15 Foods People With Diabetes Can (and Should) Enjoy
Include these foods in your diabetes diet to help lower blood sugar, reduce inflammation, and get other health benefits.
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What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease that typically affects the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. These cells help control how the body processes blood sugar, also known as blood glucose. For example, the cells produce the hormone insulin after you eat, which helps move blood sugar out of your bloodstream and into the muscles and liver, where it can be used as fuel. People with type 2 diabetes, the most common type of diabetes, lose their sensitivity to insulin (known as insulin resistance). People with type 1 diabetes, on the other hand, have an autoimmune disease that destroys their insulin-producing cells. (Here is the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes.)
In both cases, blood sugar, which is toxic, can rise to dangerous levels. People with diabetes need to be especially careful about what they eat to help keep their blood sugar levels in the safe zone (or to take enough insulin to process their intake of carbohydrates, which is the main component of food that drives blood sugar.) People with diabetes should consult with a registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator to talk about the eating plan that’s best for them. However, here are a few types of food that may help control blood sugar or possibly help prevent type 2 diabetes when consumed as part of an overall healthy diet. (Type 1 diabetes cannot be prevented.)
Chocolate lovers, take note: A review of studies published in 2017 in the Journal of Community Hospital Internal Medicine Perspectives suggested that cocoa may help slow down the progression to type 2 diabetes and improve insulin resistance. It may even help stave off cardiovascular complications in people with diabetes, although the authors note that large, randomized controlled studies would be needed to confirm that this is true.
Dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids, and research shows that these nutrients may help reduce insulin resistance, improve insulin sensitivity, drop insulin levels and fasting blood glucose, and blunt cravings. One caveat: most cocoa products or chocolates on the supermarket shelf contain low amount of flavanols and are rich in sugar and calories that may aggravate glycemic control in type 2 diabetes patients, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Antioxidants.
As with other cruciferous veggies like kale and cauliflower, this diabetes-friendly food contains a compound called sulforaphane. According to research in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity and Science Translation Medicine, it triggers several anti-inflammatory processes that may improve blood sugar control and protect blood vessels from the cardiovascular damage that’s often a consequence of diabetes. (Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for people with diabetes.) Sulforaphane also helps flip on the body’s natural detox mechanisms, coaxing enzymes to turn cancer-causing chemicals into more innocent forms that the body can easily release, per the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. Not a broccoli lover? “Prepare until al dente—cooked through, yet still firm—and add to a stir-fry of ingredients you enjoy, like chicken, bell pepper, and peanuts,” says Jackie Newgent, RDN, registered dietitian, chef, and the author of The Clean and Simple Diabetes Cookbook. “If raw, consider serving with a dip, like hummus.” And if that’s not enough to have you crunching on the veggie, here’s why people with type 2 diabetes should consider eating more of it.
Blueberries stand out: They contain both insoluble fiber (which helps reduce fat absorption) and soluble fiber (which slows down the emptying of your stomach, and improves blood sugar control). That’s not all: A review of studies about blueberries, which was published in the journal Antioxidants in 2016, suggests that blueberries may have a beneficial effect on insulin resistance and glucose tolerance, among other benefits.
Some research suggests that oatmeal may help reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This food contains high amounts of magnesium, and according to the journal Nutrients, it helps the body use glucose and secrete insulin properly. Plus, a study published in 2018 in The Journal of Nutrition suggested that eating a diet rich in whole grains—the researchers singled out rye bread, whole-grain bread, and oatmeal—may reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes. Keep in mind: Steel-cut oats are just as easy to cook as quick-cooking oatmeal, says Newgent. But when grains are left whole they are filled with the fiber, nutrients, and bound antioxidants that challenge digestion in a good way, allowing blood sugar to remain more stable.
Fish is a slimming star: rich in protein, it helps keep you satisfied, but this diabetes-friendly food also contains a special type of fat that helps cool inflammation. Many studies show that people with the highest blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids have less body-wide inflammation, and inflammation has been linked to type 2 diabetes and weight problems. A fish-rich diet may also reduce your risk of developing health problems or complications as a result of your diabetes. Salmon is the most obvious go-to, but it’s not the only fish loaded with good-for-you fat. “Sardines and anchovies are rich in omega 3’s,” says Newgent. “Grill or pan-grill sardines, then squirt with lemon and serve on top of avocado toast for a more intriguing and balanced bite—or squirt with lime and enjoy as the feature ingredient in fish tacos.” When you’re tired of making meals at home, try out these tasty restaurant dishes that are great for people with diabetes.
