Best and Worst Foods for Diabetes

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on January 18, 2024
14 min read

The kind of food you eat has a great impact on your blood sugar levels. It's that way for everyone, but if you have diabetes, you probably know it better than anyone. When you eat calories you don't need, especially carbohydrates (carbs), your blood sugar levels rise. Over time, regularly high blood sugar levels can lead to serious, long-term problems, such as nerve, kidney, and heart damage.

To help control your blood sugar levels, you can make healthy food choices, eat at regular times, and keep track of your eating habits. When you eat healthy food at regular times, you train your body to use the insulin it makes (or that you get from medicine) better. This will help you control your blood sugar and reduce your chance of having long-term problems.

There's no one diet or eating pattern that will work for everyone with diabetes. Your goal is to come up with a way of eating that helps you:

  • Eat a variety of nutritious foods in the right portion sizes to help you reach the blood pressure, cholesterol, and A1c (a test that shows your average blood sugar levels over the past 3 months) targets you and your doctors agree on.
  • Get to and stay at the goal weight you and your doctors agree on.
  • Slow down or stop the progress of any possible long-term problems from high blood sugar.

The American Diabetes Association says that a variety of eating patterns can help you meet these goals, so you should be able to find a diet that will work with your personal preferences and lifestyle.

Read on to learn about some diets that may give you a good place to start on your journey to find a diet that works for you long-term.

It may take a while to find the right eating pattern for you, but a good place to start is to ask your diabetes doctor about the following diets. Studies show these diets can help people with diabetes reach their blood sugar, heart health, and weight loss goals. No matter which diet appeals to you, talk to your doctor before you make a switch in your diet. No matter what you eat, you still need to track it and understand how it affects your insulin levels.

Dietary approaches to stop hypertension (DASH) diet. The DASH eating plan was developed more than 20 years ago by researchers from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to help people lower their blood pressure without taking medicine. Since then, lots of studies have shown that following the DASH diet can lower your blood pressure and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. High blood pressure and LDL cholesterol are two risk factors for heart disease (which is more common in people with diabetes).

Also, some studies show that the DASH diet can improve conditions such as insulin resistance, high cholesterol, and obesity (or being overweight). For instance, in one study of 31 people with type 2 diabetes who followed the DASH eating plan, their blood pressure, blood fat, A1c, and fasting blood sugar levels were all lower than when they ate a diet similar to a “standard” eating pattern of the general public.

In the DASH eating plan, you base your diet on vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and you include fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and vegetable oils. You limit foods high in saturated fat, such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils (coconut, palm kernel, and palm oils), as well as sugar-sweetened beverages and sweets. This diet is practical because you don't need any special foods or supplements, and it's a healthy way for your whole family to eat.

For a person with a goal of 2,000 calories per day, the DASH diet recommends the following serving sizes and daily or weekly serving limits:

  • Vegetables (1/2 cup raw or cooked vegetables, 1/2 cup of vegetable juice, or 2 cups of leafy greens --1 cup is about the size of a baseball or your fist): 4-5 per day
  • Fruits (1/2 cup fresh, frozen, canned, or dried fruit or 1/2 cup of fruit juice): 4-5 per day
  • Whole grains (1/2 cup cooked rice, pasta, or cooked cereal; 1 oz dry pasta or rice; 1 slice of bread; or 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal): 6-8 per day
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy (1 cup milk or yogurt or 1½ oz (about the size of four dice or a 9-volt battery) of cheese): 2-3 per day
  • Fish, poultry, or lean meats (3 oz, or about the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand; 2 egg whites or 1 whole egg): 6 or fewer per day
  • Nuts, seeds, or beans (1 tablespoon of peanut butter, 1/2 oz of nuts or seeds, or 1/4 cup cooked beans):4-5 per week
  • Fats and oils (1 tablespoon): 2-3 per day
  • Sweets and added sugars (about 100-150 calories per serving): 5 or fewer per week

Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet is a heart-healthy eating plan based on foods that are grown in countries around the Mediterranean Sea. Studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet can reduce your risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome (a group of conditions that raise your risk of heart disease and stroke), diabetes, some cancers, and depression. It may also help you reduce insulin resistance and inflammation and lose weight. People with high blood sugar may have inflammation in their bodies, and reducing that inflammation may help prevent some of the long-term problems of diabetes.

In the Mediterranean diet, you focus on lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts. You use extra virgin olive oil in place of butter or other oils. You limit dairy products, red meat, sweets, added sugars, sodium (salt), and highly processed foods. Some additional guidelines include focusing on seasonal produce and reading food labels to help you avoid added sodium and sugar.

