Type 2 diabetes is a chronic medical condition that affects the way the body processes glucose (blood sugar). In type 2 diabetes, the body either does not produce enough insulin to regulate blood sugar, or it is resistant to the available insulin. Sometimes, it is also a combination of both.
The symptoms of type 2 diabetes can include excessive hunger and thirst, fatigue, frequent urination, blurred vision, poor wound healing, areas of darkened skin (usually armpits and neck), and numbness and tingling in the hands or feet.
A key factor in managing type 2 diabetes is working with a doctor to make appropriate lifestyle and medication changes to help regulate blood sugar levels. A major change many type 2 diabetes patients must make early on is diet changes. The average American diet includes many foods that can worsen diabetes symptoms.
By maintaining a healthy lifestyle, many people with type 2 diabetes lead fulfilling lives that are not controlled by their condition.
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Maintaining a healthy diet is one of the simplest things to help manage type 2 diabetes other than medications. While it can be difficult, eating healthy is key to reducing the unpleasant symptoms of type 2 diabetes and decreasing the risk of developing other health issues.
Indeed, having diabetes can increase the risk of other health conditions, such as heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), kidney disease, skin conditions, neuropathy (nerve damage), obesity, and more. Eating healthier can help reduce the risk of developing these conditions or improve symptoms in those who already experience them.
A study,¹ for example, found an inverse correlation between the intake of vegetables and type 2 diabetes. It means that the more vegetables and fruits you eat, the lesser your chances are of developing this condition.
Vegetables and fruits are rich in nutrients, fiber, and antioxidants, all of which are considered protective barriers against diseases.
A diet rich in fiber, especially cereal fiber, may also reduce diabetes risk. Studies demonstrated an inverse association between fiber from cereal products and type 2 diabetes risk. Compared to cereal fiber, fiber from fruits had a weaker inverse association with diabetes risk.
One of the main reasons most people eat unhealthy foods is out of convenience, especially when having a busy lifestyle prevents most of us from spending hours cooking healthy meals. Adding a day of grocery shopping and meal prepping is an easy way to encourage healthy eating by making healthy food choices just as convenient to eat as unhealthy ones.
There are several foods that should be avoided to maintain a healthy lifestyle with type 2 diabetes. These foods can worsen symptoms and contribute to other health problems like obesity and heart disease. They can also increase the risk of developing cancer.
As much as possible, keep the following foods out of your home.
Processed foods are foods that have been altered during preparation to make them have more flavor, be more convenient to eat, or make them last longer.
Technically, any pre-prepared food is processed, but heavily processed foods like chips and microwaveable dinners, among others, have negative health effects. They have been chemically altered with artificial flavors and colors, additives, preservatives, and other ingredients.
The majority of processed foods can be detrimental to health, especially in those with type 2 diabetes. While their taste is enhanced, the reason behind their delicious flavors is unhealthy and can worsen diabetes symptoms.
Processed foods are high in sugar and unhealthy fats, which can lead to sudden and high spikes of glucose levels in the blood. They contain large amounts of salt/sodium, which increases the risk of developing or worsening hypertension, a condition that often coexists with diabetes. Finally, processed foods are also greatly associated with an increased risk of developing cancer.
It is important to be health-conscious when shopping, especially when considering processed foods. Some examples of heavily processed foods that should be avoided include:
Boxed macaroni and cheese
Bakery products (muffins, cake, cookies, etc.)
Processed meats (sausages, deli meats, etc.)
Chocolate and other candies
It is important to pay attention to nutrition labels when shopping for processed foods. Some things to look for include sugar and salt contents, trans fats, artificial flavorings and colorings, preservatives, and other additives.
Oily or greasy foods should be severely limited in a type 2 diabetes diet. If a food has been fried or cooked in excess oil, it is considered greasy and should only be consumed sparingly.
Greasy foods tend to be high in calories, fat, salt, and refined carbs. These foods are generally considered “empty calories” because they are high in calories while lacking fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Oily foods can worsen type 2 diabetes and can contribute to other health issues, such as heart disease.
Foods that are high in oils that should be avoided as part of a healthy diet include:
French fries, onion rings, and other similarly fried foods
Oily foods are often found in fast-food restaurants but can also be made at home and in higher-end restaurants. Avoiding fast food can be a great start toward reducing oily food intake, but it is only one step toward a healthy diet.
