufman. She recommends adding foods rich in polyunsaturated fats to help reduce high cholesterol related to elevated blood glucose, but with a caveat. “Although healthy, these foods do have a higher amount of calories, so I would limit them to one serving per day,” Kaufman notes. The Cleveland Clinic defines one serving as 1 oz or 35 peanuts, 24 almonds, 14 walnut halves, or 18 cashews.
4. Grab a Handful of Fresh Blueberries for Disease-Fighting Antioxidants
While all berries contain high levels of antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber, blueberries may be one of the most beneficial for people who have, or at risk for, type 2 diabetes. “Antioxidants,” says Kaufman, “are a broad term used to describe a food that can help protect the body from damage. Antioxidants can be found in the vitamins of the actual food, or even the coloring.” In general, the deeper the color, the higher the antioxidant content.
In an article published in the British Medical Journal, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that for every three servings of blueberries (as well as grapes and apples) eaten per week, people reduced their risk for type 2 diabetes by as much as 26 percent compared with those who ate less than one serving per month. The authors based their conclusions on longitudinal studies of previous clinical trials conducted between 1984 and 2008, 1986 and 2008, and 1991 and 2009.
Fiber-rich berries also have the added benefit of satisfying your sweet tooth without any added sugars. Swapping out cookies for blueberries and other antioxidant-rich fruits will reduce blood sugar while keeping sugar cravings at bay. “Patients with diabetes should generally stay away from refined sugars and processed carbs to improve glucose control,” Kaufman says.
5. Have a Side of Broccoli to Increase Your Intake of Vitamins A and C
A review of clinical studies published in the American Journal of Nutrition found that a diet rich in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli may help reduce the risk of cancer.
Loaded with antioxidants, broccoli is a good source of vitamin A and is high in vitamin C, two nutrients essential for anyone, regardless of a diabetes diagnosis. According to the USDA, 1 cup of cooked, previously frozen broccoli (without added fat) supplies 93.8 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin A, or about 10 percent of the daily value (DV), and 73.4 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C, or about 82 percent of the DV.
Plus, with 5.52 g of fiber (22 percent of the DV), broccoli is filling — which makes it a good choice for people who are trying to lose weight and control type 2 diabetes.
6. Indulge Your Potato Craving With Fiber-Rich Sweet Potatoes
When it comes to foods for type 2 diabetes, not all potatoes are created equal. To keep your blood sugar levels in check, it’s best to reach for sweet potatoes, which are high in fiber (eat the skin for more fiber), as well as a host of other vitamins. According to the USDA, one boiled medium-size sweet potato (with no fat added during cooking) offers 3.75 g of fiber, or 15 percent of the DV.
“I typically recommend about one-half a plate of nonstarchy vegetables per meal and one-quarter a plate of fiber-rich starchy vegetables, such as sweet potato with skin on, to increase overall fiber intake,” says Kaufman, though it’s important to work with your healthcare team to figure out how much starchy vegetables is right for you. Other starchy vegetables you can eat in moderation include peas and corn.
Another important consideration is the cooking process. When boiled, sweet potatoes are a low glycemic index (GI) food, meaning they won’t spike your blood sugar as much as regular potatoes, according to research published in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism. Baking, roasting, and frying are the worst ways to prepare sweet potatoes for people with type 2 diabetes, they found.
7. Incorporate Spinach and Kale Into Pastas and Salads
According to a previous review, eating 1 ½ cup of dark leafy greens, including spinach and kale, each day can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 14 percent. Though the reason is unclear, it may be that leafy greens have a protective effect because they contain antioxidants like vitamins A and C. A cup of fresh, cooked kale (without fat added) offers 879 mcg of vitamin A, or about 98 percent of the DV, and 52.9 mg of vitamin C, or about 58 percent of the DV, notes the USDA. Leafy greens are also low in calories and carbohydrates (the same serving of kale has 36 calories and only 7.3 g of carbs), which is ideal for folks with type 2 diabetes.
8. Savor Your Morning Bowl of Oatmeal for Blood Sugar Control
Eating whole-grain oats may help you hit your target A1C and boost heart health. A systematic review and meta-analysis published in December 2015 in the journal Nutrients found that people with type 2 diabetes who ate oatmeal for breakfast had better postprandial glucose readings and lipid profiles than people who ate control breakfasts. Postprandial glucose readings measure glucose levels two hours after eating, and lipid profiles can help indicate heart health. It’s no mystery why oats are great in a diabetes diet — they’re another good source of fiber. The USDA notes that a ½ cup of cooked oats provides 4 g, or 15 percent of the DV, of fiber.
For the healthiest options of oatmeal, choose steel-cut or old-fashioned oats with no added salt, sugar, or preservatives. For a creamier texture, cook them in low-fat milk. Add toppings like berries, seeds, and nuts for a flavorful, filling breakfast.
9. Slice Open a Tomato for Heart-Healthy Lycopene
Nothing beats biting into a ripe, juicy tomato — and luckily, folks with diabetes don’t have to give them up. In fact, tomatoes are ideal for a diabetes diet. “Foods such as blueberries and tomatoes with rich coloring can be higher in antioxidants and should be consumed regularly by those with diabetes,” says Kaufman.
This superfood may help lower blood pressure and LDL(“bad”) cholesterol, which may lessen the risk for heart disease. A report published in the British Journal of Nutrition from a 10-year study suggested that that lycopene, a key nutrient in tomatoes, may help reduce the risk of heart disease by 26 percent. Keep in mind that your body will be able to absorb more lycopene from cooked tomatoes than from raw ones.
10. Go Greek With Your Yogurt for More Protein and Other Nutrients
Creamy and delicious, yogurt is a rich source of calcium, protein, and magnesium. It can also deliver valuable probiotics, which, according to a study published in April 2014 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, can help reduce the risk of weight gain and obesity, as well as cardiovascular disease.
Opt for Greek yogurt; it’s slightly higher in protein than regular yogurt, which helps keep you fuller longer. According to the USDA, 1 cup of nonfat plain Greek yogurt offers 23 g of protein, while the same serving of nonfat plain yogurt contains 14 g of protein.
Read nutrition labels carefully and avoid any Greek yogurt products that have added sugars. Your best bet is to select plain, fat-free versions and add some sweetness with berries.
11. Get Your Monounsaturated Fats With Heart-Healthy Avocados
Known for their heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, avocados top the charts in terms of health benefits. According to a review published in the journal Critical Reviews of Food, Science, and Nutrition, avocados can help lower cholesterol, promote normal blood pressure, and reduce inflammation, thanks to their high fiber content, potassium, and lutein. One serving of avocado (a third of a medium-sized avocado, or 50 g) has 80 calories, 6 g of healthy fats, and a variety of vitamins and minerals, according to California Avocados.