Table of Contents
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Diabetes affects one in 10 Americans, and over time can lead to long-term health problems like heart disease, kidney disease, nerve damage and vision problems. It also increases your risk of death. The good news is that a healthy diabetic meal plan helps you tap into food’s healing and protective properties to delay or prevent diabetes-related complications.
In this article, we’ll share our picks for the best diets for diabetes that are also healthy for prediabetics and those trying to prevent diabetes. This complete guide will also tell you what foods to eat and avoid on each plan, and help you choose the right one for you. At the end, we’ll tackle common questions about diabetes and diabetic diets.
This content is meant to be informative, but should not be taken as medical advice. It is not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention or treatment of health problems. Always speak with your doctor before starting any new supplement or exercise regimen.
Our Picks for the Best Diet for Diabetics:
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Among Nutrisystem’s many meal offerings and plans are a few specifically designed for those with diabetes. You can choose from the Basic, Uniquely Yours or Uniquely Yours Ultimate plans which start at $9,99/day, $12.14/day and $13.93/day, respectively. Each plan offers a money-back guarantee and is designed to help you lose weight to better manage diabetes and even help lower your A1C. Plus, Nutrisystem offers access to their free NuMi app which can help keep you on track as you progress through each week on your chosen diabetes plan.
- White cheddar mac and cheese with a green salad
- Chicken Parmesan with steamed broccoli
- Turkey sausage and egg muffin
- Mediterranean flatbread
- Cinnamon roll
- Spinach and cheese pretzel melt
- Ice cream sandwich
- Protein shake with fruit
Foods to Avoid
- High-glycemic carbs
- Fatty proteins
Nutrisystem takes the guesswork out of healthier eating while managing diabetes. If you’re short on time, many Nutrisystem meals are heat-and-eat so you can stay on-the-go. The Nutrisystem diabetes plans are also ideal for those who have a sweet tooth because you’re still able to enjoy your favorite sweet treats, like cookies and ice cream, since they’re included in your plans as between meal snacks.
The Mediterranean Diet helps people improve the ABCs of diabetes: A1C, blood pressure and cholesterol. This healthy eating plan is modeled after the diet followed by people in the regions around the Mediterranean Sea. It emphasizes fresh vegetables, nuts, grains and seafood. These are all foods recommended on the American Diabetes Association’s list of superstar foods for diabetics.
The Mediterranean diet also allows moderate alcohol consumption (one to two drinks per day). You may have heard that red wine can be heart healthy, and a recent study showed that drinking a glass of wine with meals was also associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Salud!
- Fresh vegetables
- Olive oil
- Whole grains (from bread or cereals)
- Herbs and spices to season foods
- Seafood (like salmon, sardines or mackerel)
Foods to Avoid
The Mediterranean diet improves blood sugar and hemoglobin A1C levels in diabetics, and may lower the risk of developing diabetes by 83 percent. It also may help reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.
The Zone Diet
The Zone Diet is a low-carb, high-protein program conceived by Dr. Barry Sears and first published in 1995 for weight loss. On this plan, you’ll follow a calorie-restricted “plate method” designed to keep you “in the zone” of 40-30-30: 40 percent of your calories from low glycemic carbs, 30 percent from low-fat protein and 30 percent from fat, mainly monounsaturated.
Even though it’s low calorie, the higher protein and fat levels are likely to keep you feeling fuller for longer after meals since they digest slower. Higher protein diets have also been shown to preserve lean muscle mass during weight loss.
- Lean beef, pork, lamb, game
- Skinless chicken and turkey breast
- Fish and shellfish
- Egg whites
- Low-fat dairy
Foods to Avoid
- Processed grains
- Red meat
- Soda (diet or regular)
Even though the American Heart Association recommends it, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet isn’t just for heart health; it’s a terrific eating plan for diabetics, too.
Diabetes and high blood pressure are closely related because of similar factors, including obesity, high cholesterol and vascular inflammation. In fact, people with diabetes are twice as likely to develop hypertension (high blood pressure) as others.
DASH focuses on a nutritious diet that limits foods high in sodium and saturated fats. On this program, you’ll plan meals with recommended portion sizes of healthy foods from each food group. The plan is structured for you, with designated daily and weekly calorie and serving goals.
