Unhealthy Food Choices For People With Diabetes

Staying healthy when you have diabetes is all about making good decisions. “What should I eat?” is one of the most important. You probably know that carbohydrates (or “carbs”) can affect you. But so can other types of foods. 

Some foods that seem harmless or even healthy can raise your blood sugar or cause inflammation. That’s dangerous if you have diabetes. On the other hand, some foods reduce inflammation and lower your risk for heart disease. Knowing how foods affect you can help you avoid diabetes-related complications. 

This article points out types of foods to avoid if you have diabetes or prediabetes. You’ll learn why these foods are harmful and what you should eat instead. 

Unhealthy Food Choices


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Carbohydrates

Yum! From muffins to Milk Duds, there are a million reasons to love carbs. If you have diabetes, though, you need to follow a low-carb diet because too many carbs can cause blood sugar levels to spike. High blood sugar, known as hyperglycemia, causes immediate and long-term health problems when you have diabetes.

Most people with diabetes learn to count their carbs to be sure they aren’t having too many in one day. When every carb counts, you need to consider what should be avoided. There are two types of carbs: simple and complex.

Simple Carbohydrates (Simple Sugars)

Simple carbohydrates refer to the sugary type. Refined sugars, table sugar, candy, soft drinks, and products with a lot of “added sugar” count as simple sugars. Limit all of these. These sugars are absorbed quickly by the body, which causes a buildup of sugar in the bloodstream.

Usually, the body controls blood sugar by making insulin, a hormone that balances sugar levels. If you have type 2 diabetes, though, you don’t produce enough insulin or the body doesn’t use insulin correctly.

Fresh fruits and vegetables fall into the simple sugars category. But they’re healthier than candy, baked treats, and processed food because they also contain fiber. Fiber slows the absorption of sugars into the blood. This prevents blood sugar from spiking.

Complex Carbohydrates (Starches)

Complex carbohydrates are often in whole grains, rice, breads, cereal, and starchy vegetables. Many of these carbs contain fiber along with vitamins and minerals, so they enter the bloodstream slowly. Like fruit, they’re less likely to raise blood sugar levels too high. 

Unfortunately, not all complex carbs are safe. Some don’t have much fiber or nutrients. White bread and white potatoes, for instance, can still cause problems for blood sugar.

Rather than just saying carbs are simple or complex, doctors give them (and all other foods) a rating. It’s called the glycemic index value. Foods are given a value from 1 to 100. Foods rated 55 or lower are low-glycemic foods, 56-69 are medium, and 70 to 100 are high. Eating low-glycemic level foods helps control type 2 diabetes.

Recap

To limit sugar, choose carbs wisely.

  • Eat fresh fruit instead of sugary snacks.
  • Drink water or coffee and tea without sugar.
  • Instead of white bread, eat whole grains breads and grains, which have low-gylcemic index ratings.

Fats

There are different kinds of fats, and some of them are good for you. Saturated fat and trans fats, though, can cause problems with insulin that lead to high sugar levels.

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats are usually found in meat, butter, milk, cheese, shortening, lard, and cream sauces. There are oils that are also high in saturated fat such as coconut oil and palm oil. Fried foods are typically very high in saturated fats. 

A diet high in saturated fat can lead to insulin resistance. With insulin resistance, your body doesn’t use insulin right. That throws off your blood sugar and causes many of the complications associated with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. 

Foods that are high in saturated fat are often also high in cholesterol. This increases the risk of heart disease, particularly in people with type 2 diabetes.  

Trans Fats

Trans fats are even worse for people with diabetes than saturated fat.

These fats are made when liquid oil is turned into a solid fat—in a chemical process called hydrogenation.

Trans fats are found in foods like:

  • Shortening and stick margarine
  • Pre-packaged snacks (crackers, chips, etc.) 
  • Store-bought baked goods (muffins, cookies, cakes) 
  • Some fast food items such as french fries

Like saturated fat, trans fat can raise blood cholesterol levels. For a heart-healthy diet, eat as little trans fat as possible.

Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fats

Some fats can be part of a healthy diabetes diet. When choosing “good” fat, look for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These increase your cell’s sensitivity to insulin, which means the insulin can do what it’s supposed to and balance your blood sugar.

Sources of monounsaturated fats include:

  • Avocados
  • Olives 
  • Nuts
  • olive oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Canola oil
  • Safflower oil

Sources of polyunsaturated fats include:

  • Oily fish (salmon, tuna, sardines)
  • Chia seeds
  • Flaxseeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Tofu
  • Walnuts
  • Vegetable oil

Recap

To limit unhealthy fat:

  • Check labels on packaged foods. These list the different types of fats.
  • Avoid processed meats like deli cold cuts and packaged sausage. 
  • Swap store-bought baked goods like frozen waffles with homemade multi-grain versions. Use ingredients that have no trans fats.
  • Cook with olive oil instead of butter or stick margarine.
  • Eat freshly grilled or baked meals instead of fried fast food.

