Published 27th April 2022

Foods to eat and limit if you have diabetes, and why personalization is key

If you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, paying attention to what you eat is important for keeping your blood sugar in your target range.

In general, some foods are good for people with diabetes. These include a variety of non-starchy vegetables, whole fruits, whole grains, healthy fats, dairy, and lean protein.

But you should limit your intake of certain foods, such as heavily processed foods, sweetened beverages, and refined grains. 

However, experts agree that it’s best to take a personalized approach to food if you have diabetes.  

ZOE runs the world’s largest nutritional sciences study. The data we’ve collected shows that everyone responds differently to foods and that we can all benefit from a personalized approach.

The ZOE at-home test measures your blood sugar and blood fat levels. It also looks at the trillions of microorganisms that make up your gut microbiome. From this information, we can tell you which foods are best for your body.

You can take a free quiz to learn what ZOE can do for you.

Read on to learn more about which foods are good to eat and which to avoid if you have diabetes, what the latest evidence says about keto diets, and why personalized nutrition goes beyond one-size-fits-all advice.

Foods that are good for diabetes

Choosing what to eat when you have diabetes can seem challenging, but there are tools you can use to help you manage your blood sugar. For example, using a personalized meal plan can be helpful. 

We know that different foods affect your blood sugar in different ways, but the story is more complex: The effect of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels changes depending on what foods they’re paired with. 

For instance, consuming carbohydrates alongside foods that have fat, protein, or fiber helps slow digestion. This means that blood sugar levels rise more slowly.

While experts agree that a personalized approach is best for managing blood sugar, some foods are generally healthy for people with diabetes. 

The following healthy foods are also good sources of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

1. Non-starchy vegetables

Include plenty of broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, leafy greens, and other non-starchy vegetables in your meal plan. 

These vegetables are generally low in carbohydrates and high in fiber — a type of carbohydrate that slows digestion and helps prevent spikes in blood sugar levels. 

Depending on your preference, you can use fresh, frozen, or low-sodium canned options. Just be sure to eat these as whole foods rather than juice for optimal benefit. Juices don't carry the same health benefits as the whole vegetable and affect your blood sugar levels differently.

Try roasting hearty vegetables like carrots, Brussels sprouts, or broccoli. Or add spinach, kale, or arugula to soups, smoothies, or whole-grain salads. The possibilities are endless for including these foods in a flavorful, healthy way.

2. Whole fruits

Some people with diabetes believe that fruit is off-limits, but certain fruits in moderation — such as berries, oranges, melon, or grapefruits — can be a healthy addition to your diet. Whole fruits are often high in fiber and loaded with vitamins and minerals. 

Again, avoid juices if possible. Even 100% fruit juices don’t have the same fiber and nutrient content as their whole-fruit counterparts.  

Try blending your favorite fruits into a smoothie, adding a handful of berries to a warm bowl of oats, or grabbing a refreshing orange for a midday snack.

3. Whole grains

Choosing whole grains over refined grains as often as possible is important for almost any healthy eating plan, including for people with diabetes. 

Refined grains, such as those found in white bread or white pasta, have been stripped of their fiber- and vitamin-rich outer bran layer and germ core. This process leaves only the starchy middle layer called the endosperm.

Our gut digests refined grains quickly, leading to larger rises in blood sugar. However, because whole grains still have the bran and germ, digestion is slower, and your blood sugar levels rise more gradually.

There is a wide variety of whole grains, including barley, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, and oats. 

Make sure to read the ingredient label on any processed items labeled “whole grain.” The first ingredient on the list should include the word “whole,” for instance, “whole oats” or “whole wheat flour.”  

4. Lean protein

Chicken, fish, eggs, plant-based proteins, and the occasional lean meats are excellent sources of lean protein and should take up roughly one-quarter of your plate. 

Choosing lean proteins over fattier options helps limit the unhealthy fats that can damage your heart. As diabetes puts you at an increased risk of developing heart disease, limiting these unhealthy fats is important.

While many plant-based proteins — such as beans, quinoa, lentils, and tofu — are great additions to your diet, be cautious of processed meat alternatives, including meatless chicken nuggets or burgers. 

These items vary in how much fat, salt, and added carbohydrates they have, so make sure to read the label before including them in your diet. 

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5. Healthy fats

While unhealthy fats that are commonly found in red meat and processed foods can harm your heart, eating good fats can help protect your heart from disease and help slow your blood sugar response.

Nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, avocados, and fatty fish are good sources of heart-healthy fats.

6. Dairy

Milk, yogurt, cheese, and other dairy foods provide your body with calcium and other nutrients. 

Dairy foods do contain carbohydrates that cause blood sugar levels to rise, but this is typically a moderate effect

Be sure to look for dairy products without added sugar. 

