Making a few key changes to your diet—more produce, lean protein, and “good” fat; fewer refined carbohydrates—helps improve blood-sugar control and cuts the risk of diabetes-related complications. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that one or two or even five foods on this list will transform you. You need most of them—yes, even the flaxseed—because together they represent a new approach to eating, a lifestyle rather than a diet.
Apples are naturally low in calories, yet their high fiber content (4 grams) fills you up, battles bad cholesterol, and blunts blood-sugar swings. Eat them whole and unpeeled for the greatest benefit, or make a quick “baked” apple. After washing and chopping one apple, put it in a bowl with a dusting of cinnamon and microwave until soft (about 4 minutes). Enjoy with yogurt and oat bran sprinkles for a nutritious dessert, or serve over oatmeal for breakfast.
Rich, creamy, and packed with beneficial monounsaturated fat, avocado slows digestion and helps keep blood sugar from spiking after a meal. A diet high in good fats may help reverse insulin resistance, which translates to steadier blood sugar long-term. Use mashed avocado on sandwiches in place of mayonnaise or on bread instead of butter. To keep what’s left over from turning brown, spritz the flesh with cooking spray or coat with lemon juice and wrap in plastic.
Choosing this grain instead of white rice can reduce the rise in blood sugar after a meal by almost 70 percent—and keep your blood sugar steadier for hours. That’s because the soluble fiber and other compounds in barley dramatically slow the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates. Add barley to soups, serve it as a side dish, or make it the basis for a stir-fry or casserole. Pearled, hulled, or quick-cooking varieties are all crackling good choices.
When menu planning, think “bean cuisine” at least twice a week. The soluble fiber in all types of beans (from chickpeas to kidney beans to edamame) puts a lid on high blood sugar. Because they’re rich in protein, beans can stand in for meat in main dishes. Just watch the sodium content (always rinse canned beans before using).
Beef is diabetes friendly, as long as you choose the leanest cuts and keep portions to one-fourth your plate. Getting enough protein at mealtime keeps you full and satisfied. Plus, it helps maintain muscle mass when you’re losing weight, which can help fortify your metabolism. The skinniest beef cuts are eye of round, inside round, ground round, tenderloin, sirloin, flank steak, and filet mignon. To lean up other cuts, put them in the freezer for 20 minutes. This hardens the meat so it’s easier to slice off the fat. Lean cuts can be tenderized and made more flavorful by marinating in any mixture that contains vinegar, wine, or citrus juice. The acid softens them up.
Think of them as nature’s M&Ms: sweet, convenient, colorful, and satisfying. Berries are full of fiber and antioxidants. The red and blue varieties also contain natural plant compounds called anthocyanins. Scientists believe these may help lower blood sugar by boosting insulin production. Put some in an easy-to-grab location or freeze a handful to suck on or use as ice cubes.
If you’re making that face, you just haven’t tried a tasty version yet. Broccoli is filling, fibrous, and full of antioxidants (including a day’s worth of vitamin C in one serving). It’s also rich in chromium, which plays an important role in long-term blood sugar control. If you don’t already love it, either “hide” it in soups, pasta dishes, and casseroles, or sauté it with garlic, soy sauce, and mustard, or dark sesame oil (or any combination thereof) for a taste you’ll fall for.
Don’t believe what you hear about carrots rapidly raising blood sugar. While the type of sugar carrots contain is transformed into blood sugar quickly, the amount of sugar in carrots is extremely low. That’s good news because carrots are one of nature’s richest sources of beta-carotene, which is linked to a lower risk of diabetes and better blood-sugar control. Sick of raw sticks? Make some “fries” by slicing carrots into thin strips, scattering on a baking sheet, and flavoring with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast at 400°F (200°C) for 40 minutes.
9. Chicken or turkey
These meats can be high-fat calorie bombs or perfectly healthy fare. It all depends on the cut and preparation. Breast meat, whether ground or whole, is always lower in fat than dark meat such as thighs and drumsticks. Never eat the skin because of its high saturated fat content. When buying ground turkey, make sure the package says ground turkey breast. No time to cook? Pick up a rotisserie chicken.
Eggs are another excellent, inexpensive source of high-quality protein. An egg or two won’t raise your cholesterol, and will keep you feeling full and satisfied for hours afterward. Such a magic food deserves a little sleight of hand in its preparation. To flip an egg, spritz the skillet with cooking spray, wait for the egg white to bubble and, in one continuous motion, slide the pan quickly toward you and then forward with a slight upward flick of the wrist. Bow to your guests.
