The Best and Worst Foods for Your Prediabetes Diet Plan
More than a third of U.S. adults have prediabetes—a major risk factor for developing diabetes. Here's how your eats can make a big difference in preventing full-blown type 2 diabetes.
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It’s exactly what it sounds like—prediabetes is when your blood sugar levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be called diabetes. It affects more than a third of the adult population in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You can avoid developing type 2 diabetes by staying active every day, losing a bit of weight, and avoiding bad-for-your-blood-sugar foods and loading up on healthier-for-you dishes. Developing good eating habits is key to a good prediabetes diet.
Here is a sample of some of the best and worst prediabetes food, according to science, to have throughout the day.
Worst breakfast: bagels, breakfast cereals, or bacon
Highly refined grains like bagels made from white flour and cereals are bad breakfast choices for your prediabetes diet because they lack the fiber that blunts your blood sugar response. (Besides, some cereals are packed with sugar; you have to look at the nutrition label carefully.) You can still eat these on occasion, but you should aim to limit these in your diet, says Jill Weisenberger, RD, author of Diabetes Weight Loss Week By Week. Bacon also shouldn’t be an “everyday food,” she says. “People think, ‘oh, it doesn’t have carbs,’ but there are so many things about it that are not a good idea for prediabetics,” she says. For one, it’s linked to colon cancer, something people with type 2 diabetes are already at an increased risk of. (Make sure you’re following these other breakfast rules for diabetics.)
Best breakfast: eggs and avocado
Eggs are one food that Weisenberger likes to recommend to clients, mainly because there are so many ways to cook them. Besides being fast and easy to prepare, they’re also a good source of protein for a prediabetes diet. And while you may be nervous about the cholesterol, research shows that in the context of a healthy diet, eating eggs doesn’t have a negative effect on your heart health, as a 2015 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study suggests. Avocado also tops this list because it’s rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, heart-healthy fats that have been shown to improve fasting blood glucose levels.
Worst lunch: a deli sandwich
Veering away from processed meats, including deli meat, is a good idea for your prediabetes diet. In one 2018 study published in the Journal of Hepatology, people who ate more processed and grilled red meats were at increased risk of insulin resistance (a sign of unhealthy blood sugar levels) and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which has been linked to type 2 diabetes. The sodium and nitrates in processed meats may impair artery health, insulin secretion, and glucose tolerance while grilling can release chemicals that also affect insulin resistance. (Here’s a look at some of the best meats to eat and those to avoid.)
Best lunch: a mega salad
No surprise for any meal plan, but particularly for a prediabetes diet, non-starchy veggies should make up the largest food group on your plate, says Weisenberger. “Your goal should be to eat more non-starchy vegetables than anything else. If you’re still hungry, eat more of them,” she says. These include picks like leafy greens of any type, zucchini, broccoli, bell peppers, onions, and mushrooms. Not only does a larger intake of produce help drive down type 2 diabetes risk, but these foods are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and fiber, plus thousands of phytonutrients, which work in numerous ways to protect your heart and keep blood sugar under control. Feel free to top your salad with legumes, like lentils or beans, or lean meats like sliced chicken, plus an olive oil-based vinaigrette.
Worst snack: beef jerky, beef sticks, or pork rinds
“People eat these because they have zero carbs. But the focus shouldn’t be on that; it should be on the overall nutrient profile of the food,” says Weisenberger. And these products are lacking in that department, she says. Your aim should be to fit more nutrient-rich plant foods into your diet—not simply carb-free ones. If you’re not snacking on beef jerky, good for you! (Be sure you’re not making one of these common prediabetes mistakes.)
Best snack: hummus and crudités
One goal of a prediabetes diet is to up your intake of fruits and veggies, and one way to do that is to include them in a snack. Dunking them into good-for-you dips is a smart move. Hummus is made from chickpeas, and legumes have been shown to improve fasting blood sugar levels in both the short- and long-term, says Weisenberger.
Worst dinner: fast food burger and fries
Beware the lure of the neon sign when you’re working on a prediabetes diet. In a long-term study published in The Lancet, people who visited fast-food restaurants more than twice a week experienced more weight gain and a two-fold greater increase in insulin resistance compared to those who frequented less than once a week. And in a more recent study, folks who lived in places that had more fast-food restaurants and few other dining choices also were at greater risk for developing diabetes. If you’re craving a burger and fries, do yourself a favor and cook one up at home with a whole grain bun and a side of (homemade) roasted sweet potato fries. (Then try these simple tips for living well with diabetes—from people who have it.)
Best dinner: veggies, fish, and barley
When you’re thinking about the best prediabetes diet, it’s all about building a smart plate. Like lunch, you should aim to fill most of your plate with those nutrient-rich non-starchy veggies, says Weisenberger. Fish will help safeguard your heart, important since having prediabetes puts you at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease. Whole grains are also important: One study of middle-aged men and women found that for every serving of whole grains, men lowered their risk of type 2 diabetes by 11 percent and women by 7 percent. Quinoa, wild rice, and farro are a few whole grains, but barley is especially great, as it contains a fiber called beta-glucan that’s especially helpful for insulin. Keep your portion to a half to one cup, advises Weisenberger.
Worst desserts: cheesecake, sorbet, frozen yogurt
It’s not hard to understand why cheesecake is one of the foods to avoid for prediabetes. “Have you looked at the nutrition facts for cheesecake? It’s really scary,” says Weisenberger. For one, slices are rich in saturated fat, which can impair insulin sensitivity, plus a portion packs 27 grams of sugar, more than a woman should eat in an entire day. Weisenberger also isn’t a fan of the other side of the spectrum: fat-free desserts like sorbet or frozen yogurt. “These contain a ton of added sugar that increases your blood sugar but offers minimum nutrition,” she says.
Best dessert: dark chocolate covered almonds
Dark chocolate is packed with healthful antioxidants compared to milk chocolate. In addition, nuts like almonds are linked to better heart health, says Weisenberger. (And remember, what’s good for your heart is good for blood sugar.) In terms of weight control—important for people with prediabetes—individual treats (like chocolate-covered almonds) are great because you can eat them slowly and savor the sweet treat.
Now that you’re on track to better eating, here are 71 other ways to prevent diabetes—and lead a healthier life.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Prevalence of Prediabetes"
- Jill Weisenberger, RD, Newport News, Virginia
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "The effect of a high-egg diet on cardiovascular risk factors in people with type 2 diabetes: the Diabetes and Egg (DIABEGG) study—a 3-mo randomized controlled trial."
- Public Health Nutrition: "Impact of dietary fat composition on prediabetes: a 12-year follow-up study."
- Journal of Hepatology: "High red and processed meat consumption is associated with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and insulin resistance."
- Canadian Journal of Public Health: "Relative and absolute availability of fast-food restaurants in relation to the development of diabetes: A population-based cohort study."
- 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."
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Prediabetes: A Preventable and Treatable, but Often Unrecognized, Clinical Condition"