Best and Worst Foods for Diabetics

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Keeping blood sugar levels within the target range is key to managing diabetes. Diet, exercise, and, if prescribed, medication play a central role in controlling blood sugar. Some of the worst foods for diabetics, or people with diabetes, include those high in added sugar or saturated fat and refined grains like white rice.

Many factors can dictate your eating plan for diabetes. Some foods are generally considered good for diabetes, and others might be better to limit. Foods high in carbohydrates, like sugar or starches, generally raise blood sugar quickly.

High-fiber foods, such as fruits, non-starchy vegetables, and whole grains like brown rice, can be good for people with diabetes. Your body doesn’t break down fiber, so it doesn’t spike your blood sugar.

Keep in mind that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to eating with diabetes. People have their own cultural traditions, food preferences, dietary restrictions, and life schedules. It’s important to consult a healthcare provider about your diet if you have diabetes. Read on to learn what the best and worst foods for people with diabetes generally are.

Eating nutrient-dense foods, which are rich in fiber, water, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, can help manage diabetes.

Eating nutrient-dense foods in appropriate portions can help you reach and maintain body weight goals, which is a factor in diabetes. Nutrient-dense foods can also help you stay within your target blood sugar goals, a key to managing diabetes.

These nutrient-dense foods should come from all the food groups. Variety is key: Eating a variety of healthful foods from all food groups can delay or prevent diabetes complications. 

Fruits

The glycemic index (GI) helps determine the potential that a carbohydrate food, like fruit, has to raise blood sugar. The lower the GI, the less likely a food is to cause blood sugar spikes. Most fruits have a low GI, in part because of the fiber content. 

Fiber is the indigestible part of carbohydrates that slows down glucose absorption and helps you feel full. Foods high in fiber can help control blood sugar. Some evidence suggests that a wide variety of fruits can even reduce the risk of diabetes.

Go for fruits that are fresh, frozen, or canned and don’t have added sugars. Not all fruits have the same effect on blood sugar, though. Some fruits are actually higher on the GI, including:

  • Dates
  • Melon 
  • Pineapple 
  • Raisins
  • Some dried fruits 
  • Sweetened cranberries

This doesn’t mean you can’t eat these fruits. It’s usually best to pair high-GI fruits with healthy fats and protein. Doing so can slow down how quickly the carbohydrates in fruit are metabolized. The fruit’s GI won’t have as much of an effect compared to the rest of the meal.

Eating any fruit will likely increase your blood sugar; what varies is how much. That’s why it’s healthy to eat fruits in moderation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends about 2 cups of fruit per day for adults. Be mindful of the types of fruit you consume and other sources of carbohydrates in your diet if you have diabetes.

Vegetables

Vegetables are classified under two main categories: starchy and non-starchy. Starchy vegetables have more starch, which is a type of carbohydrate, than non-starchy vegetables.

Both types of vegetables have benefits, but you’ll want to fill your plate with non-starchy vegetables. Non-starchy vegetables are low in carbohydrates. They also provide fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, all of which can help in managing diabetes.

Non-starchy vegetables include:

  • Asparagus
  • Carrots
  • Eggplant
  • Onions
  • Peppers
  • Tomatoes

All non-starchy vegetables can be beneficial. Cruciferous vegetables can be especially helpful because of their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. These vegetables include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower.

A review published in 2021 found a 13% lower risk of type 2 diabetes with high cruciferous vegetable intake. Cruciferous vegetables also contain prebiotics, which are important for gut health. Having a healthy gut has been linked to better blood sugar control.

Just because starchy vegetables have more carbohydrates than non-starchy vegetables doesn’t mean you can’t eat them. Starchy vegetables include butternut squash, sweet potatoes, peas, corn, and white potatoes. These foods also contain fiber, antioxidants, and other nutrients that are important for health, such as vitamins A and C and potassium. 

It’s best to monitor your portions of these vegetables to ensure your blood sugar levels are in good control. Consider keeping starchy vegetables and other high-carbohydrate foods to about one-quarter of your plate.

Whole Grains

Any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, or barley is a grain product. There are two types of grains: whole and refined. 

Whole grain means the grain is intact and contains all its parts: bran, germ, and endosperm. It’s optimal to keep about half of your grain choices whole grain. Whole grains have a higher fiber content as well as more minerals like iron, magnesium, and selenium than refined grains. 

You may opt for basmati, brown, or wild rice instead of white rice, which is a refined grain. Try cooking rice, cooling it, and then reheating it. Reheating rice increases resistant starch, which lowers the amount of carbohydrates that your body breaks down.

