Blood glucose, or blood sugar, is your body's main source of energy, and you get most of it from carbohydrates in food. But many carb-rich eats raise blood sugar levels too much. That's why people with diabetes typically follow a diet that helps prevent high blood sugar in the first place.
In general, a healthy diabetes diet is low in carbs and high in fresh vegetables and lean proteins. Here are some of the main foods that don't raise blood sugar levels much.
According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), non-starchy vegetables are the only kind of food that people with diabetes can eat without monitoring amounts. These veggies have very few calories and almost no carbs, so they don't cause blood sugar spikes. Additionally, they also have lots of fiber. Fiber slows the body's ability to convert carbs into glucose, resulting in a more gradual rise in blood sugar, according to Harvard's Joslin Diabetes Center. Fiber also contributes to a feeling of fullness, which can help reduce overall calorie intake.
If you have prediabetes or diabetes, feel free to eat as many non-starchy vegetables as you'd like. Good choices include:
- Green beans
- Brussels sprouts
- Leafy greens such as romaine lettuce and spinach
Every healthy diabetes meal plan should include an adequate source of protein. Protein is digested more slowly than carbs, which helps prevent blood sugar from spiking, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Chicken, turkey, tofu, eggs and fish are all smart, relatively low-fat options.
Other meats are best eaten in moderation, because they contain more fat and unhealthy cholesterol than other protein options. According to the American College of Cardiology, consuming too much meat can raise the risk of heart disease. This is an important concern for people with diabetes, because their risk of heart disease is already higher than people without the condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's OK to eat some meat, but don't make it an everyday thing — and be sure to choose leaner cuts when you do.
It's also best to avoid breaded proteins. These foods are typically fried, which isn't heart-healthy (plus, the breading adds extra carbohydrates, which can affect blood sugar).
Heidi Quinn, a registered dietitian at the Joslin Diabetes Center, recommends legumes like beans, lentils and chickpeas as part of a blood sugar-friendly diet. Though legumes do contain carbs (in the form of starch), they also have lots of healthy fiber. "It's all about keeping things balanced," she says. "Starchy legumes — which are basically starchy proteins — cause a slower release of glucose."
An October 2015 report in Clinical Diabetes also supports people with diabetes consuming legumes as part of a healthier, more plant-based diet. Quinn adds that the protein in legumes is particularly important for vegetarians, since they aren't getting protein from animal sources.
Read more: What to Do if Your Blood Sugar Is Over 400
Nuts and Nut Butters
Nuts do contain small amounts of carbohydrates, according to the USDA, but most of those carbs come from dietary fiber. As mentioned, fiber helps prevent blood-sugar spikes, so nuts and nut butters have little to no effect on blood sugar when consumed in a normal 1-ounce serving size (or around 1 to 2 tablespoons for nut butters). Be sure to avoid sugar-coated nuts and select natural, unsweetened nut butter instead.
Sticking to a single serving of nuts or nut butter is wise, because nuts are very high in calories. However, these calories come from healthy monounsaturated fats; swapping saturated or trans fats for the monounsaturated can improve your health, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Sunflower, sesame, flax and pumpkin seeds are great food choices for people with diabetes. They are similar to nuts in that they contain plenty of fiber, are rich in healthy fats and protein, and a single, 1-ounce serving can be very satisfying, according to the ADA. Sprinkling seeds into a salad or other dish (or simply eating a small handful) is a good way to promote stable blood sugars.
Tahini — a paste made out of sesame seeds, similar to nut butter — is another great source of carb-free protein and can be added to soups, salads and more. (Don't overdo it, though: Like nuts and nut butters, tahini is high in calories, according to the USDA.)
Aside from being energy-dense, low-carb foods, both nuts and seeds also contain a wealth of vitamins and other nutrients, making them a good option for any diet.
Most cheeses are low in carbs, and some are even carbohydrate-free. The University of California San Francisco lists cheese as a smart, low-carb option for people with diabetes. Cheese is also a good source of protein and calcium. Like nuts and seeds, an ounce or two of cheese can make for a great snack. Just be aware that cheese is also high in calories and salt, so it's best to enjoy it in moderation.
Olive oil does not contain carbohydrates, according to the USDA, and therefore will not significantly influence blood sugar levels. It adds great flavor to foods and is another good source of heart-healthy fats. Cooking with olive oil instead of saturated fats such as butter can reduce the risk of heart attack and heart disease, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
- ADA: "Non-Starchy Vegetables"
- American College of Cardiology: "Red and Processed Meats Increase Risk for Heart Disease"
- CDC: "Diabetes, Heart Disease, and You"
- USDA: "Nuts, Mixed Nuts, Oil Roasted, With Peanuts, With Salt Added"
- ADA: "Diabetes Superfoods"
- UCSF: "Simply Counting Carbs"
- USDA: "Oil, Olive, Salad or Cooking"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Choosing Oils for Cooking: A host of Heart-Healthy Options"
- Clinical Diabetes: "Legumes: Health Benefits and Culinary Approaches to Increase Intake"
- Joslin Diabetes Center: "How Does Fiber Affect Blood Glucose Levels?"
- Harvard School of Public Health: "Protein, Carbs, and Weight Loss"
- National Library of Medicine: "Facts About Monounsaturated Fats"
- USDA: "Seeds, Sesame Butter, Tahini, From Roasted and Toasted Kernels"