Foods That Fight Type 2 Diabetes

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on June 08, 2022
5 min read

When you have type 2 diabetes, what you eat can help keep the disease in check. Foods can also protect you from problems caused by diabetes, like heart disease, obesity, and high blood pressure. They should provide nutrients and energy, and help you stay full and satisfied.

Tools like carb counting and the glycemic index can help you choose what to eat and how. That, in turn, will help keep your blood sugar level in a healthy range.

Carbohydrates are the sugar, starches, and fibers found in many foods, such as grains, fruits, and dairy products. Your body turns carbs into the sugar it uses for energy. This means carbs affect your blood sugar level more than other kinds of foods.

Carb counting is a way to plan your meals. It keeps you aware of the amount of carbs you’re eating. That information can help you control what you’re eating and keep it within a healthy range for people with type 2 diabetes. This helps you manage your blood sugar levels. Doctors often suggest carb counting for people with diabetes who take insulin. It lets you match your insulin dose to the amount of carbs you’re getting.

Carbs are measured in grams. To count your carbs, find out how many carbs are in the foods you eat. Add up the grams to figure out your total for each meal and snack. In general, you should get 45 to 60 grams of carbs with each meal and 15 to 20 grams for each snack.

But remember, not all carbs are created equal. Fresh fruits, veggies, whole grains, and low-fat milk are the best sources of carbs. This is because foods high in fiber slow down the transport and absorption of glucose so that your body doesn't get a sugar bolus as it is absorbed more slowly as it travels through your gut. This is related to the glycemic index discussed next.

Your dietitian or diabetes educator can make a specific plan for you.

Along with a number of carbs, foods also have a glycemic index (GI). This number measures how fast a food raises your blood sugar. The index goes from 0 to 100. Your body turns some carbs, like refined sugars, into glucose quickly. These have a high glycemic index. Low-GI foods take longer to digest and release glucose more slowly. They’re usually high in fiber, protein, and fat.

Choosing low-GI foods can keep your blood sugar levels steady. And while the glycemic index can be a helpful tool, it isn’t perfect. It doesn’t rank a food’s nutrition. For example, a low-GI food can still be high in calories or unhealthy fat. It also doesn’t factor how a food is prepared or what you combine it with. Your body absorbs carbs slower, for example, if they’re paired with a protein or fat.

These foods are high in the nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals, that protect against diabetes and other diseases.

Dark green leafy vegetables. They’re low in calories and carbs, and high in nutrition. They also have a low glycemic index, so they’ll help keep your blood sugar under control. And they contain magnesium, a mineral that helps your body’s insulin work like it should. Add spinach, kale, or collard greens to your salads, soups, and stews.

Berries. To satisfy your sweet tooth, pick berries. They’re loaded with fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins. Research shows that eating low-GI fruit as part of a low-glycemic diet can lower blood pressure and heart disease risk.

Fatty fish. Aim to eat fish twice a week. Fatty fish, like salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines, are packed with healthy omega-3 fats, which lower inflammation. They protect against heart disease and an eye condition called diabetic retinopathy. For the biggest benefit, skip fried, breaded fish and serve it broiled, baked, or grilled.

Nuts. Research shows that eating nuts makes people with diabetes less likely to get heart disease. They’re full of healthy fats, protein, and fiber to keep you full and your blood sugar steady. Whether you prefer peanuts, almonds, or walnuts, snack on a handful of nuts at least three times a week.

Whole grains. When you’re shopping for bread, pasta, and cereal, look for the word “whole” in the first ingredient on the label. Whole grains are higher in fiber than refined carbs like white bread. They have a lower glycemic index than refined carbs, and that helps keep your blood sugar steadier. They also contain vitamins and minerals, like heart-healthy magnesium. Whole oats, farro, brown rice, and quinoa are whole grains.

Sweet potatoes. Potatoes can be a part of a healthy diabetes diet. Pick sweet potatoes for extra fiber and vitamin A, which keeps your eyes healthy. They also have vitamin C and potassium. Try serving them with a sprinkle of cinnamon. Not only does this spice add sweetness, but some research suggests that it may help your body use insulin better.

Beans. They’re good for your heart -- and your diabetes. Research shows that, as part of a low-glycemic diet, they can lower your blood sugar level. They serve up vitamins, fiber, and protein without saturated fat. Beans do contain carbs; a half-cup of cooked beans counts as a starch serving. If you used canned, drain and rinse them to remove extra salt.

Milk and yogurt. Dairy products provide vitamin D, which may help your insulin work better. They’re also a good source of bone-building calcium. Dairy products do have carbs, so look for low-sugar brands of yogurt. Also choose nonfat or low-fat products to cut back on fat and calories.

Citrus fruits. Snack on tangerines or oranges to get a dose of vitamin C. They’re also high in heart-healthy folate and potassium. Have the whole fruit instead of juice. It has fiber that will slow digestion, so it won’t cause a spike in blood sugar.

When it comes to grapefruit, though, you need to be sure that you're not taking any medicines that could interact with it. Grapefruit has been shown to interact with the diabetes medication repaglinide and may cause your blood sugar to get too low (hypoglycemia). It also interacts with:

  • Certain drugs for lowering cholesterol, such as atorvastatin (Lipitor) and simvastatin (FloLipid, Zocor)

  • The blood pressure medication nifedipine (Afeditab CR, Procardia)

Check with your doctor to be sure it’s safe for you to enjoy grapefruit.