March 23, 2021

The Best (and Worst) Diets If You Have Diabetes

Think long-term, lower calorie plans

Healthy salad with chickpeas

Are you trying to lose weight while managing your diabetes? If you’re overweight, weight reduction can not only can improve your blood sugar levels, but can lower high blood pressure and heart disease risk and even the amount of medication you take, says dietitian Andrea Dunn, RD, LD, CDCES.

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But when you consider the best options for people with diabetes, it’s important not to go for a quick fix. For lasting success, focus on good nutrition and changes you can commit to long term.

Which diet is right for diabetes?

Many diets claim health benefits. But newer guidelines for people with type 2 diabetes say that there is not just ‘one’ diet for diabetes management – that a variety of eating styles can work. How do you choose what’s right for you?

Before you decide to commit to a particular diet, here’s some tried-and-true tips:

  • Eat more non-starchy vegetables – things like broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. Raw or cooked vegetables or salads – it’s hard to eat too many of this food group. Eat them at meals and for snacks.
  • Minimize added sugars and refined grains. Choose cereals and breads without added sugars or very low in added sugar, and drink water as your main beverage.
  • Choose whole foods over highly processed foods as much as possible. Look for whole grains over refined grains. Avoid or eat less from boxed mixes, breaded and deep fried foods, or those with heavy gravies and sauces.

There many diets out there that you can look to for weight loss. But our list highlights a few better diets, two you should approach with caution, and diets to avoid altogether if you have diabetes.

What is the best diet for people with diabetes?

Good diets offer well-rounded nutrition:

1. DASH. Created to help lower blood pressure (aptly named Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), the DASH diet goes well beyond that. It’s a well-rounded, healthy nutrition plan for everyone, not just if you have diabetes. DASH is rich in fruits, vegetables and grains, and low in fat, sugar and sodium.

For example, on a 1,600-calorie DASH plan, each day you would eat:

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  • Six servings of grains (choose at least three that are whole).
  • Three to four servings of vegetables.
  • Four servings of fruit.
  • Two or three servings of dairy.
  • Six or fewer servings of meats (in this case, a serving is one ounce). Also, include about three portions of nuts, seeds and beans or lentils weekly.

2. MediterraneanNot necessarily a “diet,” the Mediterranean diet is based on a style of eating of people in Greece, Southern France and Italy. This way of eating is high in vegetables, nuts and healthy fats. For instance, it recommends getting most of your calories from mostly whole grains, then fruits, vegetables and beans, and lastly, dairy.

You can eat some healthy fats such as those from avocados and olive oil every day. Eat sweets, eggs, poultry and fish only a few times each week, and red meat only a couple of times each month.

3. Plant-basedMost plant-based diet plans cut out or dramatically limit meat. A vegan diet cuts out meat and dairy. A vegetarian diet cuts meat, but allows foods like eggs and cheese. A flexitarian diet is mostly plant-based with some animal protein.

4. Heart-healthy, lower fat diet. This diet includes lean protein sources (including beans/lentils), at least half of your daily grains coming from whole grains, vegetables, fruits and low-fat dairy choices. The total fat is about 30% calories from fat with saturated fat at 10% or less.

Diets used with caution for people with diabetes

“Extreme diets may put you at risk, depending on which diabetes medications you may be taking or if you have other medical issues in addition to the diabetes,” says Dunn.

Here are her suggestions of what to avoid.

1. Low or no-carb diets. Using insulin or taking a sulfonylurea and avoiding carbohydrates can put you at risk for low blood sugar. If you do want to follow this kind of diet, you should definitely check with your physician first.

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“Depending on how low the carbohydrates are in the diet, your doctor may order
monthly lab work to rule out low potassium or magnesium or elevated lipids or uric acid levels,” says Dunn.

2. Intermittent fasting, extreme calorie reduction or skipping meals. Any diet that promotes fasting for long periods can cause low blood sugar. Even if you aren’t taking medication for your diabetes, it’s important to maintain consistent eating patterns for weight management and blood sugar control. Be aware of how much you eat at any one time to avoid spiking your blood sugar.

Any diet that encourages very low caloric intake (800 calories or fewer per day) can also increase the risk of low blood sugar and reduce muscle mass. This diet should also be supervised by a physician.

Diets not recommended if you have diabetes

Dunn says steer clear of cleanses or over-the-counter diet pills not approved by the FDA. “Beware of too-good-to-be-true claims made about non-prescription pills and cleanses,” she says. These dietary supplements aren’t FDA-approved, so you don’t know what you’re getting. And, she says, some products may even harm your health or contain ingredients that can interact with your prescription diabetes medications.

“The most important thing to remember is that you should work with your doctor, registered dietitian or a certified diabetes educator to set up a healthy weight-management plan,” Dunn says. “They can help you make sure your diet is realistic and right for you — and that it will mesh well with your diabetes treatment plan.”

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