Everything You Need to Know About a Prediabetic Diet, According to a Nutritionist

The right prediabetic diet can help you avoid an official type 2 diabetes diagnosis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. has prediabetes and more than 84% of those people don’t know they have it. Like having poor eating habits, prediabetes can also increase your risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

Fortunately, type 2 diabetes is preventable—and a prediabetic diet can help.

According to the American Diabetes Association, early action is key for people who have prediabetes or are borderline diabetic. Lifestyle changes play a definite role in getting blood sugars back into a normal range.

What Is Prediabetes?

What you eat and drink affects your blood sugar levels. Eating a lot of refined carbohydrates, as well as frequently drinking sugary beverages, can cause your blood sugar to rise. If your fasting blood sugar is high but not considered high enough to have type 2 diabetes, that’s considered prediabetes.

Look out for signs for prediabetes, like being excessively thirsty, losing weight without trying or urinating frequently. Annual blood tests can also help you keep track of your blood sugar trends from year to year.

Learn more about the foods to avoid when you have prediabetes.

Can I Eat Sugar If I’m Prediabetic?

Yes, the good news is that you can have sugar on a prediabetic diet. However, the type of sugar and how much sugar you eat play a role in controlling blood sugar levels. There are naturally occurring sugars found in foods with nutritional value, such as plain milk products (lactose) and whole fruits (fructose). You may also know that carbohydrate-rich foods like pasta, rice and bread contain starch, which converts to glucose in the body.

In order to improve blood sugar levels, choose carbohydrates with less added sugar and more fiber, like whole grains, fruit and vegetables. The American Heart Association recommends that adults limit added sugar to 6 teaspoons a day (about 100 calories) for women and 9 teaspoons a day (about 150 calories) for men.

Counting Carbs for Prediabetes

Your carbohydrate-rich foods, such as starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas and corn), fruits, grains, milk, yogurt and beans, peas and lentils (also called pulses), affect blood sugar levels. It’s important to monitor how much carbohydrate you eat throughout the day to manage your blood sugar.

A prediabetic diet is optimized by understanding how to portion control carbohydrates throughout the day. If you understand how to count carbohydrates, it’s a cinch to keep your blood sugar in a healthy range! The number or grams of carbohydrates is counted based on serving size of a food. What does a serving of carbohydrates look like?

One serving of carbohydrates is 15 grams, such as:

  • 1 slice of bread
  • 1/3 cup cooked pasta
  • 1/3 cup cooked rice
  • 1/3 cup cooked quinoa
  • 1 small piece of fruit
  • 1/2 cup starchy vegetables
  • 3/4 cup berries
  • 1/2 cup 100% fruit juice

For meals, aim to get 2-4 servings (30-60 grams) of carbs. For a snack, aim to get 1-2 servings (15-20 grams) of carbs. The quality of the carbohydrates count, too. Choose fewer refined flour products, and instead, make half of your grains whole grains, such as brown rice, whole wheat bread, quinoa, barley, oats and/or buckwheat. You’ll get more nutritional value and a lower rise in blood sugar with high fiber carbohydrates.

Portion Control for Prediabetes

Balance your plate on a prediabetic diet by dividing your plate into three compartments: half of your plate is non-starchy veggies, a quarter of your plate is lean protein and the other quarter is starchy vegetables or grains.

Eventually, you’ll be able to eyeball appropriate serving sizes for foods. Here are some visuals to help you portion out the right amount of food:

  • 3 ounces of lean red meat, poultry, fish, pork = a deck of cards
  • 1 cup of fruit, starchy vegetables or grains = a baseball
  • 1 baked potato = a computer mouse
  • 1 ounce of nuts = a handful
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter = a ping pong ball
  • 1 teaspoon of olive oil = a postage stamp

Tips for a Healthy Prediabetic Diet

You have an opportunity to keep your blood sugar in a healthy range and prevent type 2 diabetes. Here are some simple ways to stay on track with your prediabetic diet, inspired by healthy eating habits for people with diabetes.

Drink more water

Upping your water intake can help you stay hydrated, improve metabolism and improve your energy levels. Aim for half of your body weight in ounces from fluids, primarily water.

Cut out sugary beverages

Do not drink sugary calories, as your brain does not register the calories from beverages the same way it does with solid foods. Plus, liquid sugar will spike your blood sugar, cause a rise in insulin levels and provide zero nutritional value for the calories.

Eat more fiber

Aim to get 20 to 35 grams of fiber per day from whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans. Fiber-rich carbohydrates stabilize blood sugar, fill you up faster and help with weight loss and maintenance.

Eat every 3 to 4 hours

By eating meals and snacks at regular times every day, you will stabilize your blood sugar, fend off cravings and keep your metabolism humming along.

Balance meals and snacks with protein

Since protein-rich foods do not turn into glucose, you will keep blood sugar in control, fuel muscle mass and boost metabolism a bit, since digesting protein foods requires slightly more calories. Choose lean protein sources when you can, such as lean meat, poultry, seafood, tofu, beans, lentils, nuts and nut butters.

Sweeten foods yourself

Instead of presweetened cereals, yogurt and coffee drinks, add your own sweetness with a drizzle of honey, agave nectar or 100% pure maple syrup. You’re bound to get less added sugar when you add it yourself, plus you can control how much is in your foods and beverages.

Plan your meals and snacks

Keeping blood sugar in control requires planning. By taking stock of what’s in your fridge and pantry for the week, you can better plan what you’ll eat. If you plan for Monday through Wednesday and then regroup for the latter part of the week, that can work well. By having healthy foods accessible, it’s more of a guarantee that you’ll have balanced meals and snacks. If you’re in a time crunch, find blood sugar-friendly fast-food options.

The bottom line is that a prediabetic diet can help you manage your blood sugar and prevent type 2 diabetes. If you need help building an eating plan, consult a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and/or a certified diabetes educator (CDE).

Recipes for Anyone Who's Been Diagnosed with Prediabetes
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Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN
A registered dietitian nutritionist, book author and speaker, Vicki has a passion for helping others embrace simple lifestyle habits that lead to health and happiness. When she is not in the kitchen whipping up tasty, nourishing meals for her family: two children, a husband and pet pug named Stella. Vicki enjoys a soothing face mask, Pilates and the occasional trip to their local sushi hotspot.