Following a Mediterranean-style diet, which is rich in olive oil, and engaging in physical activity is a winning combination for anyone looking to lose weight and prevent or delay a type 2 diabetes diagnosis. A study published in Diabetes Care in 2019 showed that overweight or obese people with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes who exercised and followed a calorie-restricted Mediterranean diet lost more weight, had better glucose control, and were more sensitive to insulin than a control group given standard healthy eating advice. In addition to being a standout source of health-promoting monounsaturated fats, olive oil is also rich in antioxidant nutrients that protect cells from damage, and prevents heart disease.
A review of studies published in 2018 in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine suggested that a high-fiber diet may help prevent type 2 diabetes. The researchers recommend that people with type 2 diabetes increase their intake of fiber-rich foods, such as high-fiber cereals, or to use fiber supplements. Psyllium husk, a fiber supplement long used for constipation relief, may help people with type 2 diabetes control blood sugar better. (Here’s how to get more fiber in your diet without even trying.)
Packed with protein and cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber, legumes such as tender, white cannellini beans are slow to raise blood sugar. No wonder beans landed at the top of the list of foods recommended by the American Diabetes Association (ADA). Along with kidney, pinto, navy, and black beans, cannellini beans are high in fiber and packed with vitamins and minerals like magnesium and potassium. To save time you can use canned beans, but be sure to drain and rinse them to get rid of as much added salt as possible (or buy low sodium versions). Here are some other ways to incorporate beans into your meals with these tricks for diabetes diet planning.
Spinach—along with collards, kale, and other dark leafy greens—are in the #2 spot on the ADA’s round-up of recommended foods. That’s because spinach is particularly rich in vitamin K, along with minerals such as magnesium, folate, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc. It’s also a good source of the plant chemicals lutein and zeaxanthin, and various flavonoids. Although spinach is technically a rich source of calcium, another nutrient in spinach called oxalic acid prevents much of that calcium from being absorbed. “To help prevent that interference from oxalic acid, cook spinach just slightly,” suggests Newgent. Here are some other benefits of spinach to convince you to eat more leafy greens.
One analysis of several studies, which was published in 2013, found that sweet potatoes reduced A1C measures between 0.30 and 0.57 percent and fasting blood glucose by 10 to 15 points compared with placebo—although the authors concluded that more research is needed. (Hemoglobin A1C is a measure of long-term levels of high blood sugar.) Sweet potatoes do contain anthocyanins, the natural pigments that give the sweet potato its deep orange color, and antioxidants, compounds that help defend your cells from damage caused by potentially harmful molecules known as free radicals. “For people with diabetes, I suggest scrubbing sweet potatoes and leaving on the peel for bonus fiber,” says Newgent. “Or pair with ingredients that are rich in protein, healthy fats, or both. For instance, cook cubes of sweet potato into chili or prepare a hash brown dish by sautéing cubes of sweet potatoes along with lots of non-starchy veggies like green peppers, red peppers, and onions. You can make good-for-you sweet potato fries, too. Just toss them in olive oil—don’t be too skimpy—add your favorite seasonings, and bake until crisp. Looking for more yummy foods? Search no more: diabetic-friendly comfort food recipes.
The most widespread tree nut in the world, this diabetes-friendly food contains the polyunsaturated fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid, which has been shown to lower inflammation. The L-arginine, omega-3s, fiber, vitamin E, and other phytochemicals found in walnuts and other tree nuts make them potent: scientists say they may have antioxidant, anticancer, antiviral, and anti-high cholesterol actions. That’s why they are one of the healthiest nuts you can eat. Snack on walnuts straight from the shell; the time it takes to crack them open may help you slow down your consumption, so your body has more time to register the food and feel satisfied.
Quinoa tastes like a grain, but it’s more closely related to spinach than it is to rice. Contrary to most grains, it’s a good source of “complete” protein (14 grams per 1/2 cup!), boasting all nine essential amino acids. One is lysine, which helps the body absorb all that fat-burning calcium and also helps produce carnitine, a nutrient responsible for converting fatty acids into energy and helping to lower cholesterol. One of the most fiber-rich grain-like foods, quinoa contains 2.6 grams per 1/2 cup, and fiber helps to balance blood sugar levels and keep you fuller, longer, per 2008 research in the Journal of Nutrition. And if you’re hesitant to incorporate grains and starches into your diet, read up on these common diabetes diet myths. (Hint: quinoa is one of them.)
