For most of us, dialing back on sugar and simple carbs is an effective way to fast-track weight loss. But for those living with diabetes, it can be a matter of life and death.
Diabetics are two to four times more likely than people without diabetes to die of heart disease or experience a life-threatening stroke, according to the American Heart Association. And for those who don’t properly control their condition, the odds of health issues—which range from cardiovascular trouble to nerve damage and kidney disease—increases exponentially.
Luckily there are plenty of delicious foods that are compatible with diabetes. We tapped registered dietitians and certified diabetes educators for their top food picks that are low-carb and low-sugar, but still high in flavor. These superfoods will keep your blood sugar in check without skimping on flavor. Bonus: Most of these foods are also packed with essential vitamins and antioxidants to fight off inflammation and keep your energy levels high. While you’re stocking up your grocery cart with these staples, be sure to avoid the 75 Unhealthiest Foods on the Planet.
This nutty, trendy whole grain is a good source of fiber and protein, making it a smart pick for a diabetes diet, Sarah Koszyk, RDN tells us. “With the fiber and protein combination found in quinoa, you’ll feel fuller and have better blood sugar control. Protein also helps with the uptake of carbohydrates so the body can process them more easily. I suggest enjoying quinoa in a salad or casserole.”
100% Whole Wheat bread
Elizabeth Snyder, RD, CDE says you can still eat carbs if you’re diabetic. You just have to watch out for portion sizes: “The trouble [with eating carbs as a diabetic] lies in eating more carbohydrates than we need, as the body will choose to store any extra energy as fat,” she says. So, rather of cutting out carbs entirely, Snyder recommends switching to complex carbs, such as 100% whole wheat bread, which are higher in vitamins, minerals, and blood-sugar-managing fiber than their simple, refined counterparts.
“Beans provide a notable combination of plant protein and soluble fiber that can help boost feelings of fullness and manage blood sugar levels,” Jackie Newgent, RDN, culinary nutritionist, and author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook explains. “Replacing some meat with beans can play a helpful role in heart health,” which is particularly important for diabetics as heart disease is one of the most common complications of diabetes. Consider adding kidney beans to soups and black beans to your casseroles to boost your intake of the legumes.
Lentils are rich in something called resistant starch: a type of carb that has a very minimal impact on your blood sugar levels because it passes through the body undigested and ultimately ends up feeding the healthy bacteria at the bottom of your digestive tract. So, not only will lentils help keep your blood sugar levels more even-keeled, they’ll also help to improve your gut health.
“Salmon is a smart addition to anyone’s eating plan, but for individuals with diabetes, it’s especially beneficial,” Lori Zanini, RD, CDE tells us. Here’s why: “It’s a healthy protein source that will not raise blood sugar levels and will help to decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke—a major concern for diabetics.” Salmon’s heart-healthy qualities come from its high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. This particular fat reduces levels of triglycerides, a risk factor for coronary heart disease, according to a review in the journal Atherosclerosis.
Looking for a protein-packed way to fuel your morning? Greek yogurt is the answer. “It naturally contains both carbohydrates and protein, which is a perfect combination to help control hunger levels and blood sugars,” says Koszyk. “Plus, choosing Greek yogurt will give you more protein and fewer carbohydrates than regular yogurt, which can help better control blood-sugar levels. Enjoy yogurt in a smoothie or as a snack paired with some berries and chia seeds.”
“Leafy greens, like spinach, are great non-starchy vegetable options because they contain lutein, an important nutrient for eye health. This nutrient is essential for people with diabetes since they have a higher risk for blindness than those without diabetes,” explains Newgent. That’s not all spinach has going for it. A study published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine found that adults who consumed 4,069 milligrams of potassium per day had a 37 percent lower risk of heart disease compared to those who consumed only 1,793 milligrams. Just one cup of cooked spinach contains 839 milligrams of potassium (which is equivalent to what’s in 2 medium bananas) or 20 percent of that target intake.
Craving a treat? Consider berries your go-to when your sweet tooth strikes. “Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries are all low on the glycemic index and are considered to be superfoods for diabetics,” Koszyk explains. The combination of being low in sugar and high in fiber contributes to their diabetes-friendly ability to gradually raise blood sugars. An added bonus: according to two recent animal studies, consuming a diet rich in polyphenols—a naturally occurring chemical found abundantly in berries—can decrease the formation of fat cells by up to 73 percent!
“Cruciferous vegetables like kale, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and cabbage are high in something called sulforaphane,” Miriam Jacobson, RD, CDN says. “The compound helps reduce oxidative stress and vascular complications associated with diabetes like heart disease and neuropathy, a term used to describe a problem with the nerves.”
Add a satisfying crunch to your favorite oatmeal, salad, soup, or smoothie with the help of ground flaxseeds, a potent superfood for people with diabetes. “Ground flaxseeds contain lignans (a plant-based chemical compound) and fiber which help maintain blood sugar levels and glycemic control,” Koszyk explains.
“I often recommend an ounce of almonds as a snack,” Zanini tells us. “Almonds don’t raise blood sugar levels and are a great source of magnesium, a nutrient that improves insulin sensitivity.”
“Chia seeds are a heart-healthy fat that contains fiber and omega-3s,” Koszyk explains. “Research suggests that chia seeds help control blood glucose. And it’s all thanks to the fiber content slowing the passage of glucose into the blood. Also, fiber fills us up which reduces our appetite and helps us eat less.” Koszyk suggests enjoying chia seeds in yogurt, fruit and veggie smoothies, or salads.
What’s better than avocado toast? Perhaps it’s the fact that this fatty fruit can help you maintain healthy blood-sugar levels. “Avocados contain a significant amount of healthful fats and dietary fiber, which help slow carbohydrate digestion and absorption and prevent spikes in blood sugar,” Newgent tells us.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
It’s time to upgrade your cooking oil. Extra virgin olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats, which studies show can actually help lower levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. This is particularly important since diabetics have a higher risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke. And get this: Snyder says losing just 7 percent of your body weight (if you’re overweight) can result in significant health benefits for diabetics. Luckily for you, EVOO is rich in oleic acid, which a Journal of Lipid Research study found helps reduce lipogenesis, or fat formation.
“When living with diabetes, eating a filling breakfast is an essential way to start the day,” says Erin Spitzberg, RDN, CDE. “Adding a little fat for added satiety can help,” she explains. She recommends pairing up your favorite breakfast carb—either a slice of whole grain toast, bowl of steel-cut oats, or high-fiber cereal—with 1 tablespoon of natural peanut butter. “The peanut butter adds approximately five grams of fat, which will help slow digestion and keep you full a little longer.”
Kale is called a superfood for good reason! Rich in fiber—with 16 grams, or over 60 percent of your daily recommended intake, of the digestion-slowing nutrient in just one cup—and low on the glycemic index, kale can help improve blood glucose control.
Despite what you may think, nixing sugar or salt doesn’t have to be synonymous with bland, cardboard-like dishes. “So often, we think about what we can’t eat when we start cutting out sugar. Instead, focus on ways to add more flavor to the foods you are eating,” suggests Zanini. “There are so many great ways to add flavor without adding sugar or salt.” Add a couple crushed cloves of garlic to your marinara sauce or saute broccoli in a blend of extra virgin olive oil, chopped garlic, and crushed red pepper flakes.
A series of reviews printed in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition discovered that adding a heaping teaspoon of cinnamon to a starchy meal like overnight oats could help stabilize blood sugar, ward off insulin spikes, and decrease fasting blood sugar. Experts believe that the spice’s powerful antioxidants, known as polyphenols, are at work; these active compounds have been proven to improve insulin sensitivity and, in turn, your body’s ability to store fat and manage hunger cues.
Want to continue munching on your favorite crackers without fretting too much over your blood sugar levels? Consider pairing the crunchy snack with a can of tuna. Depending on the amount of healthy fats and protein you pair with your carb-laden snack, your body can digest the carbs much slower than you could if you ate the carbs alone. In fact, Tufts University researchers recently presented the results of a study which found that eating protein- and fat-rich tuna fish with a slice of white bread produced a slower rise in blood sugar than when eating carbs alone.
Your favorite grilled veggie is more than just a tasty side. Because asparagus is rich in folate—just four spears contain 89 micrograms of the nutrient, or roughly 22 percent of your recommended daily value—it’s a great carb for those living with diabetes. According to a meta-analysis published in Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice, folic acid supplementation can lower cardiovascular risk among patients with Type 2 diabetes by reducing homocysteine levels, an amino acid that’s been linked to increased risk of mortality when present in high levels in diabetic patients.
Trust us: it’s worth the tears. Canadian researchers discovered that a type of gut-healthy insoluble fiber found in onions, called oligofructose, can increase levels of ghrelin—a hormone that controls hunger—and lower levels of blood sugar. This allium can help diabetics in another way, as well. Thanks to their bioactive sulfur-containing compounds, onions can help lower cholesterol, ward off hardening of the arteries, and help maintain healthy blood pressure levels, according to a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition. Pro tip: saute your onions for better benefits; the same study found the cholesterol-lowering properties were stronger in onions that were cooked compared to those eaten raw.