- Whole grains
- Meats, poultry, fish
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy
Foods to Avoid
- Fatty meats
- Full-fat dairy
- Sugar-sweetened beverages
- Candy and sweets
- High-sodium foods
The DASH program lowers cholesterol and helps with weight loss in diabetes. It may also correct insulin resistance—one of the main causes of type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance happens when cells resist or ignore your body’s own natural insulin. By lowering insulin resistance, your blood sugars can normalize.
Vegetarian diets have been studied over the past few decades for their effects on diabetes. Vegetarians avoid meat, while vegans eliminate all animal products, including dairy and eggs. With a focus on vegetables, fruits and whole grains, vegan diets are not only great for managing diabetes, but they may also help prevent it.
Vegan and vegetarian diets replace meat with vegetables, fiber and fruits. These foods are rich in phytochemicals and other antioxidants that prevent damage and disease. Vegetarian diets are also low in fat and cholesterol, which are related to weight gain and cardiovascular disease.
- Fruits (including avocados)
- Whole-wheat grains
- Nuts and seeds (including quinoa)
Foods to Avoid
- Meat and eggs
- Any other animal products
For people already diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a vegetarian diet may be more beneficial than medication for balancing blood glucose levels. It can also help diabetics live happier, healthier lives. A 2015 study found that a vegan diet supplemented with Vitamin B12 greatly reduced pain from diabetic neuropathy. Another showed that diabetics with renal failure improved kidney function, cholesterol and blood glucose by following a vegan diet.
The Ornish Diet is a vegetarian diet designed by Dr. Dean Ornish for heart health. Its focus on fruits, veggies and whole grains—along with physical activity and stress management—is especially beneficial for preventing, managing and treating diabetes.
The Ornish Diet provides about 45 percent of your calories from complex carbohydrates (like non-starchy vegetables and whole grains like brown rice), 35 percent from lean protein and only 10 percent from healthy fats. It eliminates meat, but allows non-fat or low-fat dairy and eggs.
- Whole grains
- Soy products (tofu, soy milk)
Foods to Avoid
- White processed foods (sugar, flour, white rice)
- Concentrated sweeteners (high fructose corn syrup)
- Refined sugars (ice cream, pastries, cookies, soda)
The Ornish program has been shown to improve diabetes in the following ways:
- Lower hemoglobin A1C below 7.0
- Reduce diabetic medications
- Lower body mass index (BMI)
- Drop insulin need by 80 percent in four days
The Flexitarian Diet focuses on a semi-vegetarian diet. The name comes from combining two words—flexible and vegetarian—to describe a more adaptable way of nourishing your body. It emphasizes choosing nutrient-dense whole foods like fruits and veggies, nuts, beans and grains, and allows for lean meat on occasion. Most flexitarians limit their meat intake to two servings or less per week.
- Plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables and grains
- Nuts and legumes
- Non-dairy products (milk and cheeses made from nuts or soy)
- Occasional high-quality meat from organic-fed, pasture-raised or free-range animals
Foods to Avoid
- Fast food
- Processed animal products like butter, cream and lard
- Processed meats such as bacon, sausage and bologna
- Refined carbs, including white bread, bagels and pastries
Research on Flexitarian diets has shown that they lead to weight loss, lower glucose levels and improved insulin sensitivity. Flexitarianism is not only fantastic for managing diabetes, but it may also prevent it. Furthermore, studies suggest that excluding or limiting meat reduces BMI, total cholesterol and blood pressure.
How Diet Impacts Diabetes
What and how much you eat directly affects diabetes. Our bodies use three main nutrients for fuel: carbohydrates, fats and proteins. When we eat, the body breaks them down and turns them into glucose (sugar) for energy. Diabetes interferes with the normal process of moving sugars from the bloodstream into the cells for fuel. Eating too much, too little, too often or not enough causes abnormal blood sugar levels like hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
A healthy diet and regular eating patterns are key to diabetes management. A diabetic diet should be based around three healthy meals at regular times, with snacks in between if blood sugar drops too low. Many people use the glycemic index scale to make food choices. The zero to 100 scale, developed by doctors in the 1980s, tells how certain foods will affect blood sugar. Low glycemic foods—like oatmeal, skim milk and beans—help you keep blood sugar (and energy) levels steady throughout the day.
What Foods to Eat/Not Eat As a Diabetic
There are foods you should and shouldn’t eat on a diabetes meal plan. Reading food labels can help you track the amount of carbs, sugar, cholesterol, sodium and trans fat in packaged foods.
