Looking for a diabetic diet plan that works? Here I outline my easy-to-follow diabetic diet which I created many years back. I implemented this diet in my patients with Type 2 diabetes and followed them clinically to see if it works or not. Well, the diabetic diet worked wonderfully. Patients saw their Hemoglobin A1C coming down after years of struggling with various other diabetes diets. And the best part? It is a commonsense diet for Type 2 diabetes that is easy and practical. No more counting calories!
Proper nutrition is critical for diabetics. You already know this. But why is it such a struggle to manage diabetes and maintain blood sugar levels, even on a diabetic diet? How come it doesn’t work? There are plenty of reasons why the standard diabetic diet fails many, but first, let’s talk about what is essential for the success of your diabetic diet. It all starts in the mind. After all, you are what you eat and how you think.
Tips for The Success of Your Diabetic Diet
Acknowledge the true purpose of food
Eat to nourish your body. Therefore, you should eat only when you are hungry. In this way you will automatically avoid emotional eating. Moreover, ignore peer pressure in social situations and stick to your eating plan. Your health and wellbeing are worth it.
Be self aware of your eating habits
Are you eating because you are hungry or because you are bored? If you are aware of your actions instead of coasting on autopilot, you will be able to make conscious and healthier decisions. Also if you eat mindfully, slowly, and enjoy every bite, you will be less likely to overeat.
Diabetic diet plan starts at the grocery store
Be mindful of what you buy at the grocery story as this will impact what you eat when you are home. For example, it’s easy to eat a cookie at 9pm if they are lying on the counter. It’s harder to eat a cookie at 9pm if they aren’t easily available to you in your home and you have to make a separate trip to the store again just for cookies. Choose to stock your home with healthy foods that are in your diabetic diet plan.
Don’t succumb to the urge of indulging
When you get cravings, don’t succumb to them. Instead, shift your awareness to your surroundings. What can you see? Hear? Taste? Smell? Touch? Bringing your awareness into the NOW will calm emotional urges. In this way, your inner urges wouldn’t sabotage your diabetic diet.
Don’t punish yourself
Get out of the mindset of rewarding yourself over the weekends. Because if you are rewarding yourself by ditching your diabetic diet, then following it must be punishment, right? Feelings of guilt and shame are counter-productive. If you fall down, simply acknowledge and get back on track. It is not a sprint, nor is it a marathon. It is a lifestyle. If you approach your diet as a disciplinary action, sooner or later you will try to escape the “prison” you’ve created for yourself. Your diet is not a prison, it’s an act of conscious kindness towards yourself and your body. It is taking care of your body, not punishing it.
The Problem with the Standard Diabetic Diet
In my early days of practicing as an endocrinologist, I saw firsthand how calorie-based diets failed my patients. I would start them with an 1800 calorie diet, then 1600, 1400… Then, I would send them to dietitians who would follow the same routine of calories-based drumbeat, but my patients would continue to have high blood sugars. At first, I used to think – like most other doctors – that my patients were non-compliant with their diet, but one day, an elderly patient looked me straight in the eyes and told me she WAS following the diet. I saw the honesty in her eyes. A new thought crossed my mind that would change my outlook for diabetes diet forever. “Maybe the diet itself is flawed.” To test the hypothesis, I put myself on a calorie-based diet. To my utter surprise, I gained 5 lbs. in just two weeks!
Why Calorie-Based Diabetic Diets are Scientifically Flawed
A diet that is based on calories in scientifically flawed. For example, people drink Zero-Calorie soda to lose weight, but many actually end up gaining weight, according to research from Purdue University, in the U.S.1
Let’s dig deeper to find out why calorie-based diets do not work.
What is a calorie?
A Calorie is a unit to measure the amount of heat produced in a calorimeter. Hence, it is a good tool when you are working in a biochemistry laboratory. However, human bodies are very complex. Genetics, hormones, enzymes, vitamins, emotions and many other factors all play a role in how our body processes food. Therefore, a calorie-based diet may work for a robot, but not a human.
For example, if you give the same amount of calories to two different people, the results on their weight, blood sugar and other health parameters will be quite different, even though these two people are of the same age and do the same amount of exercise. I have often heard my patients say, “But my friends consume more calories than me and I’m the one with the weight problem. It doesn’t make any sense.” Even the same number of calories from carbohydrates versus fat have a different impact on your weight, blood sugar and other health parameters.
Many diabetics know their blood sugars don’t always reflect their caloric-intake. Exercise and emotions play a big role.
Food is more than calories in your diabetic diet
Calories aren’t even the most important part of food. The nutritional value of food — the vitamins, minerals and macronutrients they contain — are incredibly important. The type of foods you eat and even how they are prepared play a huge role! Raw fruits and vegetables will have a different effect on your blood sugar compared to fruit juices, or cooked veggies. Stir-fried veggies have a different effect compared to steamed veggies. Even though the same amount and type of food will share the same calorie amount, how it’s prepared can have a big impact on blood sugar level.