Unlike other dietary fats, trans fats like vegetable shortening, fried foods, and partially hydrogenated oils should be avoided as part of a healthy diet whenever possible. Too many trans fats can increase the risk of heart disease and blood vessel disease, even in those without type 2 diabetes.
Trans fats raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, also known as “bad” cholesterol, which can build up in the artery walls and increase the risk of heart disease.
Trans fats also lower levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, known as “good” cholesterol, which helps the body by picking up excess cholesterol and taking it to the liver.
Trans fats can be found in a variety of processed foods. Partially hydrogenated oil, a manufactured form of trans fat, is found in many processed food products, including:
Commercially baked goods (cakes, pies, cookies, etc.)
Bagged microwaved popcorn
Fried foods (French fries, donuts, fried chicken, etc.)
Nondairy coffee creamer
When it comes to the naturally occurring trans fats in meat and dairy, however, more research is needed to determine their full impact on the body. However, as a diabetic, it is better to be cautious and limit your consumption of red meat and dairy.
In addition to avoiding heavily processed foods, excess oil, and trans fats, there are other foods that those with type 2 diabetes should greatly reduce consumption of in their diets. These include:
Limit your consumption of fatty cuts of pork, beef, lamb, dark meat chicken, and poultry skin. High-fat meats can raise cholesterol and inflammation, worsening the vascular issues associated with high blood sugar levels and increasing the risk of heart disease.
Consumption of candies, baked goods, chocolate, cakes, ice creams, and other desserts should be limited or avoided altogether, especially if you have type 2 diabetes.
These foods have a high amount of sugar, which can make it more difficult to regulate blood sugar levels. These also negatively impact your insulin production/function and potentially cause dangerous levels of hyperglycemia. Sweets are really high in calories as well, so consuming too much can increase your risk of developing obesity.
Sugar, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, and molasses, among others, should be consumed in moderation. These are all forms of sugar that can affect blood sugar levels.
Generally speaking, those with type 2 diabetes should avoid sugary drinks whenever possible. These drinks can be high in calories and surprisingly high in sugar.
A single soda, for example, can easily have 40 grams of sugar. Fruit juices, sweetened teas, and coffee beverages can also have high amounts of hidden sugar.
Because these drinks are so easy to consume, it takes little to no effort to overconsume sugar while having one of these beverages. Switching to diet or “zero sugar” beverages can be a quick fix, but the artificial sweeteners these drinks contain are also unhealthy.
Ideally, switching to just drinking water, lemon water, or the green juices of low glycemic vegetables is best for a healthy diet with type 2 diabetes.
In addition to knowing the type 2 diabetes foods to avoid, there are a few other things as well that you should keep in mind when creating a healthy diet plan.
Maintaining a healthy diet can be difficult at first, but diet plans for type 2 diabetes are much more diverse and delicious than they may seem at first glance.
According to the CDC,² individuals with diabetes should aim to get about half their calories from carbohydrates. Ideally, this means eating about the same amount of carbs for every meal in order to keep blood sugar levels steady.
Not all carbs are created equal, however, so pay attention to the type of carbs being consumed. There are three types of carbs:
Sugars: Includes both natural sugars (such as in fruits) and added sugars (in baked goods, sodas, etc.)
Starches: Items like grains (wheat, oats, etc.), starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, etc.), dried beans, lentils, and peas.
Fiber: Parts of plant foods that are not digested, but are an important part of digestive health, often found in vegetables and fruits.
Both sugars and starches raise blood sugar levels, which is why it is important for those with type 2 diabetes to pay attention to the number of carbs they consume every time they eat. Properly balancing carb intake helps keep blood sugar levels stable.
Eating too many carbs in one sitting can cause a spike in blood sugar. Avoiding blood sugar spikes when possible allows the body to lower blood sugar more effectively, preventing type 2 diabetes symptoms from worsening.
While it may seem that having type 2 diabetes limits food choices, people with diabetes can still eat a wide range of food groups and meals. In fact, eating a variety of foods is part of a healthy diet.
Here are some foods from the major food groups that are recommended by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Issues.³
It is important to eat both starchy and non-starchy vegetables. Remember that starchy vegetables will count as part of the total carb intake for a meal, so they are better consumed in small portions. Some examples of healthy vegetables include:
Starchy: Potatoes, sweet potato, and green peas
Non-starchy: Broccoli, carrots, peppers, leafy greens, and tomatoes
U.S. Dietary Guidelines⁴ recommend two cups of fruit per adult every day. Even though fruits have natural sugars, it is still recommended for those with diabetes to consume the recommended amount, as long as they are mindful of the amount of sugar they are consuming.
