Best and Worst Foods for Diabetes

Medically Reviewed by Michael Dansinger, MD on May 03, 2023
5 min read

Your food choices matter a lot when you have diabetes. Some are better than others.

But nothing is completely off-limits. You won’t get diabetes from enjoying small amounts of sweets once in a while. But sugary treats are usually empty calories. Try these better options to manage both your diabetes and your sweet tooth.

These are a type of carbohydrate, which is the main source of energy for your body. Starches are also called complex carbs, which provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Grains, beans, and vegetables all contain starches. But some starches are better for you if you have diabetes.

Best starch choices may include:

  • Whole grains, such as brown rice, oatmeal, or quinoa
  • Baked sweet potato
  • Plain porridge 
  • Seeded breads, including loaves with flax, chia, sunflower, or pumpkin seeds
  • Whole wheat pita or roti

Try to limit highly processed starches, such as:

  • White rice and white flour
  • Naan bread made from refined flour
  • Fried yuca fries
  • Fried white-flour tortilla chips

Sugary foods can cause dangerous spikes in your blood sugar levels. And high blood sugar over time can lead to serious diabetes complications. Carbohydrates found in most vegetables and whole grains don't affect blood sugar as much. And even though they are needed for energy, carbs like sugar don’t always help.

If you count carbs, it’s better to choose healthier options most of the time than cut sugar altogether. A small amount of candy, pie, cake, or other sweet treat is OK once in a while. If you're at a party, you can swap a slice of cake or scoop of ice cream with a healthier type of carb, like dried fruit or plantains.

Foods with artificial sweeteners are one way you can satisfy your cravings with no carbs or calories. Others have carbohydrates that are absorbed into the blood more slowly than table sugar, so they don't pose a threat to your blood sugar levels.

Artificial sweeteners can be safe in small amounts for you, as long as you keep track of your blood sugar levels.

Best options for sweets include:

  • Fresh juice, like orange or passionfruit
  • Foods with low carbs, like strawberry salsa in small portions
  • Desserts with more natural sweeteners

Worst Choices

  • Regular pancake or waffle syrup
  • Deep-fried desserts, like churros or funnel cakes
  • Candy
  • Cookies
  • Tarts and puddings

Once you come off sugar for a few weeks, your body and taste buds will adapt. You won’t crave as much. Fruits and other natural foods will also taste sweeter.

Load up! Vegetables are among the healthiest forms of carbs. You’ll get lots of fiber. And unless you add salt or fat, they have very little of both.

Best Choices

  • Fresh veggies -- raw, lightly steamed, roasted, or grilled
  • Plain frozen vegetables, lightly steamed
  • Greens such as kale, spinach, and arugula
  • Tabouli and other types of nutrient-rich salads
  • Low-sodium or unsalted canned vegetables

Go for a variety of colors: dark greens, red or orange (think of carrots or red peppers), whites and yellows (onions), and even purple (eggplants). 

Worst Choices

  • Canned vegetables with lots of added sodium (or salt)
  • Veggies cooked with lots of added butter, cheese, or sauce
  • Pickles with high sodium
  • Sauerkraut, for the same reason as pickles. Limit them if you have high blood pressure.

They give you the vitamins and minerals you need. Most of them are naturally low in fat and sodium. But they tend to have more carbs than vegetables do.

Best Choices

  • Fresh fruit
  • Plain frozen fruit or fruit canned without added sugar
  • Jam, jelly, or preserves with little or no sugar
  • Applesauce with no added sugar

Worst Choices

  • Canned fruit with heavy sugar syrup
  • Chewy fruit rolls
  • Regular jam, jelly, and preserves (unless you have a very small portion)
  • Sweetened fruit gummies

You have lots of choices. But try to stay away from salted, processed proteins like salami, since they are bad for blood pressure and heart health. You are more prone to high blood pressure or heart conditions if you have diabetes.

Best Choices

  • Plant-based proteins such as beans, nuts, seeds, or fresh tofu
  • Fish and seafood
  • Chicken and other poultry
  • Eggs

If you eat meat, keep it low in fat. Trim the skin off of poultry. Try to include some plant-based protein, even if you're not a vegetarian or vegan. You’ll get nutrients and fiber that aren’t in animal products.

Worst Choices

  • Fried meats
  • Higher-fat cuts of meat, such as ribs
  • Pork bacon
  • Regular cheeses
  • Poultry with skin
  • Deep-fried fish or tofu
  • Beans prepared with lard

They’re tough to resist. But it’s easy to get too much and gain unhealthy weight, which makes it harder to manage your diabetes

There are good fats (like unsaturated fats), bad fats (like trans fats), and saturated fats, which can be good or bad depending on how much you have.

Big portions of saturated fats are not the best for your health. But a little in your diet is OK. Some experts suggest you keep your saturated fat under 10% of your daily calories. Ask your doctor what your limit should be if you have diabetes.

Trans fats are bad for your heart. They’re so unhealthy that they are banned from most foods in the U.S. Check the ingredient list for anything that’s “partially hydrogenated,” even if the label says it has 0 grams of trans fat. When partially hydrogenated fats are made, they form trans fats.

Best Choices

  • Natural sources of vegetable fats, such as nuts, seeds, or avocados (high in calories, so keep portions small)
  • Foods that give you omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna, or mackerel
  • Canola, grapeseed, or olive oils

Worst Choices

  • Partially hydrogenated foods
  • Solid margarines
  • Vegetable shortening
  • Red meat
  • Coconut oil
  • Palm oil
  • Bacon grease

If you have diabetes, try to keep your portions small. And keep it low in fat.

The best types of dairy products if you have diabetes are low-fat and nonfat options. These include low-fat Greek yogurt, nonfat milk, and various kinds of dairy milk alternatives (such as oat, almond, soy, or even macadamia milk). If you are unsure whether something has too much dairy in it, check the nutrition label for calcium. Your doctor can tell you how much you need each day. 

Other dairy products, like whole or 2% milk, creme fraiche, and high-fat cheeses can be bad for you if you have diabetes. Certain non-dairy alternatives, like solid margarine, are also not the best choice.

When you down your favorite drink, you may get more calories or fat than you bargained for. Read the labels so you know what’s in a serving.

Best Choices

  • Coffee, black or with added low-fat milk and sugar substitute
  • Water
  • Unsweetened tea with or without a slice of lemon
  • Sweet lassi with low sugar
  • Light beer, small amounts of wine, or non-fruity mixed drinks
  • Zero-calorie sodas

Worst Choices

  • Coffee with cream or sugar
  • Flavored coffees and chocolate drinks
  • Regular sodas
  • Regular beer, fruity mixed drinks, dessert wines
  • Sweetened tea
  • Energy drinks
  • Fruit punch or other processed fruit-juice drinks

Show Sources


American Diabetes Association.

U.S. Department of Agriculture: "2015 Dietary Guidelines."

Diabetes Care, January 2003, Supplement 1.

Franz, M. Diabetes Spectrum, 2000.

News release, Calorie Control Council.

Mayo Clinic: “Artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes,” “Diabetes nutrition: Including sweets in your meal plan,” “Trans fat is double trouble for heart health,” “Diabetes diet: Should I avoid sweet fruits?”

Diabetes UK: “Dairy and Diabetes.”

Cleveland Clinic: “The Top 10 Worst Foods if You Have Diabetes,” “Carbohydrates.”

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