The Ultimate Diabetes Shopping List

Best Foods to Include, and Why

woman shopping in a grocery store
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Grocery shopping can feel like an overwhelming undertaking when you must stick to a diabetes-friendly eating plan. You may feel your options are limited (and boring), or that managing meal after meal by following specific guidelines is complicated at most and tiresome at least.

In fact, while it's smart to steer clear of, say, the cookie and candy aisles at the supermarket when you have diabetes, there actually are very few foods you can't safely toss into your cart.

Even so, it can take time to become a pro about what foods can contribute to a healthy diabetes diet. To make it easy, create a list of foods you and your family enjoy and post it on your fridge or enter it into your phone.

To get you started, here are the categories of foods that are key to healthy eating when you have diabetes and why, plus some top choices to put on your grocery list.

Proteins

Although protein is an important macronutrient—essential for building, repairing, and maintaining the cells and tissues in the body—it has little effect on blood sugar levels. In general, most people, including those with type 2 diabetes, should get 15 percent to 20 percent of daily calories from protein—about 5 1/2 ounces of protein-rich food per day, according to the USDA Dietary Guidelines. (An exception would be people who have diabetic nephropathy, a kidney disease that's related to diabetes.)

Put these on the list:

  • Lean cuts of beef and pork
  • Skinless chicken and turkey
  • Fish (ideally at least two servings per week with a focus on those rich in omega-3 fats; see below)
  • Eggs or egg substitutes
  • Tofu

Limit proteins that are high in saturated fat such as bacon, ham, hot dogs, and deli meats.

Non-starchy Vegetables

These are the veggies that won't jack up blood glucose levels or contribute to weight gain. A good rule of thumb when planning meals, especially lunch and dinner, is to devote half the plate to vegetables. Non-starchy vegetables also make for great between-meal snacks, so plan on buying enough fresh or frozen vegetables to meet those needs.

Here are just some of the many non-starchy vegetables to put on the list:

  • Artichokes
  • Asparagus
  • Avocados (technically a fruit but packed with healthy fats and are useful in rounding out a diabetes-friendly meal)
  • Beans
  • Bell peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots (1 baby carrot has about 1 gram of carb)
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Cucumber
  • Eggplant
  • Greens (spinach, kale, collards, etc.)
  • Mushrooms
  • Okra
  • Onions, garlic, scallions, leeks
  • Radishes
  • Snow peas, sugar snap peas
  • Tomatoes
  • Zucchini

Starchy Vegetables

Although starchy vegetables have comparatively higher amounts of carbs and calories than non-starchy ones, as well as a higher glycemic index (meaning they raise blood sugar levels faster), there's plenty of room for them in a diabetes-focused diet. In fact, they should be included, as they tend to be rich in nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber.

The key is to avoid fried versions (as in French fries) and to watch portions: A 1/2-cup serving of a starchy vegetable (cooked) comes to about 15 grams of carbs. If you're using the plate method to measure portions, this is about a quarter of a 9-inch plate.

Some starchy vegetables to include on a grocery list:

  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Corn
  • Green peas
  • Parsnips
  • Pumpkin
  • Potatoes (white and sweet)
  • Winter squash
  • Yams

Fruit

Fruit is naturally sweet, but because of the type of sugar it contains (fructose) and its high fiber content, most have a low glycemic index and can be an easy and nutritious way to satisfy a sweet tooth or round out a meal. Which fruit and how much fruit you include in your daily diet will depend on the approach you're taking to managing your diabetes, but in general, fruit can be eaten in exchange for other sources of carbs such as starches, grains, or dairy.

Fruit Servings Equal to 15 Grams of Carbs

  • One small piece of whole fruit
  • 1/2 cup frozen fruit
  • 1/2 cup canned fruit (packed in natural juice, not syrup)
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup berries or cut-up melon
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup fruit juice
  • 2 Tbsp dried fruit

Top fruit choices to include on your list:

  • Apples, unsweetened applesauce
  • Apricots
  • Banana
  • Berries
  • Cantaloupe and other melon
  • Cherries
  • Dried fruit
  • Fruit cocktail (packed in natural juices)
  • Grapes
  • Kiwi
  • Mango
  • Oranges and other citrus fruits
  • Papaya
  • Peaches and nectarines
  • Pears
  • Pineapples
  • Plums

Healthy Fats

The most important thing to consider when factoring fat into a diabetes-friendly diet is to limit saturated fat, which can cause blood cholesterol levels to soar. However, there are several types of healthy fats that actually help to lower cholesterol and should be included on your list.

  • Avocado
  • Canola oil
  • Almonds, cashews, pecans, peanuts
  • Olives, olive oil, butter-flavored olive-oil spread
  • Peanut butter
  • Peanut oil
  • Sesame seeds

Polyunsaturated fats:

  • Corn oil
  • Cottonseed oil
  • Mayonnaise
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Safflower oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Sunflower seeds, sunflower oil
  • Walnuts

Omega-3 fatty acids:

  • Fatty fish, including albacore tuna, herring, mackerel, rainbow trout, sardines, and salmon
  • Tofu and other soybean products
  • Walnuts
  • Flaxseed and flaxseed oil

Low-fat Dairy

Although dairy foods contain carbs, they also are a prime source of calcium and vitamin D and should be part of a diabetes-friendly diet.