You might also try whole-grain alternatives to refined grains like white rice, such as:

  • Barley
  • Bulgur
  • Millet
  • Oats
  • Quinoa

Research has shown that whole grains can improve blood sugar control. Whole grains can also have a positive effect on body weight, lipid profile, and other cardiometabolic risk factors in adults with diabetes.

Proteins

Protein can come from a variety of sources, including animals, plants, fish, cheese, and eggs. Some of the best protein sources include:

  • Cottage cheese
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Legumes (e.g., beans, lentils, and chickpeas)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Skinless chicken or turkey 
  • Tofu

Protein sources that are deep-fried, cured, or high in saturated fat are best consumed in moderation. These foods are high in sodium and fat and can affect cholesterol levels and blood pressure, which increases heart disease risk. People with diabetes are already at increased risk of heart disease.

Dairy

Dairy can be good to incorporate into your diet. The best dairy options for someone with diabetes are those that are no or low fat, including:

Consuming low-fat dairy has even been shown to lower the risk of diabetes in people who have pre-diabetes. Pre-diabetes means your blood sugar levels are up but not yet at levels diagnosable as diabetes.

There are no forbidden foods when eating with diabetes. In contrast, eating certain foods regularly or in isolation can adversely affect diabetes control.

Refined Grains

Refined grains, unlike whole grains, have undergone a process that removes their bran and germ. These grains can be enriched with essential vitamins and minerals, but fiber is not added back in.

Examples of refined grains include pasta made with white flour, white bread, and white rice. These foods can increase blood sugar levels more quickly than whole grains because they’re high in carbohydrates and don’t contain as much fiber. Research has shown that eating large amounts of white rice can increase diabetes risk by 11%. 

This doesn’t mean you can never eat foods made of refined grains. If you choose to eat them, pair them with a vegetable and protein for a more well-rounded meal.

Added Sugar and Sodium

An eating plan that’s high in added sugar or added sodium is not recommended for people with diabetes. Research has shown that consuming foods with a lot of added sugar increases blood sugar.

Many people with diabetes also have other health conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease, which make it important to manage sodium intake. Consuming a lower sodium diet may be necessary.

Red and Processed Meat

Red and processed meat like bacon, deli meat, and hot dogs are high in saturated fat, sodium, and harmful preservatives. Research has shown that these foods can increase heart disease risk, which is already higher than normal in people with diabetes.

You may opt for low-sodium options if you consume deli meat. You can also slice meat that you’ve prepared at home to lower your saturated fat and sodium intake.

Saturated and Trans Fats

It’s also best to avoid saturated and trans fats if you have diabetes. Saturated fat is typically found in animal products like butter and whole milk. Trans fats can be found in processed foods like snacks and baked goods. There may still be a residual amount of less than 0.5 grams (g) in processed foods, even if a nutrition label says 0 g of trans fat.

Both types of fat can increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. Higher LDL cholesterol levels are associated with the build-up of cholesterol and fat in the arteries, which is called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is already a main complication of diabetes. 

Try to eat foods with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as avocados and plant-based oils. Unsaturated fats have favorable effects on cholesterol and are associated with improved heart health. 

Alcohol

You may also want to be mindful of how much alcohol, and even what type of alcohol, you drink. Your blood sugar levels might rise when drinking beer, sweetened mixed drinks, or other options high in carbohydrates.

Alcohol can also increase your risk of low blood sugar. Your liver pauses its job of releasing glucose (sugar) into the bloodstream so it can process the alcohol. Your blood sugar levels can drop without glucose going into the bloodstream to help manage them. The risk is especially true if you drink alcohol without eating. The risk of low blood sugar can last hours after you stop drinking. 

Alcohol can also interact with diabetes medication, causing high or low blood sugar. You’ll want to discuss any potential interactions with a healthcare provider.

Each person’s diabetes eating plan will look different. It can change based on disease status, preference, and lifestyle. A diet that generally includes healthful, nutrient-rich selections from each of the main food groups helps manage diabetes. 

There’s no single food that’s strictly off-limits, but there are certain foods that you may enjoy less frequently or in smaller portions. This includes refined grains like white rice, added sugar and sodium, and saturated and trans fat.

Consult a healthcare provider or diabetes specialist who can review diet strategies and help create an individualized eating plan. They can go over not only what to eat, but also when to eat and how much. Both of these factors can impact blood sugar levels.

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