13 Best and Worst Foods for People With Diabetes
How to choose food
If you have diabetes, watching what you eat is one of the most important things you can do to stay healthy. "The basic goal of nutrition for people with diabetes is to avoid blood sugar spikes," says Gerald Bernstein, M.D., director of the diabetes management program at Friedman Diabetes Institute, Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. Candy and soda can be dangerous for diabetics because the body absorbs these simple sugars almost instantly. But all types of carbs need to be watched, and foods high in fat—particularly unhealthy fats—are problematic as well because people with diabetes are at very high risk of heart disease, says Sandy Andrews, RD, director of education for the William Sansum Diabetes Center in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Worst: White rice
Have this instead: Brown rice or wild rice. These whole grains don't cause the same blood sugar spikes thanks to fiber, which helps slow the rush of glucose into the bloodstream, says Andrews. What's more, a Harvard School of Public Health study found that two or more weekly servings of brown rice was linked to a lower diabetes risk.
Worst: Blended coffees
Have this instead: Ask for the smaller, 12-oz light or non-fat versions, which range from 60 to 200 calories, making it a much lower-calorie, lower-sugar substitute, says Andrews. "The lighter version won't drive blood sugars sky high, especially if you take a walk afterward," she adds. Ideally, black coffee is best.
Worst: Bananas and melons
Have this instead: Granny Smith apples, blueberries, and other berries are lower in sugar. "But what works for one diabetic may not work for another, so you need to find which fruits work best for you," says Dr. Doria-Medina. "Combining the fruit with peanut butter or low-fat cheese (making sure to reduce the fruit portion by half) is also a good way to cut down the fruit portion." Test your blood sugar two hours after eating to find out how you react.
Worst: Chinese food
Have this instead: If you enjoy Chinese food, prepare a modified recipe at home using steamed veggies and low-sodium, low-fat condiments and flavorings. Reducing sodium can help lower blood pressure and decrease the risk of heart attacks. Skip the white rice and noodles; have brown rice or wild rice instead.
Worst: Breakfast pastries
Have this instead: Try half of a whole-grain English muffin or a brown rice cake topped with peanut butter and a little low-sugar jam, suggests Andrews. "They're less processed and lower in fat, carbohydrates, and sodium."
Worst: Fruit smoothies
Have this instead: Make your own smoothie so you can control exactly what goes in it. Include vegetables like kale or spinach and use low-sugar fruits such as green apples and berries, says Dr. Doria-Medina.
Worst: Trail mix
Have this instead: Make your own low-carb mix with sunflower seeds, walnuts, soy nuts, roasted peanuts, and almonds with small amounts of unsweetened coconut. Eating nuts in moderation (one ounce per serving) may reduce the rise in blood glucose when consumed along with carbohydrates such as bread, and they are also linked to a lower risk of heart disease.
Worst: Refined cereal
Have this instead: Swap breakfast cereal for a high-protein meal instead, suggests Dr. Doria-Medina. Try an egg white omelet with vegetables and turkey or Canadian bacon with a small slice of low-carb (7 grams) bread. Cholesterol in the yolk may contribute to a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes, which makes egg whites a healthier option. Steel cut and traditional oatmeal, cooked slowly, is a better choice than other types of oatmeal as it is less likely to spike blood sugar, says Andrews. Small portions and adding protein can help.
Worst: Fruit juice
Have this instead: Eat a piece of (low-sugar) fruit and skip the juice, says Dr. Zonszein. The sugar in whole fruits is less concentrated than in juice form. "This creates less of a surge of blood sugar (along with more vitamins), which makes the sugar absorb more slowly and keeps blood sugar steadier."
Worst: Energy bars
Have this instead: In addition to taking your dietitian's advice, satisfy your snack fix with lower carb treats. Try a cup of light popcorn, 10 goldfish crackers, a piece of string cheese, 15 almonds, or a frozen, sugar-free popsicle, all of which contain fewer than five grams of carbs, according to the American Diabetes Association.
Worst: Pasta Alfredo
Have this instead: Have whole-wheat pasta with a tomato based sauce instead, says Andrews. A half-cup serving of Alfredo sauce contains approximately 280 calories and 24 grams of fat compared to half a cup of marinara sauce at 70 calories and only three grams of fat "Both sauces have a similar amount of carbs (8 to 10 grams), but it's the pasta that adds up, at 15 grams per one-third cup portion, clearly less than the typical serving size." The exact portion size of pasta depends on the number of carbs in the rest of your meal. A cup of pasta contains 45 grams of carbohydrates, which may be all the carbs for your entire dinner, for example.
Worst: French fries
Have this instead: Fries are usually the default option when ordering a burger or sandwich, but most restaurants will swap in fresh fruit or a side salad if you ask.
Worst: Fatty meats
Have this instead: Aim to eat more plant-based proteins like beans, peas, lentils, and soy (keeping in mind that some vegetarian protein sources do contain carbs). Opt for fish, seafood, and chicken, which tend to be lower in saturated fat and contain more heart healthy fats. Avoid food that's covered in high-calorie sauces, breading, or high-fat skin (in the case of chicken).