Healthy Eating

The Best & Worst Foods For Type 2 Diabetes

Certain types of foods result in a more dramatic spike in your blood sugar (and release of insulin), while others don’t have quite as significant of an impact.

By: Lauren Panoff MPH, RD

One of the most important aspects of managing type 2 diabetes well is staying vigilant about what you’re eating. In addition to medication that may be prescribed, as well as lifestyle habits like exercise, nutrition is a key component to maintaining stable blood sugar levels. 

Whenever you eat, your body responds by releasing insulin to help move glucose out of your bloodstream and into your cells, where it can be used for energy. Certain types of foods result in a more dramatic spike in your blood sugar (and release of insulin), while others don’t have quite as significant of an impact. When you have type 2 diabetes, your body produces insulin but doesn’t respond to it very well — called insulin resistance.

A healthy diet pattern is essential for the best blood sugar control. Let’s dive into the best and worst foods for type 2 diabetes. 

RELATED: The 7 Best Natural Sugar Substitutes For Those With Type 2 Diabetes 

The Best Foods For Type 2 Diabetes 

When designing your diet pattern for better blood sugar control, these are the types of food that should always make the cut. 

Non-Starchy Vegetables

Listen, vegetables are always a good choice — but certain types are higher in a type of carbohydrate called starch that can cause a dramatic spike in your blood sugar levels. For instance, potatoes and squash. 

Instead, focus on non-starchy veggies like: 

  • Leafy greens
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Asparagus
  • Leeks
  • Celery
  • Cucumbers

These non-starchy vegetables are high in fiber, which helps slow their digestion and minimize the impact on your blood sugar when you consume them. They’re also an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that benefit your overall health. 

Whole Grains

There are seemingly endless types of grain products available today, whether you’re looking at flour in the baking aisle, pasta, bread, tortillas, or snack crackers. 

The main difference is that some of these are made with whole grains, which are high in fiber, a complex carbohydrate. Others are made with grains that have been highly refined, removing much of their fiber, and are sometimes called simple carbohydrates. Whole grains will digest more slowly, keeping the impact on your blood sugar to a minimum.

Examples of whole grains include: 

  • Quinoa
  • Brown rice
  • 100% whole wheat flour
  • Amaranth
  • Oats
  • Millet
  • Barley

Lean Proteins

Protein is an important nutrient for blood sugar control and satiety. It’s not hard to find protein in our diets, but it’s still important to choose good sources that are also low in saturated fat and high in other nutrients. 

Some research suggests that plant-derived protein is better for blood sugar control and type 2 diabetes risk compared to animal-derived protein.

Examples of lean proteins include: 

  • Fish and seafood
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Eggs
  • Tofu and tempeh
  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Lentils

Healthy Fats

Having type 2 diabetes also comes with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease. That’s why it’s so important to choose healthy fats over fats that can promote clogged arteries. Unsaturated fats are beneficial for your heart, skin, eyes, brain, and hair. 

Examples of unsaturated healthy fats include: 

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Avocados
  • Olive oil
  • Olives 

Low-Glycemic Fruits

Just like veggies, all fruits are good for you and shouldn’t be avoided. However, certain types of fruits may impact your blood sugar more than others. If you notice that certain fruits cause high readings, consider emphasizing more low-glycemic fruits in your diet. 

The glycemic index (GI) is a scale from 1-100 used to measure the impact of food on blood sugar. The higher the number, the higher the impact. Instead, choosing fruits that fall on the lower end of the GI scale most of the time can help with your blood sugar management goals. 

Examples of low-glycemic fruits include: 

  • Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries
  • Apples
  • Citrus fruits, like oranges, lemons, and grapefruit

Note that grapefruit is known to interact with certain diabetes medications. Speak with your healthcare provider or pharmacist if you’re unsure. Avoid canned fruit as they often have added sugar. Dried fruit and fruit juices are very concentrated sources of sugar and should be limited. 

The Worst Foods For Type 2 Diabetes 

On the other hand, many foods can have a more substantial effect on your blood sugar levels when you consume them. These types of foods also tend to be less healthy overall, so they are generally best to minimize anyway. 

Refined Carbohydrates

Compared to their complex counterparts, refined (or simple) carbohydrates are low in fiber and quickly digested, causing a fast blood sugar response. 

Examples of refined carbohydrates include: 

  • White bread and pasta
  • High-added-sugar cereals
  • Pastries and donuts
  • Cookies 
  • Potato chips

Sugary Beverages

Not only are these basically a can of liquid sugar with no nutritional benefit, they have also been linked to insulin resistance. Do your best to stay away from sugary beverages (and beverages sweetened with artificial sweeteners), instead choosing things like plain water, and unsweetened seltzer water, for your hydration needs. 

Examples of sugary beverages include: 

  • Fruit juices
  • Energy drinks
  • Vitamin drinks
  • Soda
  • Certain kombuchas

Ultra-Processed Foods

Ultra-processed foods have been processed to a very high degree, removing the majority of their natural nutrients and any semblance of the original ingredients used to make them. A high consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with worsened blood sugar control, among other health problems.

One example of an ultra-processed food would be the transition of a whole grain to a fried donut pastry, as it’s processed into refined white flour with saturated fat, sugar, and other ingredients added to it to create a final product. 

Examples of ultra-processed foods include: 

  • Fast food (e.g., fried chicken, cheeseburgers, tacos from the drive-thru)
  • Donuts and pastries
  • Packaged snack foods
  • Deep-fried items

High-Sodium Foods

Because of the increased risk for heart problems with type 2 diabetes, it’s also important to pay attention to your sodium (salt) intake. A high-sodium diet may raise your blood pressure. In addition to minimizing the amount of table salt you use at home, certain foods can add a lot of sodium to your diet.

Examples of foods that tend to be high in sodium include: 

  • Processed meats, like hot dogs, bacon, and sausage
  • Canned soups
  • Condiments, like soy sauce, some salad dressings, tomato sauce, and other prepared pasta sauces
  • Salty snacks, like pretzels and potato chips

Excessive Alcohol

Alcohol can have varying effects on blood sugar levels, and its impact depends on several factors, including the amount consumed, the type of alcohol, and whether it’s consumed with food. 

Moderate alcohol consumption can lead to a drop in blood sugar, whereas excessive intake can have the opposite effect. If drinking alcohol raises your blood sugar at first, it also puts you at risk for delayed hypoglycemia, where your blood sugar significantly drops later. 

Whether you have diabetes or not, it’s important to consume alcohol responsibly. If you don’t drink, there’s no reason to start. If you do drink moderately (defined as 2 drinks or less in a day for men and 1 drink or less in a day for women), be mindful of the frequency and amount, and be sure to monitor your blood sugar levels accordingly. 

Finding Balance in Your Diabetes-Friendly Diet 

Having type 2 diabetes requires knowledge and understanding of how certain foods and beverages affect your blood sugar. While it’s a good idea to prioritize the foods on the “best” list above, that doesn’t mean you have to avoid every single food that doesn’t fit in that category. 

Be mindful of your food choices and emphasize items that are high in fiber, low in saturated fat, provide lean protein, and are full of vitamins and minerals. If you have questions, it can be helpful to meet with a registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator.