One of the most common questions people have after a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes is, “what can I eat?”.
There seems to be a lot of information out there, most of it conflicting, and it leaves people feeling lost, confused, and frustrated.
Those feelings, amidst a new and oftentimes tricky medical diagnosis, are not easy to deal with when trying to navigate to a new lifestyle and way of being.
In this article, I will outline some of the more popular diets people with type 2 diabetes follow, the pros and cons of each one, and how to tailor an eating plan that will work for you.
Why do people with diabetes have to eat differently?
First, it’s important to acknowledge that everyone’s journey to a type 2 diagnosis is different; some people had gestational diabetes that then turned into type 2, some people developed type 2 after many years, and some people are more genetically susceptible to type 2, with the diagnosis coming out of nowhere, even while they maintain a low BMI and live an active life.
But having type 2 diabetes means that the body is not utilizing the insulin it produces properly, or even that the body isn’t producing enough insulin. Type 2 diabetes management differs, but almost always requires exercise (sometimes to lose weight, sometimes to just maintain it) and dietary changes, sometimes along with oral or injected medications.
Without proper treatment, including adjustments to diet, someone with type 2 diabetes may suffer from poor blood sugar control, struggle with higher hba1c levels, and ultimately face diabetes complications later on in life.
Although you can include most foods into a healthy eating plan for type 2 diabetes, you do need to pay most attention to the types of carbohydrates you choose in order to prevent blood sugar spikes.
Why must people with diabetes pay attention to carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates, one of the three necessary macronutrients for living, primarily come from the sugars and starches found in fruits, grains, vegetables, and dairy products.
For people living with diabetes who cannot metabolize glucose (a form of sugar) on their own, they must carefully count carbohydrates and calibrate exogenous insulin or other medications and exercise accordingly, to avoid high blood sugars and negative health complications.
“Carbohydrates are macronutrients, meaning they are one of the three main ways the body obtains energy, or calories,” said Paige Smathers, a Utah-based registered dietitian. Carbohydrates, although often criticized in diet culture today, are the body’s main source of energy.
Foods high in simple carbohydrates, mostly from added sugars like cane sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, and honey, and refined grains, especially white flour and white rice will cause your blood sugar levels to spike quickly.
When eating carbohydrates, people with type 2 diabetes should opt for foods that contain fiber, such as 100% whole-grain bread and oats. It’s important to count the number of carbohydrates you eat as a person living with diabetes, and make sure you’re incorporating them into an overall healthy diet.
What are the most popular diets for someone with type 2 diabetes?
There are countless diets on the planet, but the following are the three most popular for people who live with type 2 diabetes.
“The more weight you lose, the more you’ll improve your blood sugar levels. But how you do it is largely up to you,” says Michael Dansinger, MD, director of the Diabetes Reversal Program at Tufts Medical Center.
Some diets are healthier and safer than others, so make sure to talk with your doctor before you change your eating patterns. Always weigh the pros and cons of any diet before making a lifestyle change.
The Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet is an extremely popular diet that includes plenty of fresh, seasonal produce, extra virgin olive oil, whole grains, and emphasizes vegetables and healthy fats instead of processed foods.
This way of eating is excellent for blood sugar control and weight loss, but since many of the foods included are not processed, it can become harder to count carbohydrates, which is a cornerstone of diabetes management.
Also, this way of eating can quickly become expensive, and if you live in a colder climate, you may struggle to find fresh produce year-round, making sticking to the diet difficult for some people.
The Mediterranean diet can become pretty high in carbohydrates, so make sure you’re counting carbohydrates and weighing your foods to make sure you aren’t overeating while following this plan.
The DASH diet
“DASH” is an acronym for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension and is recommended primarily for people who have high blood pressure, although this diet is also a fantastic option for people with type 2 diabetes.