For people on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, the Mediterranean diet recommends the following serving sizes and daily or weekly serving limits:

  • Vegetables (1 cup raw vegetables, 1/2 cup cooked vegetables, or 2 cups of leafy vegetables): 4 or more per day
  • Fruits (1 medium piece of fruit or 1 cup of cut fruit): 2-3 per day
  • Whole grains (serving sizes vary, so check with the label to find out what a serving is, but generally, 1 slice of bread, 1 cup of readymade cereal, or 1/2 cup of cooked rice or pasta): 3 oz per day
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy (1½ oz of cheese -- about the size of four dice): 2 per day
  • Fish, poultry, or lean meats (3-5 oz or about the size of a deck of cards): 3 or more per week for fish, no more than 9-28 oz per week for meat or poultry
  • Nuts, seeds, or beans (1/4 cup of unsalted nuts or seeds or 1/2 cup of beans): 4 per week for nuts or seeds or 3-4 per week for beans
  • Fats and oils: Swap out saturated and trans fats with polyunsaturated fats, such as olive oil

Flexitarian diet. This is a flexible alternative to a full vegetarian diet. Studies have shown that cutting down on meat and other animal-based foods can help you lower your A1c level, body weight, total cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol levels. In a meta-analysis of studies on people with type 2 diabetes who ate a vegetarian diet, their A1c levels were significantly lower than people who ate a nonvegetarian diet.

In the Flexitarian diet, you focus on eating nutritious, plant-based foods, less meat, and less processed foods and drinks. When you do eat meat, you focus more on fish and leaner cuts of beef, chicken, or turkey.

One caution is that this may not be a good option for you if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) because vegetarian diets have a lot of carbohydrates called fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAPs), which can be harder to digest. Doctors may recommend that you eat a low-FODMAP diet when you have IBS.

Ornish diet. This is a vegetarian, low-fat, low-refined sugar diet. Developed in 1977 by Dean Ornish, MD, this diet can help improve overall health and quality of life. Because the focus is on improving your overall health, it's more than just a diet. You're also encouraged to get regular exercise, manage your stress in healthy ways, and maintain your personal relationships. One study showed that people with diabetes and heart disease who followed the Ornish lifestyle plan dropped their weight and blood pressure, as well as total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, A1c, and fasting blood sugar levels.

In the Ornish diet, you focus on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nonfat dairy in small amounts. You avoid eating simple carbs (such as sweets), saturated fats, and most meat-based protein. The diet can be hard for some people to follow for a long time because it's very low-fat (less than 10% of your daily calories), but you can find some meal plans with a bit more flexibility. It may be easier for you to start with a more flexible plan and gradually move toward a more restrictive plan if you and your doctor agree that it's working for you.

Following a healthy meal plan is one of the most important steps you can take to help keep your blood sugar in your target range. A healthy meal plan isn't just about what you eat. It's also about how much you eat and when you eat it. This is because you need to track your blood sugar and how your diet affects it.

Here are some ideas for better food choices to put in your regular rotation when you have diabetes:

Vegetables. These include both starchy and non-starchy vegetables. Vegetables are carbs, which are the main source of energy for your body. Starchy vegetables are also called complex carbs, and they give you vitamins, minerals, and fiber. For instance, focusing on whole grains over refined, white flour gives you more nutrition for similar calories and can help you keep your blood sugar levels lower.

Non-starchy vegetables are among the healthiest forms of carbs as they provide lots of fiber. And unless you add salt or fat, they have very little of both.

Better choices for starchy vegetables include:

  • Foods made from whole grains (wheat, brown rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or quinoa), such as bread, pasta, cereal, or tortillas
  • Potatoes, corn, and green peas

Better choices for non-starchy vegetables include:

  • Fresh veggies, such as broccoli, carrots, peppers, and tomatoes -- eat them 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

When you pick vegetables, go for a variety of colors: dark greens, red or orange (carrots or red peppers), whites and yellows (onions), and even purple (eggplants).

Fruits. 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.

Better choices for fruitinclude:

  • Fresh fruit, such as apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, melon, and berries
  • Plain frozen fruit or canned fruit without added sugar
  • Jam, jelly, or preserves with little or no added sugar
  • Applesauce with no added sugar

Protein. You have lots of choices here, but try to stay away from salted and processed meats such as salami, as they are bad for your blood pressure and heart health. You are more prone to high blood pressure or heart conditions if you have diabetes.

Better choices for protein may include:

  • Plant-based proteins, such as beans, peanuts, and tofu
  • Fish and seafood, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines
  • 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.

Fat-free or low-fat dairy. If you have diabetes, the best types of dairy products are low-fat and nonfat options.

Better choices for include:

  • Low-fat Greek yogurt
  • Nonfat milk
  • Vegetarian milk alternatives (for instance, oat, almond, soy, or macadamia milk)

Fats and oils. They’re tough to resist because they're tasty. This makes it easy to eat too much and gain weight, which may make it harder to manage your blood sugar. There are several types of fats, such as saturated fats and unsaturated fats.

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 saturated fat under 10% of your daily calories.