Foods to eat as a diabetic include:
- Whole grains
- Legumes (such as beans)
- Low-fat dairy
These foods give your body macronutrients (carbs, fats and proteins) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). They’re also full of fiber, so it takes longer for your body to break down and absorb them. As a result, they’re less likely to cause blood sugar highs and lows.
Foods to avoid as a diabetic include:
- Sugary drinks like soda, fruit punch and sweet tea
- Preserved, cured and processed meats like sausage, hot dogs and bacon
- High-cholesterol foods like full-fat dairy, fried foods, baked goods and sweets
- Foods high in trans fats like microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, margarine and non-dairy creamer
- High-sodium foods like canned products, instant meals, bread and cold cuts
Foods on this list can accelerate diabetes complications and other health problems like heart disease and certain types of cancer. They also have a high ratio of calories to nutrients. In other words, your body isn’t getting much nutritional value from the food. Not to mention they can make you feel sluggish and depressed.
How to Choose the Best Diabetic Diet for You
To choose the best diet for diabetes care, consider what, when and how you like to eat. For example, if you enjoy steak and chicken, you’ll probably prefer a diet that doesn’t eliminate meat. If you usually eat meals with your family at home, you’ll want a diet that offers plenty of options that fit their tastes.
If you’ve already been diagnosed with diabetes, a certified diabetes educator or registered dietitian can help you choose the best diabetic diet for you. Many doctor’s offices work with nutrition experts. If you haven’t talked to your doctor about your medical diet plan, that’s a good place to start, and your insurance may cover it.
Best Diet for Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 diabetics must take insulin with meals since they don’t make enough. Here are a few reasons why we think the Mediterranean Diet is one of the best diets for people with type 1 diabetes:
- It offers a wide variety of healthy, delicious foods, so it’s easy to adapt to and stick with.
- It’s simple and doesn’t require you to count, measure or track anything.
- The Mediterranean lifestyle encourages you to slow down, enjoy meals with friends and take on regular physical activity, which are all great for physical and mental health.
- The long-term health benefits can delay or prevent problems with the heart and blood vessels.
Best Diet for Type 2 Diabetes
For people with type 2 diabetes, all of the plans on our list are outstanding, but The Zone Diet could be the best. Type 2 diabetes is directly linked to obesity, and The Zone Diet tells you exactly what to eat to shed pounds and control your blood sugar while decreasing your risk of chronic disease.
How We Chose the Best Diets for Diabetes
With so much information on the web, picking a diet can get confusing. To manage a medical condition like diabetes, it’s important to look at scientifically sound plans backed by research. For our list, we compiled the best diets for you based on research from credible health sources and experts.
Early Signs of Diabetes
In type 1 diabetes, signs and symptoms can develop quickly—in only weeks or months. Symptoms of type 2 diabetes tend to be more gradual and worsen over several years. Early signs of diabetes include the following:
- Having to urinate (pee) often
- Feeling thirsty all the time
- Losing weight without trying
- Blurry vision
- Tingling or numbness in the feet and hands
- Very dry skin
- Feeling very tired
- Having bruises, cuts and wounds that heal slowly
If you notice these early signs, see your doctor to get your blood sugar tested.
Can diabetes be reversed?
Research suggests that type 2 diabetes is reversible with weight loss and diet. Type 1 diabetes, however, is irreversible, and type 1 diabetics must manage their condition with insulin, diet and exercise their entire lives.
What kind of meat is best for diabetics?
What can diabetics drink besides water?
Unsweetened teas are a great choice for diabetics. In fact, chamomile tea has been shown to lower blood sugar and decrease fat storage in people with type 2 diabetes. Avoid sugar-free drinks that are sweetened with artificial sweeteners like sucralose. Research suggests these may worsen diabetes and could increase the risk of disease.
What happens if diabetes goes untreated?
If left untreated, diabetes can lead to serious long-term health problems, including heart and blood vessel disease, neuropathy (nerve damage), blindness and kidney damage. The risk of death for adults with diabetes is 50 percent higher than adults without diabetes.
While there isn’t one specific “diabetes diet,” there are scientifically-proven, researched-backed diets to help you control blood sugar levels, achieve and maintain a healthy weight and keep your energy levels strong. If you’re looking for a healthy meal plan for diabetes, one of the six on our list may be just what you’ve been searching for. If you do have diabetes or another health condition, check with your doctor or healthcare provider about which plan could be best for you.
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