Healthy Eating for People With Diabetes

Dietitian writing a diet plan, view from above on the table with a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Work with a diabetes care and education specialist to help create a diabetes meal plan that works for you.

If you have diabetes, you probably know more than most about the foods you eat and how they affect your diabetes management. While there’s no such thing as a “diabetes diet,” some people have found certain eating plans to be helpful in managing diabetes.

Healthy eating is key to managing your blood sugar. But what does it mean to eat healthy? The truth is, healthy eating looks no different for you than it does for anyone else. It includes eating foods that are lower in added sugars and saturated fat. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to eating healthy, several eating plans can help manage your diabetes.

The American Diabetes Association released a report reviewing several eating plans that have been shown to help people with diabetes. One of the most researched has been Mediterranean-style eating. Studies report benefits such as improved A1C levels, cholesterol, and heart health.

What Is Mediterranean-Style Eating?

Mediterranean-style eating is the traditional eating habits and lifestyle in countries along the Mediterranean Sea. More than 20 countries border the Mediterranean. Because each country differs in culture, religion, economy, and agricultural production, there’s not one specific Mediterranean way to eat. But Mediterranean eating has many common factors. These include:

  • Eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts.
  • Using extra virgin olive oil instead of butter or other oils.
  • Limiting dairy products and red meat.
  • Limiting sweets, added sugars, sodium (salt), and highly processed foods.

How Can This Way of Eating Help You Manage Diabetes?

When you have diabetes, your body doesn’t make or use insulin well and can’t keep your blood sugar at normal levels (known as insulin resistance). This causes spikes in your blood sugar and over time can lead to serious complications. Because Mediterranean-style eating is rich in plant-based foods and limits processed ones, it can help reduce insulin resistance. This leads to better blood sugar management and lower A1C levels. Mediterranean-style eating can also help:

  • Improve heart health. Saturated fats and sodium are bad for your heart. They can increase cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Since heart disease is one of the most common complications of diabetes, you’ll want to limit these food with high amounts of saturated fat or sodium in your diet. Following Mediterranean-style eating can reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • With weight loss, if you’re overweight. Mediterranean-style eating emphasizes foods that are full of fiber. Fiber helps with blood sugar and weight management. The Mediterranean lifestyle also encourages being physically active. Being active helps control blood sugar levels and lowers your risk of heart disease and nerve damage.
  • Reduce inflammation. High blood sugar from diabetes can cause inflammation. Foods such as leafy green vegetables, fruits, olive oil, and fatty fish can help reduce inflammation and strengthen your immune system.

Choosing What’s Right for You

When choosing or creating a diabetes meal plan, it’s important to consider how different foods will affect your blood sugar and weight loss goals (if needed). Because Mediterranean-style eating limits processed foods and those high in sugar, it can help. But whether you follow this style or not, people with diabetes are advised to limit or avoid processed food.

There are things you should look out for when choosing a diabetes meal plan. For example, some eating plans can be high in carbohydrates (carbs). Mediterranean-style eating includes foods like pasta, rice, and bread, all of which can cause weight gain and spikes in your blood sugar. Fortunately, there are healthier alternatives. Instead of regular pasta you can choose whole-grain or vegetable noodles. You can also eat brown rice instead of white rice. Making these simple substitutions and paying attention to portion size can help you limit the amount of carbs you eat.

There’s no one way of eating to manage diabetes, so experiment and find what works for you. Whether it’s Mediterranean-style foods or any other, the right food plan for you will depend on your health needs, lifestyle, beliefs, taste, and culture. Work with a diabetes care and education specialist to help create yours. Working together, you can find a diabetes food plan that suits you best.