Foods to Avoid with Diabetes and Simple Swaps Toward a Healthier Eating Style
Tami Ross, RD, LD, CDCES, MLDE, FADCES
Whether diabetes is new to you, or you’ve been managing it for some time, without a doubt healthy eating is fundamental to feeling your best. Making healthy choices in what you eat and drink can have a big impact on managing blood glucose levels. That said, there is no “one size fits all diet” for managing diabetes. A variety of eating patterns and approaches can help. It’s good to have options, because everyone is different. As you consider what foods to include more often, and what foods to avoid with diabetes (or eat smaller amounts of less often)…
Here are 8 foods to avoid with diabetes, along with simple swaps toward healthier, higher quality foods:
- Added sugars. Fewer added sugars are better for anyone, diabetes or not. When a sweet craving hits, rather than a cookie or other sweet treat, swap in small piece of fresh fruit. A clementine or plum for example – they’re already portion controlled and don’t need any prep.
- Sugar-sweetened beverages. Again, this is wise guidance for anyone. Drink water or another zero-calorie beverage instead of a regular soda, sweet tea, lemonade, fruit punch, juice drink, sweetened coffee beverages, hot chocolate, and flavored waters (unless they are labeled “zero calorie”). This switch saves about 250 calories (and a lot of carbs!) for each 20-ounce drink swap. Water is always the best beverage choice. Other zero-calorie options you could swap in include unsweetened or tea or coffee (or sweetened with a low-calorie sweetener), sparkling water or club soda, sugar-free lemonade, sugar-free fruit-flavored drinks, zero-calorie flavored waters, or infused waters.
- Solid fats. Solid fats are the “unhealthy” fats that are typically solid at room temperature, such as shortening, lard, bacon grease, and butter. On the other hand, “healthy” fats are the “heart-healthy” high quality fats that come primarily from plant sources. Examples are avocado, olives, flaxseed, pumpkin seed, sesame seeds, nuts, and oils including canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower. Switch out solid fats by topping whole-grain toast with almond butter, cashew butter, or peanut butter rather than butter; by using canola oil or corn oil instead of shortening or lard in cooking; and by swapping almonds, pecans, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, toasted sesame seeds, or sunflower seeds instead of bacon to add crunch to salad.
- Fried foods. Fried foods have lots of calories. The goal is to swap in lower fat cooking methods such as grilling, baking, roasting, or air-frying. The calorie and fat savings can be dramatic. Enjoy 5 ounces of grilled fished instead of fried fish and save 234 calories.
- Salty foods. If you tend to crave salt, try cutting back on salt a little at a time. Your taste for salt will lessen over time (for many, in as little as a week). Since most of the salt (sodium) typically eaten comes from processed foods, go for fresh, close-to-nature foods, which are generally lower in sodium. For instance, choosing fresh frozen corn over canned saves 174 mg sodium per 1/2 cup serving. Also be cautious with condiments. Foods like ketchup, pickles, soy sauce, and many salad dressings are high in sodium. For instance, on a sandwich, swap cucumber slices in place of pickles or mashed avocado in place of mayonnaise as lower sodium options.
- Highly processed foods. Again, stick close to nature. Swap in whole foods for highly processed foods to the extent possible. For example, rather than sweet potato chips, swap in a small sweet potato. Or swap in carrots for crunch. Both have fewer calories, fat, and sodium, than sweet potato chips.
- Refined grains. The goal is to go for more foods rich in fiber and whole grains. For instance at breakfast, rather than eating a processed cereal, swap in a whole grain cereal, such as oats. Don’t like quick oats? Try steel-cut oats which have a chewier texture. At dinner, rather than white rice, swap in quinoa, which is a whole grain. Substitute whole wheat pasta, brown rice, and whole wheat bread for the more refined white versions. The fiber will help you feel full, and you will likely be satisfied with smaller portions.
- Large portions of starchy foods and starchy vegetables. Among the variety of eating approaches that can help manage diabetes, they all emphasize eating more non-starchy vegetables. Non-starchy vegetables have only one-third the amount of carbohydrate as do starchy vegetables (meaning non-starchy vegetables affect blood glucose less). Swap in mashed cauliflower for mashed potatoes and save 100 calories and 20 g carbohydrate per cup. Fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables (such as broccoli, carrots, green beans, and tomatoes), instead of focusing on starchy vegetables. There are well over 70 different non-starchy vegetables. Choose a rainbow of colors to get a variety of nutrients.
The best eating plan is one that works for you to achieve your health goals, feel well, and live your best life. I encourage you to talk with your diabetes health care team or registered dietitian nutritionist about what is right for you. The end goal is finding what works for you to keep your blood glucose in range, and then doing more of that.