If you love spaghetti and meatballs, swapping in veggies for grains should be your go-to move. “Zucchini noodles and spaghetti squash are both easy and delicious ways to lower the amount of carbohydrates in some of your favorite dishes,” says Zanini.
Zanini is a huge fan of green tea—and with good reason. Because it is hydrating and filling, green tea can help prevent overeating, which will both stabilize blood sugar levels and aid weight loss efforts by boosting feelings of satiety. “This drink also increases your metabolism and reduces fat storage,” Zanini adds.
“Oats contain a type of fiber called beta-glucan, which seems to have an anti-diabetic effect,” explains Newgent. Specifically, a review published in Vascular Health and Risk Management concluded that beta-glucans help to reduce high blood sugar and blood pressure, adding, “I advise people with diabetes to steer clear of added sugars by enjoying savory rather than sweet oatmeal.” Try making oatmeal overnight with one of our 50 Overnight Oats Recipes for Weight Loss.
Check out the power of the cauliflower. Grate it up, and cauliflower rice is a great low-carb substitute for refined white rice, which can help keep your blood sugar levels more stable. Plus, cauliflower is rich in sulforaphane: a compound which a Science Translational Medicine study found can inhibit glucose production in cells and improves glucose tolerance in rodents on high-fat or high-fructose diet.
You may not think much of broccoli sprouts when they pop up on your salad or sandwich, but these little guys are a powerful anti-inflammatory. They’re packed with sulforaphane, which may help protect against cancer according to a study published in Cancer Prevention Research. Rich in fiber, broccoli sprouts are “a potent detoxifier and play a role in decreasing cancer risk,” says Nicole Anziani, RD, CDE and Clinical Manager at Fit4D.
“Edamame delivers a unique nutrition profile that could offer multiple benefits for those living with diabetes,” Jenna Braddock, RDN, CSSD, sports dietitian and blogger at MakeHealthyEasy. “First, the fiber content of one cup is a staggering 10 grams, which could be very helpful in regulating blood sugar spikes and also contributes to reducing risk for heart disease. Second, as a plant-based source of protein, it could help reduce disease risk factors when it replaces meat in the diet. Lastly, edamame is a good source of the essential nutrient choline, and research shows that 9 out of ten Americans don’t get enough of in the diet. Choline is important for helping to reduce homocysteine levels in the blood, a marker connected to increased risk of heart disease and connected to vascular disease in diabetes.”
Instead of reaching for pretzels, chips, or another high-carb, high-calorie snack, carrots make for a healthy, low-calorie alternative. They are packed with vitamins C, D, E, and K, and the antioxidant beta-carotene, and make for a good low-carb snack when dunked in hummus or guacamole.
Eggs are a great source of protein. Anziani recommends opting for pasture-raised, organic omega-3 eggs. “The yolk will concentrate the omega-3 fed to the chickens,” she says, adding that these eggs are “a good source of choline and protein, but limit to under five per week.”
Instead of choosing starchier veggies that can raise blood sugar, Anziani likes tomatoes to add to a salad or as a snack for a flavorful option that’s low-calorie. They are also a good source of the antioxidant lycopene, which can help fight inflammation.
These fatty fish are some of the healthiest cold water fish, says Anziani. “[Sardines are] extremely convenient to eat when packaged as boneless and skinless in extra virgin olive oil,” she says. Pour them over a salad with the olive oil dressing for a boost of healthy fats and protein to keep your blood sugar stable.
Instead of fattier cheese or mayo, Anziani recommends hummus as a dip for veggies or low-carb crackers. “[Hummus] contains protein and a lot of taste for lower glycemic snacking,” she says.
Organic Tofu & Tempeh
Although vegetarians might have a tougher time getting protein in their diet, Anziani recommends organic tofu which absorbs the flavor of whatever it is cooked with. Another tofu option is tempeh, a fermented soy protein that can replace animal protein. However, those with a thyroid condition should only consume tofu or tempeh two to three times a week.
Anziani says that although sweet potatoes are starchy, they’re rich in beta-carotene, which is converted into the essential vitamin A. Sweet potatoes are also lower on the glycemic index than regular white potatoes. Treat sweet potatoes as your main starch for the meal and stick to a serving size—about ½ a cup baked or roasted. Keep the skin on for extra fiber.
MCT oil, named for the medium-chain triglycerides, a type of fatty acids, has been praised for its brain-boosting benefits, but it can also be used in small amounts to replace other fat sources. “MCT oil can be used in smoothies or drizzled over salads,” Anziani says, “It is tasteless and may be used as fuel preferentially, versus being stored as fat.”
