Type 2 Diabetes: How It Affects Your Diet

Julie Cunningham, MPH, RD, LDN, CDCES explains how food affects diabetes and what methods you can use to keep your blood sugar in check.

It may sound complicated to change your diet to help manage your blood sugar, but fortunately, it’s not as hard as you think. Here’s a closer look at how a type 2 diabetes diagnosis should affect your diet.

What Is Type 2 Diabetes?

Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are conditions that, without treatment, cause your blood sugar to run too high. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder that attacks the pancreas and destroys its ability to make insulin, the hormone that keeps blood sugar in check. Type 2 diabetes is different. If you have type 2 diabetes, your pancreas may produce plenty of insulin, but your body has trouble using it.

The result is the same: Too much sugar in your bloodstream, which can cause damage to your eyes, kidneys and other vital organs.

How Food Affects Diabetes

All food is made up of three major components, or macronutrients: protein, fat and carbohydrate. Protein and fat have little effect on your blood sugar, but carbohydrate has a direct effect on blood glucose levels. When carbohydrate is digested, it is broken down into glucose, or sugar, and that sugar starts to circulate in your blood. One fact about type 2 diabetes many people misunderstand is that a no-carb diet is not the goal. A consistent carbohydrate intake that meets your individual needs is key. Controlling your carbohydrate intake is a major part of your type 2 diabetes diet.

Counting Carbs for Type 2 Diabetes

Years ago, people with diabetes were encouraged to follow a strict diet using a system called the Diabetic Exchange List. Today, most people with diabetes use a simpler method called carbohydrate counting. A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who specializes in diabetes can help you determine how many grams of carbohydrate you need at each meal. Then, counting carbohydrates helps you keep your blood sugar level throughout the day.

Some people with diabetes use the glycemic index to help them decide which carbohydrate foods to eat. The glycemic index categorizes carbohydrate foods according to their potential for raising your blood sugar. Foods with a “low glycemic index” are not as likely to raise your blood sugar as high or as fast as other foods.

Some foods contain little to no carbohydrate, and they are known as “free foods” on the type 2 diabetes diet. All unsweetened beverages as well as salad greens and non-starchy vegetables are considered “free foods.”

The Best Foods for Type 2 Diabetes

The best foods for people with type 2 diabetes are high in fiber, full of vitamins and minerals and rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. If you have diabetes, try to eat lots of fruit, vegetables, lean meats, nuts and seeds.

Best Fruits for People with Diabetes

Look for fresh, frozen or canned fruit with “no added sugar” on the label. Some of the best fruits for people with diabetes are:

  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Grapefruit
  • Peaches

See more of the best fruits for people with diabetes.

Best Vegetables for People with Diabetes

Most non-starchy vegetables are considered “free foods.” These vegetables have very little carbohydrate and can be eaten without caution:

  • Salad greens
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Peppers
  • Celery

Here’s a look at the best—and worst—vegetables for people with type 2 diabetes.

Best Proteins for People with Diabetes

Look for protein foods rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel are excellent sources.

  • Fish
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Walnuts
  • Almonds

We asked an RDN to put together a list of the best and worst meats for people with diabetes.

Foods to Avoid for Type 2 Diabetes

The amount of carbohydrate in sugary foods like cake, pies, candy and ice cream can quickly add up and cause your blood sugar to spike. When you start paying attention to carbohydrates, you might also be surprised that some “healthy” foods are high in carbohydrates, too.

It’s not just too many carbs that can have a negative effect on your health. People with type 2 diabetes are at risk for heart disease, so it’s also important to avoid heart-clogging saturated and trans fats, as well as too much sodium.

Tips for a Healthy Type 2 Diabetes Diet

  • Aim for high fiber intake. Try to get at least 35 grams of fiber each day
  • If you drink sweetened beverages, exchange them for unsweetened drinks or try flavored water
  • Limit alcohol to no more than two drinks a day for men, and one drink a day for women
  • Avoid fried foods and fatty meats, like bacon and sausage
  • Choose wisely when dining out. Restaurant portions are often oversized, and most of the time, restaurants don’t skimp on salt, fat or sugar

There’s no doubt that managing diabetes is a challenge, but now that you know the basics about the diet for type 2 diabetes, you can start making choices that will keep you healthy for a long time to come.

Easy Dinners for People with Diabetes
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by Julie Cunningham, MPH, RD, LDN, CDCES
Julie Cunningham is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, a Certified Diabetes Care & Education Specialist, and an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. She creates engaging, SEO-optimized content for Health, Nutrition, and Wellness companies, and she delivers on-time, every time.