Frozen Foods

It’s so convenient to throw something into the oven or microwave for a few minutes, warm it up, and serve. Some of these prepared meals may even seem quite healthy. Frozen chicken doesn’t seem so bad. 

When it’s heavily processed, though, even chicken is a poor choice for people with diabetes.

Food that’s been pre-cooked and sold frozen is often filled with additives and chemicals, which can make it less nutritious. It’s also usually wrapped in breading, which gives it a higher glycemic index and increases the fat content.

One of the biggest drawbacks is the sodium content. Frozen food often contains a large amount of sodium, which comes from added salt. A serving size of three frozen chicken tenders contains 527mg. That’s almost a quarter of the amount of sodium recommended for one day. 

Sodium plays a big role in:

People with diabetes are already at risk for these problems. Too much salt increases the danger.

Loaded Salads and Sandwiches

Sandwiches and salads offer a perfect opportunity to have a balanced lunch. Lean proteins and vegetables with or without whole grain bread make for a quick diabetes-friendly meal. 

Unfortunately, there are some downsides to many American lunches.

Sandwiches

Processed meats are one problem with sandwiches. You can replace deli meat with homemade sliced turkey or chicken, but beware the condiments. Mayonnaise is especially troubling for diabetics.

Mayo is low in carbs, which is good. It's high in fat, but it's mostly unsaturated fat. That's also good. The high calorie content, though, makes it a poor choice for anyone who needs to watch their weight. Most people with diabetes have to be careful about their weight because extra pounds are bad for your heart, and diabetes already puts you at risk for heart disease.

Studies have found that replacing mayonnaise with olive oil could be healthier. The olive oil seems to lower the risk of diabetes, especially in older women. Olive oil doesn’t have the same sticking power as mayo for tuna or egg salad, but if you use a whole wheat wrap or pita pocket, you can enjoy great flavor and a nutritious sandwich.

Salads

Salad bowls also sound healthy. Unfortunately, though, they can be loaded with the common enemies of diabetes: fat, sugar, calories, and salt.

To enjoy a truly healthy salad, avoid restaurant versions. Choose a fresh, homemade salad. To make a diabetes-friendly taco salad, try these changes:

  • Forget the taco shell with its 53 grams of carbohydrates. Go for a traditional salad in a bowl instead.
  • Go light on the cheese. Again, don’t swap full-fat for low-fat since you might end up with more sugar. Just half the amount in your regular recipe.
  • Swap fried meat and beans with grilled or boiled versions.
  • Replace sour cream or dressings with Greek plain yogurt.
  • Leave off any fried toppings. 
  • Add more fresh vegetables and season with chili powder.
  • Don’t leave out the avocado. This powerful fruit (yep, it’s a fruit) helps regulate insulin and reduce belly fat.
4:18

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Sweetened Beverages

Obviously, if you’re cutting back on simple sugar, you might realize that soft drinks and non-fruit juices are bad choices. Drinking these beverages is an easy way to get too much sugar. And too much sugar causes diseases related to diabetes like:

Even seemingly healthy fruit smoothies can be a problem. They, too, often have sugar added to them. You can skip the added sugar. Keep in mind, though, smoothies are still a risk for people with diabetes. Studies show that drinking carbs instead of eating solid food can cause blood sugar to rise dangerously.

Recap

The most diabetes-friendly drinks are:

  • Water with a fresh fruit twist
  • Fresh smoothies with no added sugar
  • Fresh-squeezed juices
  • Unsweetened tea and black coffee

Summary

Being careful about what you eat and managing your weight are both key to enjoying a healthy life. When you have diabetes, they’re even more important. 

Learning to count carbs will help you keep your blood sugar steady. You have to watch your overall health, though, too. Look at food labels for added ingredients, and be sure you aren’t getting too much fat, salt, or calories. 

You may have to give up some old favorites and quick meals. You don’t have to say goodbye to flavor, though. Just think differently about how you can add spices or fresh ingredients to make food nutritious as well as tasty.

A Word From Verywell

Having diabetes can mean making big changes in how and what you eat. It can be overwhelming. Don’t let it discourage you from making a healthy plan, though. Your doctor can offer advice. You may also want to speak with a dietician or get tips from a chef or food expert. 

Today, there are also many new ways to get help planning meals. Some food delivery services even cater to people with diabetes. Take time to learn what you need to do to eat healthy, and you’ll see that food can continue to be pleasurable and wholesome.

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8 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.
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