How you eat also has an impact on your blood sugar level. As an example, your blood sugar will be higher if you eat in a hurry while driving to work as compared to eating slowly in a serene environment.
Figuring Out Your Customized Diabetic Diet
The best – and scientific – way to figure out what works for you is by learning how certain foods affect your blood sugar. Here are two ways that I approach this:
1. Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM)
This is a wonderful and accurate way to monitor your blood sugar levels. This tiny device keeps track of your blood sugars over the course of 72 hours. In this way, it tells you what happened to your blood sugar after every meal (and during sleep.) Then, you can clearly see cause-and-effect relationship between your food intake and blood sugar levels. I can’t tell you how many times patients are utterly surprised to see the negative impact of what they thought was good food for their diabetic diet.
The one drawback is that it can be expensive and sometimes health insurance won’t cover it. In that case, option #2 is available.
2. The Food-Sugar Diary
This method is easy — simply check your blood sugar two hours after eating. (Ideally, it should be less than 140 mg/dl.) Take note of what you ate and what your blood sugar was. Keep a diary for at least a month to account for other factors. Over time you will start to see patterns with certain foods.
With either of these methods, you should be able to assess which foods (and food preparation) are good for your blood sugar — and which ones aren’t. Avoid foods that cause spikes of blood sugar over 200 mg/dl. In this way you can customize your diabetic diet.
What to Eat As A Part Of Your Diabetic Diet Plan
Below are the dietary recommendations I developed as I saw themes pop up among my patients with Type 2 diabetes. However, monitoring your own blood sugar levels with a food diary or continuous glucose monitoring will be the best way to figure out what works the best as your own diabetic diet plan. In the meantime, use these recommendations as a guided starting point.
1. Vegetables for Diabetic Diet
Vegetables are full of fiber, minerals and vitamins. For these reasons they are great for a diabetes diet because they slow down sugar absorption from carbohydrates. Focus on the leaf and stem parts of the plant and limit your consumption of starchy roots like potatoes and yams. Cook your veggies by steaming them or just lightly frying them in a small amount of olive oil. Choose fresh vegetables of the season — preferably grown in your own garden or bought at a farmers market.
Some vegetables to consider:
- Carrots, (small sized are less sweet.)
- Bell pepper
- Zucchini, other summer squashes
- Green beans
- Bok Choy
2. Fruits As Part Of Diet for Diabetes
Many diabetic patients are under the impression that they should not eat fruit because of sugar content, and they stop eating fruits all together. This is not healthy in the long run as fruits are loaded with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Instead, you can limit your consumption of fruit to ½ a cup a day, and opt for fresh, local, seasonal fruits. Similar to vegetables, the best fruits are the ones grown in your own garden or bought at your local farmer’s market.
Fruits that cause the least increase in blood sugar:
- Green and red apples
Fruits That Cause A Modest Increase In Blood Sugar. Therefore, consume them in small amounts:
- Apples, yellow
Fruits That Cause A Marked Increase In Blood Sugar. Therefore, consume them in very small amounts:
A Few Words About Bananas
Often diabetics consume bananas under the impression that they provide Potassium. It is true that bananas are high in potassium, but they are also high in sugar. There are many other food items which are high in Potassium, but not high in sugar. For example, avocados are a great source of Potassium. In addition, avocados can help to increase your good (HDL) cholesterol, which is often low in diabetics. Avocados are also loaded with omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins C and E, carotenoids, selenium, zinc and phytosterols, which help to protect against heart disease and inflammation.
Both nuts and seeds are great sources of protein, fiber, antioxidants, minerals like magnesium, and “good” fats like omega-3s. Therefore, these should be an important part of your diabetes diet. It’s best to eat nuts and seeds that are not salted, sugar coated, or processed.
Some nuts and seeds to consider:
- Pine nuts
- Pumpkin seeds
4. Meats/Poultry/Fish for Diabetic Diet Plan
These are essentially no-carb foods that are packed with protein, minerals and vitamins (like Vitamin B12 which is lacking in a vegetarian diet). Therefore, make them part of your diabetic diet plan. Consume lean cuts of red meat 2-3 times a week. Have turkey or chicken once a day. Eat fish 1-2 a week (too much fish may lead to mercury poisoning). But avoid processed meats like salami, cold cuts and hot dogs — they often contain added sugar and carbohydrates.
Meats, poultry and fish to consider:
- Ground beef
5. Dairy in Diabetic Diet
Dairy can be a great source for probiotics (great for gut health) and calcium (great for bone health). However, reduce the amount of dairy – milk, cheeses and yogurt – in your diabetic diet as these food items tend to increase your weight, which is not good for Type 2 diabetes. Also avoid sugar-heavy dairy like ice cream.
Dairy to consider:
- Plain yogurt
- Cottage cheese
- Milk in small amounts (*not if you are lactose-intolerant)
- A good alternative to milk is almond milk
6. Eggs for Diabetic Diet
Cholesterol is sometimes cited as a reason to avoid eggs. However, cholesterol is mainly present in the yolk. If you have elevated LDL cholesterol levels, opt for egg whites instead. Otherwise, eggs are a great source of protein, vitamins and minerals — all while containing little carbohydrates.