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.

Better choices for fats and oils may include:

  • 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

Sweets. Sugary foods can cause dangerous spikes in your blood sugar levels. Carbohydrates found in most vegetables and whole grains don't affect your blood sugar as much, and the fiber in them helps you digest them slowly. This will keep your blood sugar from going high.

A small amount of candy, pie, cake, or other sweet treat is OK once in a while. But it’s better to choose healthier options most of the time. For instance, if you're at a party, you can swap a slice of cake or scoop of ice cream with a healthier type of carb, such as dried fruits or plantains.

Foods with artificial sweeteners are one way you can satisfy your cravings with no carbs or calories. Artificial sweeteners can be safe in small amounts for you, as long as you keep track of your blood sugar levels. Other options have carbohydrates that are absorbed into the blood more slowly than table sugar, so they don't pose as much of a threat to your blood sugar levels.

Better options for sweets include:

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

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 sugars will also taste sweeter.

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

Better choices for drinks include:

  • Water
  • Coffee, black or with added low-fat milk and sugar substitute
  • Unsweetened tea with or without a slice of lemon
  • Sweet lassi with low sugar
  • Light beer, small amounts (3-5 oz) of wine, or non-fruity mixed drinks
  • Zero-calorie sodas

There aren't any foods that are completely off-limits, although you may need to adjust your plan so you eat less of your favorites or have them only occasionally as a special treat.

Try to limit these foods when you have diabetes:


Limit highly processed starches, such as:

  • White rice
  • Foods made with refined, white flour, such as loaf bread, flour tortillas, or Naan
  • Fried vegetables, such as french fries or tempura
  • Fried white-flour tortilla chips

Limit these kinds of non-starchy vegetables:

  • Canned vegetables with lots of added sodium
  • Veggies cooked with lots of added butter, cheese, or sauce
  • Pickles and sauerkraut with high sodium


Limit artificially sweetened fruits, such as:

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


 Limit the following less-healthy protein choices, such as:

  • Red and processed meats, such as beef, pork, goat, lamb, hot dogs, sausages, brats, cured ham, cold cuts and packaged lunch meat
  • Foods with a lot of cholesterol, such as liver and other organ meats and egg yolks
  • Fried meats
  • Higher-fat cuts of meat, such as ribs
  • Pork bacon
  • Poultry with skin
  • Deep-fried fish or tofu
  • Beans prepared with lard


Limit full-fat dairy products, such as:

  • Whole or 2% milk
  • Creme fraiche
  • Butter
  • Full-fat, hard cheeses, such as cheddar, Colby, and Swiss cheese

Fats and oils

Limit the following:

  • Foods with partially hydrogenated oil (trans fats), such as margarine and vegetable shortening
  • Tropical oils that have a lot of saturated fat, such as coconut and palm kernel oil
  • Bacon grease


Limit these processed treats:

  • Regular pancake or waffle syrup
  • Deep-fried desserts, such as churros or funnel cakes
  • Candy
  • Tarts and puddings
  • Processed snacks
  • Cookies and other baked goods


Limit these beverages:

  • Coffee with cream or sugar, flavored coffee, and chocolate drinks
  • Sweetened tea
  • Drinks with added sugar, such as juice, regular soda, and regular sports or energy drinks
  • Alcohol (drink no more than 1-2 drinks a day depending on your size and weight, and don't drink on an empty stomach because alcohol can make your blood sugar drop too low)

The food you eat can really affect your blood sugar levels. Following a healthy meal plan and tracking your blood sugar are two of the most important steps you can take to help keep your blood sugar in your target range. No one diet or eating pattern will work for everyone with diabetes, but no foods are completely off-limits. You can replace unhealthy foods with healthier choices and save your sweets calories for an occasional treat. Talk to your doctor who can help you figure out a plan that helps you meet your health goals and works with what you like and what your life is like.

Which foods can lower blood sugar quickly?

No food can lower your blood sugar quickly. Drinking plenty of water can help your kidneys flush the extra sugar out of your body. You could also try a bit of low-intensity exercise, as long as your blood sugar isn't over 270 mg/dL. Exercise helps your body use insulin better, which can lower your blood sugar level. However, exercise, especially weight-lifting or high-intensity interval training, can temporarily raise your blood sugar. If your blood sugar goes too high, your body may start to make chemicals called ketones. A lot of ketones in your body can make you go into a potentially life-threatening condition called ketoacidosis. You can buy ketone testing strips to test your pee for ketones before you work out. Don't work out if you've got ketones in your pee.

What should a person with diabetes eat every day?

When you have diabetes, you must eat your veggies every day -- fresh, grilled, or steamed. The American Diabetes Association recommends that you fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables, such as spinach, carrots, and tomatoes, at every meal. This gives you lots of nutrition and fiber for a small amount of calories, which can help you keep your blood sugar levels lower.