Grab the Right Groceries for Diabetes

Grocery shopping when you have diabetes can seem like a daunting task. Fresh, frozen, canned, low-fat, low-sodium, low-carb -- so much to sort through.

With thousands of items in an average grocery store, "It can be overwhelming just going through the aisles,” says Toby Smithson, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “But you can reduce the stress if you go into it with a plan.”

Think Ahead

Smithson, who has diabetes herself, plans her menus and maps her stroll through the supermarket. “I plan for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, and then I write the list in order according how the store is arranged.”

She says that starting in the produce section helps to keep the focus on health. “Getting enough fruits and vegetables is an area a lot of people have trouble with, but those should be the focus of the meals. Get those first.”

Another strategy is to organize your list according to food groups, says Melissa Joy Dobbins, a dietitian with the American Association of Diabetes Educators. “You can make a template on your computer for fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins so that you can see where the holes are as you plan your menu.”

Dobbins adds that apps and websites can be helpful in figuring out the nutrition for recipes. “Most of the sites that provide nutritional information are based on what the USDA says, and some of them will produce a grocery list for you.”  

Shop the Whole Store

You might have heard that it’s best to shop the perimeter of the grocery store, but that’s old-school and not entirely helpful, Smithson says. “There are a lot of nutritious foods in the aisles, things like grains, beans, and vegetables that have been canned in their own juice. I’d hate for people to miss out on those because they’re important.”

Dobbins cautions that sticking to the outer edges of the store has some pitfalls. “Think about the main thing that’s in the perimeter: the bakery.” Other less nutritious items like alcohol or ice cream are usually located along the perimeter, too.


Just because something is frozen or in a can, like you would find in a center aisle, that doesn’t mean it’s unhealthy to eat, Smithson says. “Frozen and canned vegetables may be richer in nutrition than raw because they are processed the same day they are picked, which locks in the nutrients.”

Dobbins and Smithson agree that the trick to choosing canned foods is to avoid added sugars, sugary syrups, or sodium.

Rinsing canned foods can help, Dobbins says. “Unless you like soaking beans overnight, canned beans are usually easier. They’re nutritious and convenient, and rinsing them will remove up to 40% of the sodium.”

Shopping the rainbow can be a helpful strategy, Dobbins says. “Including different colors of fruits and vegetables will give you a variety of nutrients. I would include white in that, too. White gets a bad rap but it’s important, too.” (“White” produce includes potatoes, cauliflower, turnips, onions, parsnips, white corn, kohlrabi, and mushrooms.)

No matter what produce you get, remember to think about how they might affect your blood sugar, Smithson says. “Corn, potatoes, black-eyed peas, red beans, lima beans, and other starchy foods can all be included, but note that they do have carbohydrates.”

Those Tricky Labels

Nutrition labels can be confusing when you’re trying to figure out how to apply them to your diabetes meal plans, Dobbins says. “Most people with diabetes look for the grams of sugar, but it’s actually the total carbohydrate that you need to think about. Stop looking at the sugar and start looking at the carbs.”

This can end up giving you more options, she says. “If you compare some no-sugar-added or sugar-free versions with the regular version of the same product, the total carbs might not be any different. That gives you a choice: Would you rather enjoy the regular version knowing what’s in it, or would you feel better about having the one with less or no sugar?”

You may want to eat heart-healthy foods as well as those that are good for diabetes, so you watch out for fats. But while you’re reading the label, remember that all fats are not created equal, Smithson says. “Monounsaturated fats, the ones derived from vegetable oils like canola, olive, or peanut oils, are not bad. Avocados, nuts, and nut butters also have healthy fats, but they’re a double whammy because they’re good for protein, too. Avoid foods that are high in saturated fat.”

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on December 03, 2018



Toby Smithson, RDN, LDN, CDE, spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Melissa Joy Dobbins, RDN, CDE, spokesperson, American Association of Diabetes Educators.

Advances in Nutrition: “White Vegetables: Glycemia and Satiety.”

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