The Best Lunches for Diabetes

Quinoa salad
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Lunch is a meal that many people struggle with because they are often rushed, eating at their desk, or just too overwhelmed by all the options. It's all too easy to grab a sandwich or slice of pizza to eat on the run—and then get on with your day. But if you have diabetes, it's especially important to monitor your carbohydrate intake, as well as making sure you're filling your plate with colorful veggies and heart-healthy fats.

Eating a healthy lunch is helpful for diabetes management, as good nutrition is key to keeping blood sugar under control.

Follow this guide to creating a healthy diabetes-friendly lunch.

Know Your Macronutrient Ratio

The main components of any meal are called macronutrients, consisting of protein, fat, and carbohydrates, which all provide your body with energy. For diabetes management, it can be helpful to reduce your carbohydrate intake to decrease potential blood sugar spikes.

Work with a nutritionist or certified diabetes educator to determine your personal ratio for each macronutrient, as it will vary depending on your age, sex, activity level, blood glucose control, and medication regimen.

Generally, the American Diabetes Association recommends keeping protein intake around 20% of daily calories, fat to 20-35% of daily calories, and carbohydrates to around 45%-60% of daily calories.

It's important to recognize that not all macronutrients are created equal. Highly processed foods often found in traditional lunches such as lunchmeats, white bread, canned soups, and sugary yogurts are low in nutrient density, which means they're filling but not as functional (read: chock full of vitamins and minerals) as a whole, unrefined foods like whole grains and leafy greens.

For more on what to look for within each macronutrient category, read on.

Carbohydrates

When planning a diabetes-friendly lunch, look for high-quality carbs that are rich in fiber to slow down any potential blood sugar spikes. Most nutritionists recommend that people with diabetes consume 35g of fiber per day, which is well over the daily recommended intake of 25g.

Forgo the lunch sub roll or sandwich bread in favor of fiber-rich foods, such as sweet potatoes, quinoa, brown rice, oats, and whole grains, which are all considered "complex carbs." These slow-burning foods take longer to break down and be metabolized due to their complex starch structure, meaning they won't flood your bloodstream with glucose all at once.

Keep carb portions in check by using your hands as visual cues. Grain portions should range from 1/2 cup to 1 cup, depending on your personal dietary needs, and should approximately fit in either one cupped hand (about 1/2 cup) or two cupped hands (for 1 cup).

A quinoa bowl with black beans, a kale-stuffed sweet potato or a savory oatmeal bowl with eggs and greens are both great options that'll keep your blood sugar balanced.

Protein

Lean protein, such as fish, chicken, turkey, eggs, beans, tofu, and nuts and seeds are your best bets for a balanced lunch. If you're out to eat, look for grilled chicken- or fish-topped salads, or head to a vegetarian-friendly restaurant where you can choose beans or tofu as your main protein.

Portions of lean protein should be around the 3-6 ounce mark. For reference, 3 ounces of protein looks equivalent to the approximate size of your open palm or a deck of cards.

Try a vegetable omelet with a side salad, a chickpea stew, or a strawberry chicken salad as healthy, protein-packed options.

Fat

Used to getting a bad rap, fat is essential for hormone production, heart and brain function, fat-soluble vitamin absorption, and for the structural integrity of every cellular membrane in your body. A diet rich in plant-based fats such as avocado, olives, and nuts may also help balance cholesterol.

On the other hand, processed foods containing trans fats (sometimes found in shelf-stable baked goods) and high amounts of saturated fats (found in animal products and whole-milk dairy and heavily processed foods such as hot dogs) can be more of a hindrance than helpful if you're dealing with diabetes, due to the stress they put on the cardiovascular system. Avoid or limit these foods and instead choose low-fat dairy, fish, lean meats, and foods found closest to their natural state.

Keep portions in mind: a serving of fats such as olive oil or butter is usually one teaspoon and is approximately visually equal to the top section of your thumb.

Fish is a great option for a healthy fat source. The American Diabetes Association recommends consuming fatty fish such as salmon, anchovies, mackerel, and sardines an average of twice per week, and lunch is a great time to work in salmon burgers, salmon cakes with dill aioli, or a Caesar salad topped with anchovies.

Four Components of a Diabetes-Friendly Meal

Employing a mental checklist is a smart way to make sure you're staying mindful of what's actually on your plate. This tool can be useful both when you're making lunch at home or deciding what to eat at a restaurant.

Keep a list in your head of the four main components of a diabetes-friendly meal (the three macronutrients + veggies):

  1. Fiber, like oats, whole wheat, brown rice, quinoa
  2. Lean protein, like chicken, turkey, eggs, fish, beans, or tofu
  3. Healthy fats, like olive oil, avocado, grass-fed butter
  4. Vegetables, especially dark leafy greens

All too often we resort to just checking two of the boxes, but the real benefits roll in when we can get all four.

Meal Prep

Setting aside time to prepare ahead for your meals is one easy way to make sure you'll always have healthy lunch options at hand. Carve out time on weekends for recipe planning, a grocery trip, and just one or two hours of cooking. Here are a few meal prepping techniques to try:

  1. Fire up your oven: Roast a baking sheet tray of veggies such as broccoli, red onions, and Brussels sprouts, simply tossed in olive oil and salt and pepper. Then, add in a second tray with protein for the week, such as salmon fillets or chicken thighs.
  2. Stir up a sauce or two: Having sauces and dressings waiting for you in the fridge can help you make a meal out of anything. Try a tahini cilantro sauce or lemony salad dressing.
  3. Go for the grains: Making a big pot of brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, or other grain can serve as a great meal base for three to five days. Just top with some greens and protein and you've got a meal. Switch up your grains each week for variety.
  4. Make and freeze: Cooking tonight? Make extra and freeze the leftovers for lunch next week. Bean and chicken burritos and lentil soups often hold up well.
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Article Sources

  • American Heart Association. Fish and Omega 3 Fatty Acids.