Research has shown that cinnamon may help reduce blood sugar, thanks to its abundance of chromium, a mineral that enhances the effects of insulin. It’s also loaded with polyphenols, antioxidants that gather up all the free radicals in your blood to protect you from cancer and also lower systemic inflammation, further guarding you against diabetes and heart disease. But that’s not all: A study published in a 2017 issue of Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental found that an essential oil in cinnamon could be used as a treatment to fight obesity, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
Dark green leafy vegetables like collard greens are excellent sources of vitamin C, which helps lower cortisol in the body and consequently reduces inflammation as well. Collard greens (and other cruciferous veggies like kale and Brussels sprouts) are also a good source of alpha-lipoic acid, a micronutrient that helps the body deal with stress, according to a 2018 report in Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. Good news for people with diabetes: Alpha-lipoic acid also helps reduce blood sugar and can help to strengthen the nerves damaged by diabetic neuropathy, also per the report. Just be careful not to overcook it, which creates a strong sulfur smell. Just five minutes of steaming, and you’re done.
Turmeric does more than add color and spice to many curry dishes; it also helps lower blood glucose and may play a role in preventing type 2 diabetes. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, is the compound believed to regulate fat metabolism in the body. Curcumin acts directly on fat cells, pancreatic cells, kidney cells, and muscle cells, dampening inflammation and blocking the activities of cancer-causing tumor necrosis factor and interleukin-6. Experts believe the combined action of all of these factors together gives curcumin the power to reverse insulin resistance, high blood sugar and high cholesterol, and other symptoms linked to obesity, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, according to a review of studies published in Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. While it can be tough to tackle exactly what to eat when you have diabetes, we have plenty of resources, like these nutritionists’ clever tricks for grocery shopping with diabetes.
- Jackie Newgent, RDN, registered dietitian, chef, and author of The Clean and Simple Diabetes Cookbook.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease: “Type 2 Diabetes”
- Journal of Community Hospital Internal Medicine Perspectives: “Use of Dark Chocolate for Diabetic Patients: A Review of the Literature and Current Evidence.”
- Antioxidants: “Effects of Cocoa Antioxidants in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus.”
- Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism: “Enhanced Task-Related Brain Activation and Resting Perfusion in Healthy Older Adults After Chronic Blueberry Supplementation.”
- Nutrients: “Magnesium in Prevention and Therapy.”
- The Journal of Nutrition: “Higher Whole-Grain Intake Is Associated with Lower Risk of Type 2 Diabetes among Middle-Aged Men and Women: The Danish Diet, Cancer, and Health Cohort.”
- Czech Journal of Food Science: “Quinoa—A Review”
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: “Quinoa: Nutritional Value”
- The Journal of Nutrition: “Metabolic Effects of Dietary Fiber Consumption and Prevention of Diabetes”
- Diabetes Care: “Risk of Cause-Specific Death in Individuals With Diabetes: A Competing Risks Analysis.”
- Science Translational Medicine: “Sulforaphane reduces hepatic glucose production and improves glucose control in patients with type 2 diabetes.”
- Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity: “Sulforaphane Protects against Cardiovascular Disease via Nrf2 Activation.”
- Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity: “Anticancer Activity of Sulforaphane: The Epigenetic Mechanisms and the Nrf2 Signaling Pathway”
- Antioxidants: “Blueberries’ Impact on Insulin Resistance and Glucose Intolerance.”
- Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism: “Enhanced Task-Related Brain Activation and Resting Perfusion in Healthy Older Adults after Chronic Blueberry Supplementation.”
- Food & Nutrition Research: “Effect of Long Chain Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids on Inflammation and Metabolic Markers in Hypertensive and/or Diabetic Obese Adults.”
- Diabetes Care: “Effect of a Lifestyle Intervention Program With Energy-Restricted Mediterranean Diet and Exercise on Weight Loss and Cardiovascular Risk Factors: One-Year Results of the PREDIMED-Plus Trial.”
- The Journal of Chiropractic Medicine: “Dietary Fiber Intake and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: An Umbrella Review of Meta-analyses.”
- American Diabetes Association: “Diabetes Superfoods.”
- Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: “Sweet Potato for Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus.”
- Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism: “Walnut Consumption Increases Activation of the Insula to Highly Desirable Food Cues.”
- Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental: “Cinnamaldehyde Induces Fat Cell-Autonomous Thermogenesis and Metabolic Reprogramming.”
- Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: “Alpha-Lipoic Acid for Diabetic Peripheral Neuropathy.”
- Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: “Curcumin and Diabetes: A Systematic Review.”
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Antioxidants: In Depth.”