Foods to limit if you have diabetes

If you have diabetes, it’s best to limit foods with high levels of added fat, sugars, and salt.

1. Ultra-processed foods

Prepackaged foods and snacks, such as chips, cookies, baked items, ready-made meals, and many breakfast cereals are loaded with added fat, sodium, and sugar with few nutritional benefits. 

Instead, reach for whole foods as often as possible.

2. Refined grains

As mentioned above, refined grains are missing their most nutritional parts. Common foods that include refined grains are white bread, white pasta, and white rice. 

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend swapping at least half of your refined grains for whole grains.

It’s worth checking the nutrition facts on food packing for added sugars, fats, and sodium, particularly with ready-to-eat refined grain products, like microwave rice. Look for alternatives without these added ingredients. 

3. Sweetened drinks

Sodas, sweetened tea, lemonade, sports drinks, and energy drinks typically contain high levels of added sugar and can lead to sharp spikes in blood sugar. 

While many diet drinks are lower in carbohydrates, evidence suggests that artificial sweeteners may not be a healthier option. 

When you’re thirsty, reach for unsweetened drinks, such as plain or herb-infused water, unsweetened tea, or coffee.

Ketogenic diets and diabetes

While promoting an individualized approach as the best option, the American Diabetes Association suggest that very low-carb diets, such as the ketogenic diet, may help some people with type 2 diabetes manage their blood sugar and lose weight. 

Diets that are very low-carb and high-fat, like the keto diet, have risen in popularity.

The authors of a review that looked at multiple studies conclude that a ketogenic diet may be beneficial for some people with type 2 diabetes. The studies show that a ketogenic diet may help improve blood sugar control and other health markers. 

However, in some of the studies, the researchers noted higher levels of “bad” cholesterol and blood fat after following a ketogenic diet, which could put participants at an increased risk of heart disease. 

Since people with type 2 diabetes are already at an increased risk of developing heart disease, this is a concern.

Also, scientists do not yet know how safe and effective ketogenic diets are over the long term.

For people with type 1 diabetes, the evidence in the review is even less clear. A limited number of studies found that people with type 1 diabetes saw improvements in blood sugar control while following a ketogenic diet.

However, some participants also experienced higher blood fat and poorer cholesterol levels.

Since this eating plan may not be appropriate for everyone, if you are considering trying it, speak with your doctor first.

Why a personalized approach to food is key

Experts from the American Diabetes Association recommend personalized nutrition plans for people with diabetes. 

At ZOE, we run the largest nutrition sciences study in the world, with over 15,000 participants so far. Our research shows that insulin, blood sugar, and other responses to food are different for everyone.

We know that eating the right foods for your body is important because the way that your body responds to the foods you eat is linked to your risk of developing chronic conditions, like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Using the latest scientific techniques, the ZOE at-home test measures your blood sugar and blood fat responses to food and analyzes the makeup of your gut microbiome.

Based on your results, we can help you find the best foods for you, to support your metabolic health.

You can take a free quiz to see what ZOE can do for you.

Summary

A personalized nutrition plan is best if you have diabetes. But there are general guidelines you can follow to find healthy foods for you. Non-starchy vegetables, whole fruits, and whole grains are healthy choices for people with diabetes. 

It’s best to limit your intake of heavily processed foods, refined grains, and sweetened beverages.

Ketogenic diets may help some people with diabetes control their blood sugar levels and lose weight, but whether these diets are safe in the long term is not clear. 

If you want to discover the best foods for your unique biology, you can start with our free quiz.

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Diabetes and your heart. (2021). https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/library/features/diabetes-and-heart.html

Diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. (2021). https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/preventing-problems/heart-disease-stroke

Diabetes meal planning. (2021). https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/managing/eat-well/meal-plan-method.html

Dietary fats and coronary heart disease. Journal of Internal Medicine. (2012). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1365-2796.2012.02553.x

Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (2020). https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf

Fiber: the carb that helps you manage diabetes. (2022). https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/library/features/role-of-fiber.html

Low-carb and ketogenic diets in type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Nutrients. (2019). https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/11/5/962/htm

Nutrition therapy for adults with diabetes or prediabetes: a consensus report. Diabetes Care. (2019). https://diabetesjournals.org/care/article/42/5/731/40480/Nutrition-Therapy-for-Adults-With-Diabetes-or

Red meat consumption and mortality. Archives of Internal Medicine. (2012). https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1134845

What superstar foods are good for diabetes? (n.d.) https://www.diabetes.org/healthy-living/recipes-nutrition/eating-well/diabetes-superstar-foods

Whole grains: Food fact sheet (n.d.). https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/wholegrains.html