Stock up on fresh pumpkin and pumpkin puree during the fall season. This super squash is rich in beta-carotene and adds a boost of seasonal flavor. “Can be a nice addition to oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies, or cooked as the starch component of dinner,” Anziani says.
Watching your blood sugar doesn’t mean you have to give up dessert entirely. Dark chocolate that’s 70% cacao or above can have health benefits without spiking blood sugar; just pay attention to the ingredients and nutrition label. “One ounce or square can be consumed per day to strategically lower the stress hormone cortisol and keep milk chocolate cravings at bay,” Anziani, says. Cacao is also rich in antioxidants, which can help fight inflammation.
Even diabetics can enjoy pasta. Shirataki noodles are made from yam flour for a low-carb and super low-calorie option. “These noodles have 0-20 calories per package and can be prepared in meals that would call for carby noodles,” Anziani says.
“All vegetables are good sources of nutrition but dark green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, bok choy, mustard, and broccoli provide vitamins like A, C, E, K and folate as well as fiber, iron and several minerals like calcium,” Byron Richard, MS RD CDE, Clinical Nutrition Manager UC San Diego Health, says, “Leafy greens, as most non-starchy vegetables, have a low GI are low in calories and carbohydrates.”
Celery is an alkaline food that makes for an easy snack; Anziani likes that celery is nearly calorie-free. Slice up some celery to dip in hummus or fill with almond or peanut butter.
Vegan Protein Powder
Smoothies, especially those with a lot of fruit, can have too much sugar for diabetics. But a good high-quality, low-sugar vegan protein can be an excellent meal replacement when shaken with unsweetened almond or coconut milk says Anziani. We like Vega One All-In-One Nutritional Shake Blend ($51.99 for large tun on Amazon.com). It clocks in at just 137 calories per scoop with 11 grams of carbs, 2 grams of sugar, 6 grams of fiber and 15 grams of protein. Blend a low-sugar smoothie with spinach, chia seeds, unsweetened almond milk, and a handful of berries for sweetness.
Bitter melons aren’t all that common; after all, as the name suggests, they are very bitter, Anziani says. However, she adds that it has been proven to lower blood sugar. A study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that 2,000 mg of bitter melon a day lowers blood glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
Instead of sodas and sweetened beverages, which can pack up to 40 grams of sugar per serving and can wreak havoc on blood sugar levels, Anziani recommends opting for unsweetened seltzer instead. Try a low-calorie flavored brand like Spindrift, or buy plain club soda or seltzer and flavor yourself with a squeeze of lemon, lime, or fresh mint sprigs.
Nuts are an excellent snack for diabetics since they are low in carbs, high in healthy fats, and high in fiber. Walnuts are one of the best nuts available because of their high omega-3 content Anziani says—one serving (about ¼ a cup) has almost 3 grams of omega-3s. Just be sure to stick to one serving size so as not to go overboard on calories.
Like other beans, chickpeas are a high-fiber legume that can be eaten instead of animal protein, Anziani recommends. Roasted and seasoned chickpeas also make for a good high-fiber, low-carb snack compared to other high glycemic options such as pretzels and potato chips.
Instead of other high-carb crackers, opt for high-fiber flax crackers. They’re an excellent base for hummus, guacamole, or turkey slices. We like Mary’s Gone Crackers Super Seed Crackers ($4.44 per box on Amazon.com) which are just 160 calories per serving and have 19 grams of carbs, 3 grams of fiber, 0 grams of sugar, and 3 grams of protein.
Bone broth is rich in collagen, which can make for a protein-packed and satiating snack. a low sodium protein-rich beverage rich in collagen Anziani says. Sip some warm broth for an afternoon snack to keep you satisfied until dinnertime. We like Pacific Foods ($6.20 per 8 fluid ounce container at Amazon.com) for a tasty and affordable option.
Combining lean proteins are key in keeping your blood sugar down while also leaving you feeling satisfied. Anziani recommends lean chicken because it’s nearly pure protein, highly satiating, and versatile for a variety of recipes. “A good portion of protein is a palm-sized piece at meals, or about 22 grams per meal,” she says.
You don’t have to give up rice entirely if you’re diabetic. Anziani likes wild rice because it’s high in fiber. She says it’s an ancient grain that is actually a grass and is high in manganese, zinc, iron, and folate.
Red, green, orange, and yellow bell peppers aren’t just colorful additions to your salad; they can be a blood sugar-friendly snack all on their own. They have a sweeter taste without the sugar content of most fruit (about 3 grams of sugar per medium bell pepper). Anziani also likes how they are rich in vitamin C and also have a satisfying crunch. Slice them up and enjoy them as a snack with hummus or guacamole.