If you have diabetes, you know there’s a long list of foods you should stay away from – namely those high in sugar, sodium, and saturated fat. But there are also plenty of foods you should add to your diabetes diet to help keep your blood sugar levels under control.
The foods you eat have a direct effect on your blood sugar levels, says Toby Smithson, RDN, LDN, CDE, co-author of Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition For Dummies
and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Managing blood glucose levels is key to preventing future complications,” she says.
During digestion, your body breaks carbohydrates down into glucose. With the help of insulin, this sugar is transferred from your blood into cells and used as energy. Start with these 10 diabetes-friendly foods.
Oatmeal contains beta-glucan, a heart-healthy soluble fiber that slows down digestion. This prevents big spikes in blood sugar levels, Smithson says. The beta-glucan in oatmeal has also been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, according to a study published in 2013 in the journal Food and Nutrition Research.
Just remember that oatmeal is a carbohydrate, so you’ll need to watch your portions. Smithson recommends one quarter-cup of dry oatmeal per day as part of a healthy diabetes diet. Enjoy it for breakfast, add it to meatloaf, or sprinkle it on top of your yogurt.
Salmon is a rich source of key nutrients, including protein, niacin, and vitamin D. And getting a healthy dose of vitamin D may be key, as low levels of the vitamin have been associated with type 2 diabetes, Smithson says.
The fish is also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which may help reduce inflammation associated with insulin resistance. And a study published in 2013 in the journal Nutrients showed that omega-3s may also help protect your heart health, which is especially important for people with diabetes because of their increased risk for heart disease.
Top salads with grilled or broiled salmon, and try baking salmon patties, Smithson suggests.
Almonds are high in vitamins B and E, fiber, iron, protein, magnesium, and zinc — and low in carbohydrates that increase blood sugar levels, Smithson says.
And since diabetes makes you more likely to have high LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, adding nuts to your diabetes diet is a smart move. Almonds are an excellent source of unsaturated fats, which can help lower your LDL cholesterol and raise your HDL, or “good” cholesterol levels, Smithson notes.
Add almonds to salads or try a tablespoon of almond butter as a snack, she suggests. Just watch your portions and steer clear of packaged nuts with any added sugar or salt.
An orange is an excellent source of pectin, a soluble fiber shown to lower LDL cholesterol levels, Smithson says. Although they’re sweet, oranges actually have a low glycemic index (GI), according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). And the lower a food’s GI, the less it affects blood sugar and insulin levels. Do factor in that one medium-sized orange has 15 grams of carbohydrate, Smithson notes.
Oranges also provide key nutrients including vitamin C. Opt for the whole fruit instead of juice for more fiber and antioxidants that may help prevent cell damage, she adds.
Beans are rich in soluble fiber and an inexpensive source of protein with a low GI, making them ideal for preventing big swings in blood sugar levels, Smithson says. “A higher soluble fiber content in foods is beneficial for slowing the rise in blood glucose levels because it takes longer for your system to break down the fibrous foods,” she explains.
A half cup serving of black beans has 15 grams of carbohydrate. The ADA recommends eating bean spreads, like hummus (a great dip for raw veggies), or adding beans to soup, chili, casseroles, and salad.
Of all the leafy greens you could enjoy on a diabetes diet, kale is the superstar, according to Smithson. This vegetable is rich in a slew of essential nutrients, including vitamins A, B6, C, K, and folate; the minerals calcium and magnesium; fiber; and flavonoids and other antioxidants. Kale is also very low in carbohydrates, sodium, and cholesterol, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports.
Smithson adds that kale contains bile acid sequestrants, substances that lower LDL cholesterol and limit the absorption of dietary fat. She suggests tossing kale into a salad, steaming it, or baking it into chips.
7. Dark Chocolate
Sound too good to be true? Consider this: A research review published in 2011 in the journal BMJ looked at studies involving more than 114,000 people and found that those who ate the most chocolate had a 31 percent lower risk for diabetes and a reduced risk for heart disease and stroke compared with people who ate the least. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Diabetes and Metabolic Disorders found that having about 20 grams of flavonoid-rich cocoa a day (about 3 tablespoons) could lower LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels in people with diabetes.
Look for dark chocolate with more than 60 percent cocoa. But since chocolate also contains fat and sugar, limit yourself to one small square a day, Smithson cautions.
Cinnamon has been used for thousands of years to treat various health issues, according to the ADA. More recently, the spice has been touted as a way for people with diabetes to improve blood sugar control. A 2012 study published in the journal Nutrition Research found that cinnamon supplements lowered blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. And a 2013 study published in the Annals of Family Medicine showed that cinnamon is associated with a significant drop in fasting blood sugar levels. More and bigger studies are needed to confirm the possible health benefits of cinnamon, the ADA notes — but in the meantime, it’s a tasty way to top cereal and hot beverages.
The potential health benefits of vinegar are still under investigation, but one study dating back to 2004 and published in Diabetes Care found that vinegar could significantly improve insulin sensitivity in people with diabetes or insulin resistance. The researchers suggested that vinegar’s effects on the body are similar to the effects of the commonly used diabetes drug metformin.
And a 2012 study published in the Journal of Community Hospital Internal Medicine found that vinegar helped slow the absorption of sugar. Two ounces of apple cider vinegar added to a meal improved fasting blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity, researchers found.
10. Green Tea
Research is ongoing on green tea’s effects on many serious diseases, including diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Although several earlier studies did not show that green tea helps control blood sugar levels, a 2013 research review published in the Diabetes and Metabolism Journal highlighted a Japanese study that showed that people who drank six or more cups of green tea were 33 percent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than were people who consumed a cup of green tea a week. It also reported on Taiwanese research that found that those who drank green tea regularly for more than a decade had smaller waists and a lower body fat composition than those who didn’t consume green tea regularly. The super brew also contains polyphenols, antioxidants shown to regulate glucose in the body, helping to prevent or control diabetes.