It’s a plant-forward diet that focuses on fruit, vegetables, nuts, and legumes, as well as low-fat dairy, meats, fish, whole grains, and heart-healthy fats. The diet is low in sodium and fat and can help those who follow it to lose weight, lower blood pressure, and better manage their blood sugars.
Nearly two-thirds of people with diabetes have hypertension, so following a diet that addresses both conditions is super beneficial.
However, following the diet strictly can become very expensive, as fresh produce is more costly than packaged foods, and preparing meals from scratch can take a lot of time and energy in the kitchen.
The ketogenic diet is a very low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet that was originally prescribed for children suffering from epilepsy. It involves drastically reducing carbohydrates in the diet and replacing it with fat, putting the body into a state of ketosis.
Common side effects include constipation, low-grade acidosis, and hypoglycemia, leading to lethargy have been reported. People have experienced kidney stones while following the ketogenic diet. People strictly following this diet will require supplements to counter the dietary deficiency of many micronutrients not found in the diet itself.
This is an excellent diet for weight loss and blood sugar management but lacks many vital nutrients needed to thrive and is hard to follow long-term.
How do I know which diet is right for me?
Simply said, there is no one perfect diet for everyone with type 2 diabetes. Always work with your doctor and diabetes care team to make sure you are choosing a diet and eating plan that works for your activity level, personal goals, palate, and budget, and make sure it is something that you can stick with long-term.
Some questions to ask yourself before choosing a specific eating plan:
- Am I looking to lose weight?
- Am I looking for a super low-carbohydrate eating plan?
- Do I need a meal plan to fuel my workouts better?
- How much money do I have to dedicate to buying specific foods?
- Is the rest of my family willing to support my new eating plan?
- Will the rest of my family be joining me on this new eating plan?
- What types of foods do I gravitate to? What types of foods do I not enjoy eating?
Making healthier eating a long-term commitment
Whatever diet you choose, know that managing type 2 diabetes is a long-term commitment, and so should your commitment to a healthy eating plan be.
Focus on what types of foods make you feel good, help maintain your blood sugars and blood pressure, manage your weight, and give you energy. Focusing on how your eating plan will help you feel better will make your eating plan easier to stick to.
Also, seeking advice from a registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator can help you come up with an individualized meal plan that will help you meet your goals while still enjoying foods that you love.
Enlisting support from family and friends can help cement your commitment; if you do not have support at home, finding a type 2 diabetes support group online or in-person will help you find like-minded people who are also trying to live healthier lives that can support you on your journey.
There are also virtual coaching programs that can be very effective. These virtual programs can give you individualized dietary guidance from the comfort of your own home.
“While the idea of changing your diet can be confusing and overwhelming at first, research shows that making healthy lifestyle choices can help you manage your blood sugar levels in the short term and may even prevent many of the long-term health complications associated with diabetes,” says Lori Zanini, RD, CDE, and author of The Diabetes Cookbook and Meal Plan for the Newly Diagnosed.
Ultimately, everyone is different and you know best how your body responds to different types of foods. You may make different choices when you’re eating out at a restaurant, or cooking at home, or traveling, or exercising a lot, or even celebrating special occasions, and that’s okay.
There is no “best diet” that everybody should follow. It’s important to do what works for you, both physically and mentally.
Tommy Z, Sr. says
I’m glad I stumbled across this site and subscribed to this newsletter, thanks so much for your dedication and assistance…you’re a treasure!
I am a 59 yr young, fairly rugged and hard working man who is self employed in the transportation and heavy equipment repair and sales business. That means in short that I haul heavy equipment all over the northeast and beyond, so driving truck is a big part of my profession, although I have a good amount of vigorous exercise mixed into the equation, which is all part of my job and I’m very thankful for that.
That said, I have recently been told by my PHCP that I’m a type 2 diabetic, and I guess I have to start admitting that. It does run in my family, particularly on my mother’s side. She used to take 10 cc of insulin injection daily until her passing years ago.