It is recommended that at least half the total grains consumed in a day should be from whole grains, such as wheat, rice (preferably brown), oats, cornmeal, barley, and quinoa. It is better to limit processed grains, for example, pasta, bread, cereals, and tortillas, among others.
Proteins are important to stay healthy because they have amino acids, which are essential to build and repair muscles and bones and make enzymes and hormones.
Examples of healthy protein sources for type 2 diabetes include lean meats, chicken and turkey without the skin, fish, eggs, nuts, dried beans, and meat substitutes such as tofu.
Studies⁵ have found that consuming more unsaturated fats in place of either carbohydrates or saturated fats will help improve blood glucose control. These fats are found in avocados, seeds, nuts, olives, and fish such as salmon and tuna.
Having dairy products in moderation can be an important part of a healthy diet. In fact, unlike previously thought, some research⁶ has suggested that including some full-fat dairy products in meals may be able to improve symptoms of diabetes.
It is thought that either the dairy fatty acids themselves or other correlated factors in dairy fat, such as short- and medium-chain saturated fats, omega 3, and vitamin D, could reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
It is still important to discuss dairy intake with a registered dietician or doctor, as they can carefully assess the amount you can consume based on your overall health condition and weight.
Creating a healthy meal for type 2 diabetes is easier than it sounds. The CDC recommends following the plate method.⁷
Using a 9-inch dinner plate, fill half with non-starchy vegetables, a quarter with carbs, and a quarter with protein foods. Pair this with a low-calorie drink or water. Make sure to keep track of serving sizes, as it may not be necessary to fill the entire plate.
This method gives a starting point for creating a meal that is well-balanced, carb- and sugar-wise. The plate method is great for building dinner menus but does not include fruits, nuts, and dairy, so these will need to be supplemented elsewhere.
An example menu for a single day might look something like this:
Breakfast: Oats (grain), milk (dairy), berries (fruit), chopped walnuts (protein)
Lunch: A whole wheat sandwich with turkey or chicken and cheese (grain, protein, dairy), baby carrots and celery (non-starchy vegetables), blueberries (fruit), Greek yogurt (dairy)
Dinner: Baked salmon (protein+ fat), brown rice (grain), steamed broccoli (vegetable)
The exact serving sizes depend on a number of factors such as weight and gender. Talking with a dietician can help determine what size servings are right for you.
Those who are having trouble managing type 2 diabetes may benefit from working with a dietician on creating a healthy diet plan to reduce unpleasant symptoms. It may take multiple appointments to learn about eating habits and blood sugar levels and create sustainable meal plans.
Ideally, those with type 2 diabetes should try to see a dietician once a year to discuss eating habits and how certain foods affect blood sugar levels, even if their symptoms are not affecting their day-to-day life.
It is important to start working on managing type 2 diabetes early, as an unhealthy lifestyle may not seem to be worsening symptoms now, but it can definitely affect you much later. Early lifestyle and diet changes can go a long way toward improving outcomes and reducing unwanted symptoms.
Type 2 diabetes can cause uncontrollably high blood sugar levels due to the body being unable to produce enough insulin or becoming insulin resistant. This leads to an array of unpleasant and sometimes painful symptoms and increases the chance of heart disease and other health conditions.
The good news is, type 2 diabetes can be managed with lifestyle changes and medication. One of the most effective ways to manage it is through a healthy diet.
Some examples of type 2 diabetes foods to avoid include heavily processed foods, greasy foods, and trans fats. You should also avoid high sugar intake to prevent blood sugar spikes and limit fatty meats and full-fat dairy.
A healthy diet for someone with type 2 diabetes includes tracking carb intake, balancing starchy and non-starchy vegetables, eating fruit, getting enough whole grains, obtaining protein from lean meats, and consuming healthy fats and dairy products in moderation. There are a variety of meals that those with type 2 diabetes can eat, so maintaining a healthy diet does not have to be boring.
With lifestyle changes and a more mindful approach to healthy eating, you can live a meaningful life even with type 2 diabetes.
Carb counting | Center for Disease Control and Presentation
Diabetes diet, eating, & physical activity | National Institute of Health
Make every bite count with the dietary guidelines | Dietary Guidelines for Americans
Effects of saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat, and carbohydrate on glucose-insulin homeostasis: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled feeding trials (2016)
Diabetes meal planning | Center for Disease Control and Presentation
Type 2 diabetes | Center for Disease Control and Presentation