7. Whole grains
Small amounts of whole grains should be part of the diabetes diet plan. Choose grains such as quinoa, barley, rye, millet, buckwheat and pop-corn (without salt or butter.) At the same time. avoid wheat, rice, and oats.
Foods To Avoid In Your Diabetic Diet
No Processed food
No canned foods, snack bars, or pre-cooked dinners. Instead, have fresh foods, real foods and organic foods, because the true nutritional value of a food (compared to what is written on the food label) is lost when it is processed, stored or frozen.
Reduce Starches And Sugar
Some common food items should only be used sparingly, because they are loaded with starches and sugar. These food items are:
- Bread, rice, pasta and pizza.
- Bread includes white bread, whole wheat bread, sourdough bread, French or Italian bread, bagels, croissants, biscuits, hamburger buns, rolls, pita, Indian naans, flour tortillas, and many more similar bakery products.
- Cereals including oat-meal.
- Potato chips, nachos, French fries.
- Waffles, pies, donuts, pancakes, pastries, cookies, candy, chocolate and cakes.
- Potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams.
- Desserts, Ice-cream, Frozen Yogurt.
Avoid Artificial Sweeteners
Stay away from artificial sweeteners such as Sucralose (Splenda), Saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet’N Low), Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), Acesulfame (Sunett, Sweet One) and Neotame. Also beware of sugar alcohols such as Sorbitol, Mannitol, Xylitol, Lactitol, Maltitol, Erythritol, Isomalt, Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH).
These artificial sweeteners are widely used in processed foods, including sodas, powdered drink mixes, chocolate, cookies, cakes, chewing gum and candies. Then, these products are typically marketed as sugar-free and low calorie, which obviously may tempt you to include them in your diabetic diet. Beware! Artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols can give rise to a number of side-effects, including gas and abdominal cramping. Why? Because these chemicals are usually not absorbed properly and become a fuel for bacterial overgrowth in the intestines. Some even cause neurologic symptoms such as confusion, headaches or dizziness. In addition, there are serious concerns about their long term safety.
If you absolutely have to sweeten your food, you can use a small amount of honey. For example, 1/2 teaspoonful for your tea or coffee.
Avoid High Fructose Corn Syrup
Avoid any food that contains high fructose corn syrup. In fact, consumption of high fructose corn syrup can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and liver damage. In addition, High Fructose Corn Syrup also provides fuel for the growth of bacteria in the intestines and can cause bloating, cramping and excessive gas.
No Sodas, No Fruit Juices and No Alcohol
Do not drink any sodas, even diet versions. Why? Because sodas are loaded with high fructose corn syrup and sugar. Diet sodas contain artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols.
Also avoid fruit juices, because fruit juices from grocery stores contain only a small amount of real juice and a lot of sugar water. Even freshly squeezed, natural juice contains a lot of sugar. Why? Because you end up consuming a high amount of natural sugar, fructose. For example, instead of eating just one whole orange, you will have to use 3-4 oranges to get about a cup of pure orange juice.
Instead of fresh juice, eat one to two Fresh fruit servings per day as a part of your healthy diabetic diet. Why? Because whole fruits not only contain sugar (fructose), but also the pulp, which slows down the absorption of sugar. That’s why there is less of a rise in blood sugar level after eating a whole fruit, as compared to fruit juice, which causes a rapid rise in blood sugar level.
Avoid alcoholic beverages. Why? Because alcohol is a medically well known toxin for the liver, pancreas, brain and nerves. In addition, alcoholic beverages contain carbohydrates and sugars. For example, most beer comes from malted cereal grains, most commonly malted barley and malted wheat.
Eating Guidelines For Your Diabetes Diet Plan
- Eat three regular meals a day.
- Keep breakfast small, lunch the heaviest, and dinner the lightest.
- Have dinner at least three hours before you sleep.
- Walk for about 30 minutes after dinner.
- Avoid snacking.
- Read food labels when you grocery shop and avoid foods with high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners and sugar.
- Try to eat home cooked meals if and when you can.
- Skip dinner sometimes.
- Fast once a week. While fasting, make sure to stay hydrated with water and some lime or lemon added.
- Avoid distractions such as TV, cell phones, magazines while eating. Chew well and enjoy every bite of your meal.
For more details, please refer to my book “Reverse Your Type 2 Diabetes Scientifically,” which also has daily meal suggestions and recipes.
A diabetic diet is so much more than “counting calories.” A truly effective diabetic diet plan takes into account proper and balanced nutrition, while selecting foods that are beneficial for controlling your blood sugar. It is a long-term, lifestyle approach focused on building and maintaining a healthy relationship with your food. For more information about managing your diabetes, check out my books “Reverse Your Type 2 Diabetes Scientifically .”
- Swithers SE. Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements. Trends Endocrinol Metab. 2013 Sep;24(9):431-41