I’ve always had a big appetite and have done my share of “eating for 3 men”. Been overweight all my life with the exception of in my 20’s as I trimmed down and was a weight lifter/body builder back then. Gained weight in my later 20’s but I have lost 40 lbs a “few times” by sticking to low carb diets like Atkins, but managed to always put it back on again with time. The last several years, I’ve heightened my awareness to what’s “good” and “bad” in terms of healthy foods, so I do have a good handle on what to eat when I want to lose weight, and now more so than ever…what I can eat to maintain stable blood sugar levels. I am one of those individuals that simply need to keep my carb intake to a bare minimum to lose weight and maintain healthy glucose levels. Lately I have incorporated a LOT of green leafy veggies, sweet peppers that I stuff with cream cheese for a snack, lots of salads rather than meat and potatoes, etc.
I have a 67 yr. young friend who’s barely 140 lbs (male,) who doesn’t eat meat, but mainly eats whole grain breads and nut butters, jams, spreads on whole wheat breads, wheat pancakes by the stack and doesn’t gain an ounce. I look at a whole wheat bagel and I gain 2 lbs automatically…
As a CDL license holder I am required to have a DOT physical every 2 years, and have always gotten a 2 year medical card until this last one 2 weeks ago. They found high levels of sugar in my urine sample, thus raising the red flags on the federal guidelines for how high they will allow a CDL holder to go. I left that examination with only a 90 day temporary card because of it. I had to get blood work done last Friday and have to show the examiner a fresh A1C report, and she will extend my physical intervals to 1 year now, until I get these numbers down to acceptable levels.(Note: I am on some meds for this…Jardiance, Atarvostatin, Pioglitazone. I wish to get OFF of all THREE with weight loss and lifestyle change ASAP.) These meds are what caused the high glucose in the urine, that’s their job is to carry it away from the bloodstream by way of the urinary tract…
So…..I am on a mission to shed this excess 40 lbs, and see if I can beat the odds once again and get back to acceptable numbers, and back to a 2 year medical card rather than a 1 year. This newsletter and your advice is going to be an asset to me, very valuable information. I’ll continue to follow your suggestions, and again, I really appreciate your efforts and thank you deeply for your work!
I will keep you updated on my progress as I continue my journey towards my goals.
Christel Oerum says
Welcome to Diabetes Strong. Sounds like you know what you want to achieve and how you want to get there, which is awesome. Best of luck
I’m a recent diagnosed type 2, I’m having an esteeming hard time dealing with normal life. I’ve lost almost 80 lbs in the hope of throwing it into remission, hasn’t happened as of yet.
Now my county jury office has called for jury duty. Any suggestions as how to handle the jury duty? Doctors will not right an excuse because I got the type 2 under great control.. I work from home, and take care of my elderly father as best as I can. I only leave the house for groceries, and doctors appts.
Christel Oerum says
It sounds like you’re doing everything you can.
As for jury duty, I don’t think people living with diabetes are exempt. However, if you can’t leave your father alone all day, you can inform them of this and hear if that makes a difference
Violet Zaaiman says
I would like to know, my husband 8s T2 but he lost so m6ch weight tha he us underweight now, so what eating plan can I put hom on to pick up a little weoght and maintain it. All the eating plans given is to lose weight. I am so confused
Christel Oerum says
Most meal plans can work, but you need to adjust the volume (meaning the calories) to sustain and even increase his weight. You can increase his portions, add a few snacks or some high calories items to his meals such as avocado, nuts, and oils
Aseem Chandna says
My father is a diabetic patient, so I am always looking for ways and means to curb the ailment. Unfortunately, there is nothing much the western medicine could do about it. I have read and researched a lot about diabetes and I believe keto diets as well as lean diets help the cause. Moreover, regular exercise/Yoga and walk also helps.
Anyway, I am bookmarking your blog as I found it immensely informative and I definitely going to come back for more.