The single deadliest complications of diabetes is heart disease, and eating fish just once a week can reduce your risk by 40 percent, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study. The fatty acids in fish reduce inflammation in the body—a major contributor to coronary disease—as well as insulin resistance and diabetes. And unless you’re pregnant, don’t worry too much about potential chemical contaminants. An exhaustive review of the scientific literature on fish and human health by Harvard researchers led to the conclusion that eating it far outweighs any accompanying risks.
These shiny brown seeds hit the diabetes trifecta: They’re rich in protein, fiber, and good fats similar to the kind found in fish. They’re also a source of magnesium, a mineral that’s key to blood-sugar control because it helps cells use insulin. Ground flaxseed spoils quickly, so buy whole seeds in bulk, keep in the fridge, and grind as needed. Sprinkle on cereal, yogurt, or ice cream or blend into meat loaf, meatballs, burgers, pancakes, and breads. It works in just about anything—including bird feeders.
13. Milk and yogurt
Both are rich in protein and calcium, which studies show may help people lose weight. And diets that include plenty of dairy may fight insulin resistance, a core problem behind diabetes. Go low-fat or fat-free, though. If you don’t like the taste of skim milk, try 1 percent. It’s a little thicker and creamier than skim. Reduced-fat Greek-style yogurt tends to taste richer because of how it’s made. Drizzle with honey and imagine you’re breakfasting on Santorini.
Because of their high fiber and protein content, nuts are “slow-burning” foods that are friendly to blood sugar. And even though they contain a lot of fat, it’s the healthful monounsaturated kind. Roasting really brings out the flavor of nuts and makes them a great addition to fall soups and entrés. Spread shelled nuts on a cooking sheet and bake at 300°F for 7 to 10 minutes.
Like nuts, seeds of all types—pumpkin, sunflower, sesame—are filled with good fats, protein, and fiber that work together to keep blood sugar low and stave off heart disease. They’re also a natural source of cholesterol-lowering sterols, the same compounds added to some cholesterol-lowering margarine. Fill an empty Altoids mint tin with your favorite unsalted seeds and stash it in your purse or pocket in case of snack emergencies. Or tell the waiter to hold the croutons on your Caesar and substitute pumpkin or sunflower seeds.
Oatmeal is loaded with soluble fiber which, when mixed with water, forms a paste. Just as it sticks to your bowl, it also forms a gummy barrier between the digestive enzymes in your stomach and the starch molecules in your meal. So it takes longer for your body to convert the carbs you’ve eaten into blood sugar. Not a fan of oatmeal in the morning? Buy oat flour and use it as a thickener in autumn stews, casseroles, and soups. Or add ground oatmeal (not the instant kind) to muffin, pancake, or waffle batters. You won’t even know it’s there.
17. Olive oil
This stuff is liquid gold. In fact, it contains an anti-inflammatory component so strong that researchers liken it to aspirin. This may be one reason why people who follow a Mediterranean diet—a traditional way of eating that emphasizes olive oil along with produce, whole grains, and lean meat—have such low rates of heart disease and diabetes, both of which are linked with inflammation. A touch of olive oil also slows digestion, so your meal is less likely to spike your glucose. Dribble it on salads, baked potatoes, pasta…just about anything.
18. Peanut butter
One study found that eating peanut butter dampens the appetite for up to 2 hours longer than a low-fiber, high-carb snack, making this childhood favorite a grown-up weight-loss ally. The monounsaturated fats in PB also help control blood sugar. Looking for a new way to enjoy it? Try raw or steamed veggies with this peanut dip: Bring 2/3 cup water to boil in a saucepan, stir in 1/3 cup creamy PB, 1 clove minced garlic, 2 teaspoons fresh-grated ginger, 2 medium chopped scallions, 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, and a dash of chili powder. Simmer 2 minutes, remove from heat, and stir in 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. Wait until it cools, then start dipping!
19. Whole-grain bread
If you eat a lot of white bread (and this includes bagels), switching to whole grain may improve your sensitivity to insulin. In one study of nearly 1,000 men and women, the higher their intake of whole grains, the greater their insulin sensitivity and blood-sugar stability. Don’t mistake any old brown bread, or even kinds labeled “multigrain” for whole grain. If it doesn’t have the word “whole” in the first ingredient, don’t buy it. And look for the coarsest bread you can find; the coarseness will slow digestion.
20. Sweet potatoes
Choose a baked sweet potato instead of a baked white potato, and your blood sugar will rise about 30 percent less after your meal. Sweet potatoes are packed with nutrients and disease-fighting fiber, almost 40 percent of which is the soluble kind that lowers cholesterol and slows digestion. They’re also extra rich in carotenoids, orange and yellow pigments that play a role in helping the body respond to insulin. Plus, they’re full of the natural plant compound chlorogenic acid, which may help reduce insulin resistance.