Healthy Swaps for Eating on a Diabetes Diet

One of the most difficult things about living with prediabetes or diabetes is having to eliminate foods you love. Knowing about alternatives that are just as tasty and satisfying can make it easier to stick to a diabetes-friendly diet.

A young woman carries a shopping basket filled with fresh produce
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Swapping healthier foods for those that can exacerbate diabetes symptoms is an important part of keeping blood glucose levels steady as well. It can also help you lose weight if you need too and, if you've been diagnosed with prediabetes, decrease your risk of type 2 diabetes


Watch Now: 7 Ways to Eat Healthy on a Diabetes Diet

Instead of: Processed and Packaged Foods

Directly Above View Of Chopped Food On Cutting Board
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Eat more: Homemade meals and snacks

Processed, prepared, and​ packaged foods are often loaded with sodium, added sugars, and preservatives that may be detrimental to your health goals. When you cook for yourself, you can control exactly what goes into the food you eat.

Start here: Set aside time to prep ingredients for multiple meals to come. On a weekend day, cook a few proteins that'll keep in the fridge for simple meal assembly when you feel like you're too busy to cook—a half-dozen hardboiled eggs, a pot of beans, a few roasted chicken breasts. You can also cut up fresh veggies like carrots and bell peppers and store them in mason jars to toss into salads or dip into hummus.

Instead of: Refined Carbs Such as White Breads, Pasta, Rice, and Crackers

Slicing bread for breakfast
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Eat more: Whole grains and whole-grain breads, pasta alternatives, and seed crackers

Refined grains, such as those used to make white flour, have been stripped of the bran and germ—the two healthiest parts of grain. The bran delivers fiber, while the germ offers fatty acids and vitamins. 

Whole grains, on the other hand, keep the entire grain intact. Because they have more fiber, they take longer for your body to digest and can help keep your blood sugar in check.

Start here: Get into the habit of reading labels. Look for bread made from 100% whole grains, or ideally, sprouted whole grains, which are easier to digest. Make small changes such as swapping white rice for brown, steel cut oatmeal for rolled-oats , and lentil pasta, bean pasta, or veggie spirals for traditional white pasta.

Instead of: Cookies, Candy, and Chips

Assorted whole nuts in sack
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Eat more: Low-sugar snacks such as berries, nuts, seeds, and vegetables, paired with protein

Cookies, candies, ​and chips are tempting and convenient, but they provide empty calories and carbohydrates that your body doesn't need. Plus, they rarely satisfy hunger, so adding in a healthy source of protein can give between-meal snacks more staying power. 

Start here: Make your own trail mix with pumpkin seeds, almonds, and dried blueberries, pair string cheese with a handful of cherry tomatoes, or slice an apple and serve with nut butter.

Instead of: Fried Foods

Grilled meats and vegetables
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Eat more: Foods cooked with healthy fats

Deep-fried foods are super high in calories and fat, and are a significant source of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which form during very high-heat cooking and act as harmful inflammatory compounds in the body. AGEs have been linked to the development of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Start here: More vitamins and minerals are maintained in foods and AGE production is minimized when foods are cooked over low, moist heat and for shorter periods. Whether you're cooking at home or eating out, choose appetizers and proteins that have been sautéed, broiled, roasted, grilled, or baked rather than fried. By limiting fried foods, you'll cut down on excess oxidized fat, calories, and AGEs.

Instead of: Highly Processed Meats

Grilled Halibut with Spinach, leeks and Pine Nuts

Eat more: Fresh or frozen lean meat, fish, and plant proteins such as beans and tofu

Processed meats, such as sausage, lunch meats, and bacon are typically very high in sodium and, often, saturated fat, both of which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Start here: Opt lean proteins—cuts of meat that have been trimmed of fat, skinless poultry, and fish. Also consider vegetarian protein sources, such as lentils, beans, and tofu, which have lots of fiber, are relatively cheap and easy to prepare, and can be worked into dishes from any style cuisine.

Instead of: Canned Foods With Added Sodium and Sugar

Woman holding basket with vegetables in farm shop
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Eat more: Foods without added salt or added sugars

Shelf-stable beans, vegetables, and soups often are brimming with sodium. Canned fruit have a similar problem in the form of added sugar or other sweeteners.

Start here: The best option is to buy fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables rather than canned. In fact, frozen produce usually is flash-frozen as soon as it's harvested, which in some cases preserves nutrients more fully and efficiently than fruits and veggies purchased fresh but not eaten right away. Stock your pantry with canned goods that have little or no added sodium, sugar, and preservatives.

A Note on Portions

Besides choosing healthier foods in order to manage and prevent diabetes, it's important that you also keep an eye on your portions. Pay attention to the serving sizes listed in the Nutrition Facts labels on packaged products and keep track of your carbohydrate/sugar intake.

Work with your care provider, nutritionist/dietitian, or certified diabetes educator to determine your personalized daily recommendations for carbs, fat, and protein, then stick to those goals for optimal blood sugar balance.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Heart Association. Can processed foods be part of a healthy diet?

  2. Kaiser Permanente. Balancing carbs, protein, and fat.

  3. Uribarri J, Woodruff S, Goodman S, et al. Advanced glycation end products in foods and a practical guide to their reduction in the dietJ Am Diet Assoc. 2010;110(6):911–16.e12. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2010.03.018

  4. American Heart Association. Saturated fat.

By Stacey Hugues
Stacey Hugues, RD is a registered dietitian and nutrition coach who works as a neonatal dietitian at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.