Eat Well!

vegetables being washed in a sink

When you have diabetes, deciding what, when, and how much to eat may seem challenging. So, what can you eat, and how can you fit the foods you love into your meal plan? Eating healthy food at home and choosing healthy food when eating out are important in managing your diabetes.

The first step is to work with your doctor or dietitian to make a meal plan just for you. As soon as you find out you have diabetes, ask for a meeting with your doctor or dietitian to discuss how to make and follow a meal plan. During this meeting, you will learn how to choose healthier foods—a variety of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy foods, lean meats, and other proteins. You will also learn to watch your portion sizes and what to drink while staying within your calorie, fat, and carbohydrate (carb) limits.

You can still enjoy food while eating healthy. But how do you do that? Here are a few tips to help you when eating at home and away from home.

Eating Healthy Portions

Diabetic 9 inch food plate breakdown

An easy way to know portion sizes is to use the “plate method.” Looking at your basic 9-inch dinner plate pdf icon[PDF – 14 MB], draw an imaginary line down the middle of the plate, and divide one side in half.

  • Fill the largest section with non-starchy vegetables, like salad, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and carrots.
  • In one of the smaller sections, put a grain or starchy food such as bread, noodles, rice, corn or potatoes.
  • In the other smaller section, put your protein, like fish, chicken, lean beef, tofu, or cooked dried beans.

Learn more at Create Your Plateexternal icon, an interactive resource from the American Diabetes Association (ADA) that shows how a healthy plate should look. This tool allows you to select different foods and see the portion sizes you should use in planning your meals.

Eating Out

Quick Tips
  • Ask if the meat could be grilled or broiled instead of fried.
  • Ask about dishes that are made with more vegetables.
  • Ask if soups are creamy or broth-based. Broth-based soup is healthier.
  • Ask that salad dressings/sauces be served on the side. Then only use a small amount.
  • Think about splitting a dish with a friend.
*One alcoholic drink =
  • 12 oz. beer
  • 5 oz. glass or wine
  • 1 ½ oz. liquor (vodka, whiskey, gin, etc.)

American adults eat out at least 3 times a week on average. Restaurant portion sizes and how foods are prepared will affect the management of your diabetes. How can you eat out, manage your diabetes, and follow your meal plan? Here are some ideas.

  • Talk to the server before you order. Don’t be shy about asking questions about the food and, if it is not obvious, ask how foods are prepared.
  • Choose meat or fish dishes that are baked, broiled, grilled, or poached instead of fried.
  • If you see that portions are large, ask your server at the beginning of the meal to box half of your meal to-go and only serve the other half.
  • Look at the menu for meals that are lower in fat or calories; many restaurants will mark healthier items.
  • Remember that sugar-sweetened drinks can be a major source of calories. For low-calorie options, drink water, low-fat milk, unsweetened tea, black coffee, or diet drinks.
  • If you drink alcohol, women should have no more than 1 drink* per day. Men should have no more than 2 drinks per day. Avoid high-calorie mixed drinks.
  • Skip dessert or share one with a friend. Or choose fruit for dessert. It will save calories and money!

Eating from a buffet presents its own challenges for people with diabetes. Buffet Table Tips for People with Diabetes pdf icon[PDF – 121 KB] from the National Diabetes Education Program (NDEP) can help you stay within your meal plan.

Grocery Shopping

When you go grocery shopping, you are surrounded by foods and drinks that have a lot of fat, sugar, and salt. Avoid impulse buying; make a checklist of foods in your meal plan before you shop to help you focus on healthy foods for you and your family. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Quick Tips
  • Don’t go to the store or market hungry.
  • Make a list before going to the store.
  • Don’t purchase items that are not in your meal plan.
  • If you have favorite foods, discuss with your dietitian how to manage eating them occasionally.
  • While at the store, don’t linger in aisles with tempting foods.
  • Your cart should look like the plate method above.
  • Half of your food items should be non-starchy vegetables like lettuce, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber, spinach, mushrooms, onions, and peppers.
  • The rest of the cart should have lean proteins, whole grains, fruit, dairy, beans, and starchy vegetables such as corn, peas, parsnips, potatoes, pumpkin, squash, zucchini, and yams.
  • You may be able to have a treat occasionally (check with your dietitian, if unsure). Instead of treats high in calories, fat, and sugar, consider buying a healthier option such as fruit as a treat.

Try to stay in the outside aisles where stores usually have fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, and dairy. Spend less time in the inside aisles.

To help you plan ahead for grocery shopping, see the ADA’s Conquering the Grocery Store pdf icon[PDF – 105 KB]external icon fact sheet.

Checking Labels on Packaged Foods

Example of an FDA food label

One way to make sure you are buying packaged foods that are lower in calories, sugar, and fat is to look at the updated Nutrition Facts label. Some of the information you’ll find is:

  • Look at serving size first. It gives you important information for understanding the rest of the label. On the label pictured here, all the other numbers are for a 1½ cup serving. So, a 1½ cup of this food has 240 calories and 4 grams of total fat.
  • The top of the label also lists how many servings are in a package. For example, this label is for a package with 2 servings. If you eat the whole package, you’ll have eaten twice as many calories, carbs, fats, and other nutrients as are listed on the label!
  • Total carbohydrate on the label includes all types of carbs – sugar, starch, and fiber.
  • Choose foods with lower calories, saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars, and sodium. These numbers are listed near the top of the label.
  • Try to choose foods with more dietary fiber, which is listed lower on the label under total carbohydrates.
  • Find more information on food labelsexternal icon from the US Food and Drug Administration.

Special Diet: Diabetes & Chronic Kidney Disease

About 1 in 3 American adults with diabetes also has chronic kidney disease (CKD). Diabetes and CKD diets share a lot of the same foods, but there are some important differences. Figuring out what to eat can be confusing.

The first and most important step is to meet with a registered dietitian who’s trained in both diabetes and CKD nutrition. Together you’ll create a kidney-friendly plan that keeps blood sugar steady and fits in with your lifestyle. Diabetes & Kidney Disease: What to Eat? will get you started learning some of the basics.

Healthy Eating on Holidays and Special Occasions

For people with diabetes (and everyone else), the holiday season and special occasions add many temptations. Don’t deprive yourself! You’ve just got to plan ahead. Find ideas to help you plan for the holiday season and special occasions in tip sheets from the National Diabetes Education Program and the American Association for Diabetes Educators, which also has tips for healthy eating during the big game and summer gatherings.

Page last reviewed: March 20, 2019