6 healthy foods for people with diabetes to help manage blood sugar levels – and which foods to avoid

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  • If you have diabetes, eat foods high in fiber, lean protein, and omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Foods for diabetes include fatty fish, fruits, leafy greens, nuts, and whole grains.
  • People with diabetes should avoid foods like refined grains and sugary beverages.

Diabetes is a chronic disease in which the body is unable to properly process glucose – the sugar found in food that your body converts into energy. This causes elevated blood sugar levels which can damage blood vessels and eventually lead to high blood pressure and nerve damage if left untreated.

Diet control is crucial for managing diabetes because it can help regulate blood sugar levels to prevent complications, says Jocelyne Karam, MD, Director of the Division of Endocrinology at Maimonides Medical Center. Nutrition plans for people with diabetes will vary by person but in general, Karam recommends:

  • Consuming carbohydrates rich in fiber, like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Fiber has been shown to improve blood glucose levels by preventing glucose spikes after meals.
  • Avoiding sugary beverages, like soda and juice.
  • Increasing consumption of lean protein
  • Eating more unsaturated fat, which can improve insulin resistance in people with type 2 diabetes.

Here are six of the best foods within those categories that can help people with diabetes manage blood sugar levels.

1. Beans

6 healthy foods for people with diabetes to help manage blood sugar levels - and which foods to avoid
Try a black bean burger with a whole-wheat bun and avocado for a healthy dinner.nata_vkusidey/Getty Images

Beans have two main components that make them great for people with diabetes: fiber and protein. Your body digests both fiber and protein more slowly, which reduces the risk of blood sugar spikes, says Dahlia Gomez, RD, a spokesperson for the Association of Diabetes Care and Education Specialists (ADCE).

What the research says: A 2012 study found eating beans, lentils, and other legumes helped people with type 2 diabetes better control their blood sugar levels and lowered their risk of heart disease.

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends adding dried beans or canned beans with reduced sodium to meals. All beans contain fiber, but the ADA says the following are best for people with diabetes:

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  • Black beans
  • Pinto beans
  • Kidney beans
  • Navy beans

2. Dark leafy greens

6 healthy foods for people with diabetes to help manage blood sugar levels - and which foods to avoid
Kale is a great option for people with diabetes.Ron Levine/Getty Images

Dark leafy greens like spinach and kale contain vitamin C and antioxidants, which can reduce inflammation. While most inflammation is short-lived, it can be chronic in people with diabetes, increasing the risk of complications, like heart disease and kidney problems.

These veggies are also low in calories and carbohydrates, making them a good choice for controlling both blood sugar levels and weight, Gomez says.
What the research says: A 2010 analysis revealed that eating one and a half extra servings of green leafy vegetables a day reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes by 14%.

Dark leafy greens for people with diabetes include:

  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Cabbage
  • Collards

3. Fatty fish

6 healthy foods for people with diabetes to help manage blood sugar levels - and which foods to avoid
Salmon is high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.gbh007/Getty Images

Fatty fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, a type of unsaturated fat that can improve heart health and decrease inflammation. Fish is also a great source of protein, Karam says.

What the research says: A small 2017 study found that consuming fatty fish, like salmon, can help manage post-meal blood sugar levels better than consuming lean fish, like cod.

In addition to salmon, other examples of fatty fish include:

  • Sardines
  • Herring
  • Trout
  • Mackerel
  • Albacore tuna

4. Fruit

6 healthy foods for people with diabetes to help manage blood sugar levels - and which foods to avoid
Add bananas to Greek yogurt for a healthy breakfast.Rachel Hosie

Fruits are high in natural sugar and carbohydrates, which is why there is a misconception that people with diabetes should avoid them. However, their high vitamin and mineral content means they’re a safe choice, Gomez says.

If you have diabetes, it’s important to count the carbohydrates in fruit as part of your overall meal plan.
Strawberries contain antioxidants called anthocyanins, which have been shown to reduce cholesterol and improve blood sugar levels. Blueberries are also less likely to cause blood sugar spikes, thanks to their low glycemic index and high fiber content.

Some fruits for people with diabetes include:

  • Strawberries
  • Blueberries
  • Bananas
  • Oranges
  • Grapes

5. Nuts

6 healthy foods for people with diabetes to help manage blood sugar levels - and which foods to avoid
Make a healthy trail mix with nuts, seeds, and some dried fruit.EricFerguson/Getty Images

Nuts are a good source of healthy fat, magnesium, and fiber, Gomez says. Some nuts and seeds, like walnuts and flaxseeds, are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

What the research says: A 2017 review found frequent consumption of a variety of different nuts can help suppress appetite, lower cholesterol, and manage blood sugar levels.

Examples of nuts for people with diabetes include:

  • Walnuts
  • Almonds
  • Hazelnuts
  • Pistachios

6. Whole-grains

6 healthy foods for people with diabetes to help manage blood sugar levels - and which foods to avoid
Swap white rice for brown rice to help manage blood sugar levels.vm2002/Getty Images

Whole grains such as whole-wheat bread and brown rice are preferred to refined grains, like white bread because they contain more fiber, Karam says.

Whole grains are also rich in B vitamins, magnesium, iron, and folate. A 2016 study found a diet rich in whole grains can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and dying from type 2 diabetes.

Examples of whole grains for people with diabetes include:

  • Whole oats
  • Quinoa
  • Whole grain barley
  • Farro

Foods to avoid with diabetes

  • Sugary drinks. Research shows sugary drinks, like soda, can increase blood sugar levels.
  • White bread, pasta, and rice. These refined grains can raise blood sugar levels and do not contain as much fiber or protein as whole grains.
  • Processed foods, like frozen meals made with refined grains and excessive added sugar and salt, and packaged baked goods. Processed foods may contribute to increased inflammation and insulin resistance.

Insider’s takeaway

Some foods, like whole grains, fatty fish, nuts, and beans can help people with diabetes control their blood sugar levels. Increasing your intake of these foods can help you manage your diabetes, but the same diet won’t work for everyone. A diabetes education specialist or a registered dietitian can help you develop a plan that works for your individual needs.
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