Healthy Swaps for Eating on a Diabetes Diet

Eat This, Not That Ideas for Common Foods

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It's hard to cut foods out of your diet. But when you know what to eat instead, it's easier to make dietary changes.

These "eat this, not that" ideas will help to create a balanced approach to meals that incorporate more healthy whole foods and fewer additives. Decreasing your intake of unhealthy ingredients could also decrease your risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes

Instead of: Processed and Packaged Foods

Directly Above View Of Chopped Food On Cutting Board
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Eat more: Homemade meals and less processed snack foods.

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: An easy way to start eating more homemade meals is by taking a little time to meal-prep. On a weekend day, make a few proteins that'll keep in the fridge for simple meal assembly when you feel like you're too busy to cook. Try making a half-dozen hardboiled eggs, a pot of beans or a few roasted chicken breasts. You can also cut up fresh veggies like carrots and bell peppers and store them in mason jars for easy snack options—just add hummus.

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

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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 has some 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 familiar with reading labels. Make sure your bread is made of 100 percent whole grains, or ideally even sprouted whole grains, which are easier to digest. Then make other small changes such as swapping white rice for brown rice, cooking steel cut oatmeal rather than rolled-oats oatmeal, and subbing in a lentil pasta, bean pasta or veggie spirals for traditional white pasta.

Instead of: Cookies, Candy, and Chips

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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).

Start here: Instead, snack on healthy carbohydrates plus protein that'll keep blood sugar spikes to a minimum. For example, make your own trail mix with pumpkin seeds, almonds, and dried blueberries, or 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 lightly 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 be sure to cut down on excess oxidized fat, calories, and AGEs. 

Instead of: Highly Processed Meats

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

Processed meats, such as sausage, lunch meats, and bacon are typically very high in sodium and may be high in saturated fat, which may affect your circulatory system and make you susceptible to cardiovascular disease.

Start here: Opt instead for leaner proteins, such as 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

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Eat more: Foods without added salt or added sugars.

When you're buying shelf-stable foods, such as canned beans or fruit, look for items that say no added salt or (in the case of canned fruit) "canned in fruit juice" so as to limit your sodium intake and cut down on added empty calories.

Start here: The best option is to buy fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables rather than canned. That way, you can be certain you're not getting extra sodium or added sugars. In fact, frozen vegetables/fruit are usually flash-frozen as soon as they're picked, actually making them fresher in some cases than their fresh counterparts. Plus, frozen veggies and fruit are often much cheaper.

A Note on Portions

Making healthier, whole-food swaps are a great start when eating for diabetes prevention and management, but 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 especially 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.

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Article Sources

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  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.