3 of the best diets for people with diabetes — and how you can create a healthy eating plan

A healthy diet is important for people with diabetes.Crystal Cox/Business Insider
  • The best diets for people with diabetes include the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet.
  • The Keto diet may also be helpful for some people with type 2 diabetes, though it can be more dangerous for people with type 1 diabetes, and you should ask your doctor before trying it.
  • Here's what you need to know to eat healthy and effectively manage your diabetes.
  • This article was medically reviewed by Jason R. McKnight, MD, MS, a family medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine.

For people with diabetes, it is important to eat a healthy diet that focuses on fruits and vegetables and limits or avoids refined carbohydrates and sugars.

Eating this way can help keep blood sugars stable. Both people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes need to carefully manage their blood sugar levels to avoid health complications.

People with prediabetes — elevated blood sugars that aren't yet at diabetic levels — should also follow a similar eating plan to prevent their condition from progressing to type 2 diabetes. Advertisement

If you have diabetes or may be at risk, here's how to eat healthy and regulate your blood sugar levels, with three of the best diets to follow.

What you should eat

People with diabetes should get the bulk of their nutrition from vegetables, fruits, whole-grains, and lean proteins and dairy, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

The best types of foods for people with diabetes are:
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  • Non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens, broccoli, peppers, and tomatoes.
  • Whole grains like oatmeal, brown rice, and multi-grain breads.
  • Fruits like melon, apples, and bananas.
  • Lean protein like fish, grilled chicken, and nuts.
  • Dairy that is low fat or fat free, like yogurt or milk.

"Foods high in protein and healthy fat are the best for a diabetic diet, such as beef, pork, chicken, and fish," says John Burd, PhD, a clinical researcher and innovator the founder of Lysulin, a supplement for people with diabetes.

That's because proteins and fat do not turn into glucose as easily as carbohydrates do. Carbohydrates are processed quickly, so they cause a big spike in blood sugar, followed by a sharp drop. So-called simple carbs — like sweets and refined sugar — are broken down the fastest and have the largest impact on blood sugar. Complex carbs — like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains — contain fiber and are digested more slowly. Because they are released into the bloodstream more slowly, they have a smaller effect on blood sugar than simple carbs. Advertisement

For more information, read about how many carbs you should each day if you're diabetic.

Overall, people with diabetes should avoid foods that are high in saturated fats and added sugar. This includes:

  • Sugary drinks like juice or soda.
  • Sweet, processed foods like cookies or candy.
  • Simple carbohydrates including white bread or refined grains like cereal.
  • Fried foods like donuts or fried chicken.
If you'd like to formulate an eating plan with the right foods, try one of the three diets below. Advertisement

1. The Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet helps people with diabetes eat more fruits and vegetables.Crystal Cox/Business Insider

The Mediterranean diet is focused on plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, and nuts; protein like fish; and healthy fats from olive oil. It's often recommended to people with diabetes because it includes plenty of vegetables and lean proteins while limiting added or refined sugars.

For example, a 2009 study published in the journal Diabetic Medicine found that patients who followed a Mediterranean diet more strictly had lower measurements of HbA1c — a measure of blood glucose levels over a three-month period — and lower blood sugar levels directly after meals than people who followed the Mediterranean diet less strictly. Advertisement

A 2010 scientific review published in Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice concluded that the Mediterranean diet was helpful in preventing diabetes, controlling blood sugars, and reducing cardiovascular risk factors — including high blood sugar — for people with diabetes.

Here's what a day on the Mediterranean diet might look like:

  • Breakfast: Greek yogurt topped with berries and nuts.
  • Lunch: Salad with olive oil, salmon, and whole-wheat pita bread.
  • Dinner: Whole-grain pizza crust topped with vegetables and low-fat cheese.
  • Snack: Nuts, fruit, or hard-boiled egg.
Read more about the Mediterranean diet. Advertisement

2. The DASH diet

The DASH diet can be helpful for pregnant people with gestational diabetes.Crystal Cox/Insider

The DASH diet is very similar to the Mediterranean diet, focusing on fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. While it was designed to help people with high blood pressure, it's also been shown to be beneficial for diabetics. For example, a 2017 study published in Diabetics Spectrum, the journal of the American Diabetes Association, found that following the DASH diet can reduce insulin resistance and weight, both of which increase risk for diabetes. The study concluded that the DASH diet is an "acceptable eating pattern for people with diabetes."Advertisement

A 2019 study published in Diabetes Management also found that following the DASH diet could help teenagers with type 1 diabetes better control their condition after 18 days on the diet, and establish a healthy eating pattern.

Additionally, a 2016 study published in the journal Nutrition found that adhering to the DASH diet can reduce risk of gestational diabetes by up to 71%, which is when diabetes occurs during pregnancy.

Here's what a day on the DASH diet might look like:Advertisement

  • Breakfast: Omelet with vegetables and low-fat cheese.
  • Lunch: Tuna on a pita wrap with sliced vegetables.
  • Dinner: Roast chicken with potatoes and vegetables.
  • Snack: Fruits, nuts, or reduced-fat cheese.

Read more about the DASH diet.

3. Keto diet

The Keto diet is a riskier option for people with diabetes, so ask your doctor first.Hollis Johnson/INSIDER

The keto diet focuses on eating fats and proteins while reducing carbohydrates. It aims to put your body in the metabolic state of ketosis. Ketosis is when your body burns fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates.Advertisement

This can be helpful for people with type 2 diabetes because the breakdown of fats and proteins into fuel don't cause blood sugar levels to spike in the same way that breaking down carbohydrates do.

However, research on the keto diet is more mixed when compared to the DASH or Mediterranean diet. For example, a 2019 study published in the journal Nutrients found that the keto diet may be effective for reducing blood sugar and weight in people with type 2 diabetes, but drastically cutting carbs might not be sustainable long-term because many people find it difficult.

In addition, the study warned that the safety of the keto diet for people with type 1 diabetes — who are at risk for diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) — is unproven. DKA occurs when ketones — the byproduct of burning fat for fuel — build up in the blood, so a diet that encourages the release of ketones could potentially be dangerous for type 1 diabetics. Advertisement

Overall, if you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, make sure you talk with your doctor before trying the Keto diet. Though there is some evidence it can be helpful for people with type 2 diabetes, it can still have health risks, and be potentially dangerous for people with type 1 diabetes.

For more information, read about the benefits and risks of the keto diet for diabetics. If your doctor allows you to follow this diet with diabetes, here's what it might look like:Advertisement

  • Breakfast: Bacon and eggs.
  • Lunch: Prosciutto-wrapped asparagus.
  • Dinner: Steak with roasted vegetables.
  • Snack: Avocado, nuts, or cheese.

Takeaways

No matter what dietary approach you take, it's important for diabetics to have a meal plan.

That's because it can help you track your carbohydrates and manage your blood sugar, which will reduce your risk for complications like kidney disease and vision problems.

If you're interested in developing an individualized meal plan for your diabetes, talk with your doctor to learn more. Advertisement

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