On your grocery list include:

  • Nonfat or low-fat milk
  • Low-fat cottage cheese
  • Plain, unsweetened yogurt
  • Low-sodium cheeses (eaten in small quantities), including mozzarella, Emmental, and neufchatel

Beans and Legumes

The ADA regards beans as a "diabetes superfood: They're rich in vitamins and minerals, and a half cup of beans provides as much protein as an ounce of meat (minus the saturated fat)."

You can buy beans dried and cook them yourself, but canned beans are fine too: Just be sure to rinse them well to remove excess sodium.\

Add any dried or canned beans to your grocery list, including (but not limited to):

Whole Grains

Whole grains are an excellent source of fiber, which can play an important role in metabolizing carbohydrates and lowering cholesterol. They also are rich in magnesium, B vitamins, chromium, iron, and folate.

Put any of these on your list:

  • Barley
  • Brown or wild rice
  • Bulgur
  • Farro
  • Quinoa
  • Millet
  • Whole-grain bread
  • Whole-grain, no-sugar-added cereal
  • Whole-wheat pasta

Diabetes-specific Products

Of course, you may want to consider items made specifically to fit into a diabetes diet. Some possibilities to include on your grocery list include:

  • Alternative sweeteners (to use in place of real sugar in coffee, tea, and recipes)
  • Zero-calorie beverages such as freshly brewed iced tea, diet sodas, and fruit-flavored waters
  • Low-sugar cookies, cakes, or other baked goods—but do keep in mind that despite having no added sugar, such products still contain carbs that can affect blood sugar and should be counted accordingly.

How to Read a Nutrition Facts Label

Learning to interpret nutrition facts labels can be the ticket to finding foods that will fit in with your diet as well as those you should limit or even rule out altogether. Note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration updated the requirements for nutrition facts labels in 2016; by January 1, 2020, all food manufacturers with more than $10 million in yearly sales must display labels that comply with the rules; smaller companies have until January 1, 2021, and those that produce single-ingredient sugars such as honey have until July 1, 2021, to update their labels.

Based on guidelines from the American Diabetes Association (ADA), here's what the fine print means as it pertains to dietary guidelines for diabetes:

  • Serving size. All information about nutrients and so forth on the label is based on this specific number, so if you eat a larger serving of a given food, you'll be getting more of the calories, nutrients, and other ingredients than are listed.
  • Amount per serving. The information on the left side of the label tells you the total of the different nutrients in one serving of the food. Use these numbers to compare labels of similar foods.
  • Calories. If you're trying to lose weight, you'll want to pay special attention to this number: Keeping your total number of calories within a limit that will allow you to burn more than you eat is key to shedding pounds.
  • Total carbohydrate. The number of carbohydrates in a food is a key consideration, especially if you're counting carbs. All carbs are not created equal; fortunately, nutrition facts labels reflect that. Just below the total grams of carbs you'll find a breakdown of how many carbs are from sugar and how many are from fiber. What's more, as part of the FDA's updated labeling rules (described above), total grams of added sugar will be required on labels. This way it will be possible to differentiate between sugar that occurs naturally in foods like yogurt and fruit and sugar that's added during processing to foods like cookies, candy, and soda.
    • Fiber. Fiber is the undigestable part of plant foods. Research shows that increasing the amount of fiber in the diet can help control blood sugar (as well as cholesterol and triglyceride levels). Although the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends women eat a minimum of 25 grams of fiber per day and men eat 38 grams per day, the ADA suggests that people with diabetes could benefit from getting even more—up 40 grams of fiber per day.
    • Total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol. Total fat tells you how much fat is in one serving of the food. This is further broken down into the amount of each type of fat a food contains, allowing you to differentiate between foods rich in healthy fats and those that contain high quantities of unhealthy fats.
    • Sodium. Although sodium does not impact blood sugar, it can affect blood pressure. What's more, most people get more than the recommended 2,300 grams or less. Often you can taste the salt in a particular food, such as bacon, but many contain hidden sodium, which is why it's helpful that nutrition facts labels are required to list how much sodium is in a given food.
      • Ingredients list. These are organized with individual ingredients listed in order by weight in descending order. In other words, the sooner an ingredient appears on the list, the more of it the food contains. It's a good place to look for heart-healthy olive, canola, or peanut oils and whole grains.
      • Percent Daily Values (%DV)? The Percent Daily Value for a given nutrient tells you what percent of that nutrient the food provides if you were on a 2,000 calorie per day diet.
      • Net carbs. This term (and similar ones) have no legal definition from the FDA, nor are they used by the ADA. Rely on the information in the Total Carbs listing and ignore any others.
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