The grocery store looks different when you have type 2 diabetes. Aisles of menu ideas and possibilities become well-lit lanes of decisions and pitfalls. Instead of, “What’s for dinner?” you wonder, “What will this do to my blood sugar?”
“Before my diagnosis, I went to the store and bought everything on my list and anything that caught my fancy,” says Linda Leitaker, a retired elected city clerk in Lake Almanor, CA. “What I thought I knew about nutrition was woefully inadequate. I had to read, research, and repeat.”
But if you manage your food, it’s a powerful way to control your type 2 diabetes. You don’t need to follow a special diet. Just eat the way it’s recommended for most people. Studies show that healthy, balanced meals are one of the best ways to control your blood sugar and manage your diabetes.
Picture Your Plate
There’s no magic list of foods you can and can’t eat with diabetes.
“You can really eat anything,” says Shamera Robinson, MPH, a registered dietitian and associate director of nutrition for the American Diabetes Association. “Your favorite foods can be part of an individualized eating plan. The best way to go about eating is by finding a balance of nutrients that work for you.”
One way to do that is with the Diabetes Plate Method. Imagine a 9-inch plate split evenly in two. Fill one side with non-starchy vegetables like asparagus, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, greens, squash, or tomatoes.
Split the other half into quarters horizontally. Fill one quarter with carbs, like brown rice, tortillas, beans, fruit, milk, or yogurt. Fill the last quarter with protein, such as eggs, tofu, and lean meats like chicken and fish.
“Carbs will always digest the fastest, then protein, then fat. When you eat all three together, you feel full and don’t crave as much between meals,” Says Lori Zanini, an author, nutritionist, and dietitian in Los Angeles.
Make a Meal Plan
One secret to Leitaker’s success is that she keeps her eating simple. She sticks to one or two choices for breakfast. Lunch is always a salad with chicken. For dinner, she has a protein, salad, and vegetables.
Leitaker rarely makes dessert. When she does indulge, it’s often berries or other fruit that’s in season.
You can plot out a week’s worth of meals before you hit the grocery store. You can do that on your own, or use a meal-planning template like the one on the American Diabetes Association’s Diabetes Food Hub.
Use a Shopping List
Once you know what you want to eat, make a list of ingredients. Check your pantry to make sure you don’t already have them.
There’s no right or wrong way to make a grocery run. You can group the items you need by department, such as produce, meat, and frozen foods. Or you can write your list in the order that your favorite store is laid out to avoid retracing your steps.
It’s natural to focus on breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but don’t forget the snacks.
“A snack can really be anything,” Robinson says. She suggests a handful of unsalted roasted nuts or seeds; hummus and vegetables; berries; baby carrots with guacamole; and a hard-boiled egg.
The key to eating with diabetes is not to give into impulse buys.
“If I see something new at the store, I usually go home and research it first to see if it’s a good fit for me,” says Leitaker, who dropped her A1c below 6 and lost more than 50 pounds by eating carefully and walking.
Leitaker often adapts recipes so that she and her family enjoy the same protein, like fish or beef, but eat different side dishes.
Shop the Edges of the Store First
The best places to spend your time and money at the market are the fresh produce and refrigerated sections. Shop with caution in the center aisles, where many highly processed and packaged foods are stocked.
Load your cart with:
Vegetables. Fresh, in-season vegetables are always best. Frozen and canned are great choices as long as the vegetable is the only ingredient. Non-starchy vegetables and leafy greens like spinach, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli are better than starchy veggies like green peas, corn, potatoes, and winter squash.
Pro tip: Drain and rinse your canned vegetables. This lowers the sodium content by almost half.
Fruit. Look for fresh, frozen, or canned fruit in their own juice. Avoid those with syrup, which is sugar. Dried fruit and 100% fruit juice are options, too. But watch your portions since fruits are high in carbs and naturally sweet.
Whole grains. Make sure the first ingredient is a whole grain.
Meat, poultry, and fish. Buy according to your serving size, and focus on lean meats and cuts.
Drinks. Water is best.
Desserts. It’s better to plan a dessert than make an impulse buy at the store. Know your portion sizes, stick to them, and enjoy.
Read Every Label
“I always tell people not to look at the front of the package,” Zanini says. “That’s where the marketing happens. Flip it over and look at the food label first.”
Check the serving size, and then read down for the total carbohydrates. That’s a key number when you have diabetes because carbs raise your blood sugar level more quickly than protein or fats. Something sugar-free can still have lots of carbs.
Make It a Habit
Reading labels and making healthy choices at the market will become second nature. Your first few trips to the store may take longer. Plan for the extra time, and eat first so you won’t be making purchases on an empty stomach.
Need some support? Ask your doctor to recommend a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) with experience in type 2 diabetes. They can guide you on what foods to eat based on your tastes, budget, and health goals.
Linda Leitaker, retired elected city clerk, Lake Almanor, CA.
Caroline Passerrello, MS, RDN, LDN, spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Lori Zanini, RD, CDE, Los Angeles.
Shamera Robinson, MPH, RDN, associate director of nutrition, American Diabetes Association.
Diabetes Forecast: “What is the Plate Method?”
American Diabetes Association: “Non-starchy vegetables,” “Diabetes Food Hub,” “Fruit.”