More than 11% of Americans have diabetes, which occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin to regulate blood sugar levels.
As a nutritionist who has been living with type 1 diabetes for more than 30 years, I’ve found that having diabetes doesn’t mean you have to completely stop eating what you enjoy. Managing blood sugar is often more about making small food swaps, or adding, rather than eliminating, certain foods.
For example, you can still eat carbs, but you also need to add protein, a small amount of healthy fats and plenty of fiber. Protein, fat and fiber all moderate how quickly food is digested, which is helpful in balancing blood sugar levels.
Here are the foods I eat — and the foods I try to cut back on — to help manage my diabetes:
1. Bean-based or vegetable pasta
Wheat-based pasta is mostly carbohydrates, and it can lead to a blood sugar spike if eaten in large portions on its own.
Instead, I’ll opt for bean-based pasta or a vegetable pasta. Turning vegetables (eg, carrots, zucchini and sweet potatoes) into noodles using a spiralizer is a great way to increase your fiber and vitamin intake.
If you do choose to eat traditional pasta, whether it’s gluten-free or wheat-based, be sure to add lots of protein and fiber to your dish. I recommend poultry, fatty fish like salmon and beans, and vegetables like kale, peppers, onions and broccoli.
2. Riced broccoli, zucchini or chickpeas
As a substitute for grain rice, try riced broccoli, mushrooms, zucchini, chickpeas or cauliflower. These are fiber-rich and gentle on blood sugar.
Brown rice is a common substitute for white rice in diabetes diet plans, but the carbohydrate amounts in both are actually pretty similar. And the small amount of additional fiber you get from brown rice isn’t typically enough to have a significant impact on blood sugar levels.
So, just as with pasta, when you want to enjoy some rice, just be mindful of your portion size and pile on the protein, fat and fiber (eg, from nuts, veggies, fish, or beans).
3. Almond, coconut or oat flour
Instead of using traditional flour when baking or cooking, I’ll opt for blood sugar-friendly flour made from almonds, coconuts or oats.
One of my favorite tricks is to use a blend of almond flour and oat flour. The resulting flour is lower in carbohydrates and higher in fiber and protein than wheat flour.
And it’s equally tasty: This chocolate chip almond butter breakfast bars recipe is delicious!
4. Breakfast cereals with protein and fiber
Breakfast cereals can do a number on your blood sugar if you’re not careful. Instead of choosing cereals with large amounts of added sugars, choose brands that have more fiber and protein.
My recommendation for a high-fiber, low-sugar option: bran flakes. With about five grams of fiber per serving, this type of cereal contains 19 grams of net carbs per 3/4th cup serving, making it lower in carbohydrates than many breakfast cereals.
A bonus: The added fiber is beneficial to digestive health, heart health and weight management.
5. Low-in-sugar fruit
Many people with diabetes are told they should avoid fruit. But there’s often no reason to eliminate entire food groups, especially something as nutritious and tasty as fruit.
I always go for fruits low in sugar, such as berries, kiwi, melon and citrus. Watermelon is great, too, if consumed in moderation. One cup of diced watermelon has less than 10 grams of sugar.
If you want to eat fruits that are higher in sugar like bananas or mangos, enjoy them with a source of protein, like peanut butter, cheese or plain yogurt.
Mary Ellen Phipps is a registered dietitian, nutritionist and founder of Milk and Honey Nutrition. She is also the author of “The Easy Diabetes Desserts Cookbook: Blood Sugar-Friendly Versions of Your Favorite Treats,” and a writer for HealthDay. Follow her on TikTok and instagram.