Is It Necessary or Needless to Follow a Diabetic Diet?

By Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDE

Is there a diabetic diet? The answer is no. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA) – and this has been true since 1994, nearly 20 years – there is no one diabetic diet that represents the prescription for the way all people with diabetes should eat.

Eating Plans for People Living with Diabetes Today

Are there diabetic foods that people with diabetes should buy? The answer again is no. Foods labeled “diabetic” or “diabetic-friendly” carry a halo of being better-for-you than unprocessed, unadulterated and unlabeled foods. But, it’s just not so.

The ADA’s nutrition recommendations, last updated in 2008, echo the healthy eating recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, last revised in 2010. These recommendations reflect the growing body of evidence that a plant-based eating plan can help people achieve and maintain a healthy body weight and prevent or manage chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.

Translated and simply stated, here are the basics of a healthy eating plan to manage diabetes:

Eat about half your calories from nutrient-dense carbohydrate-rich foods
That’s whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low or no-fat dairy foods. There is very little solid science to support the notion that people with diabetes should limit the amount of carbohydrates they eat. In fact, there’s plenty of science to indicate the converse. That is as long as the carbohydrate comes from fiber-filled, nutrient-dense foods, and not processed foods with lots of added sugars. Our problem with carbohydrates is not quantity but quality. Our concern should be too much added sugars, especially from sugary drinks.

Up your fiber consumption
Americans consume nowhere near enough fiber. That’s because we’re light on whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables. Choose fiber-filled whole grains rather than refined grains and processed cereals, crackers, breads, etc. Check Nutrition Facts labels for fiber content per serving. Eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. They’re nutrient-dense and relatively low in calories.

Dairy foods provide calcium, potassium and more
Drink at least 2 to 3 (depending on age, sex, calorie and calcium needs) 8-ounce servings of milk (or eat yogurt) a day.

Limit red meat
Purchase lean cuts to minimize the saturated fat. Prepare them without added fat or oil. Serve no more than 3 ounces (cooked) at a time. Also limit processed meats. Research increasingly points to nitrites, nitrates and high sodium content of these foods as related to the risk of type 2 diabetes and some cancers.

Keep saturated fat to a minimum
Limit your consumption of full-fat dairy foods, cheese, red meats and other protein-based foods and solid fats like butter or lard. Choose more seafood, poultry and non-animal sources of protein like beans and legumes to meet your protein needs. Also eat trans fats, a type of saturated fat, as little as possible.

Choose healthier liquid oils
Use canola, olive and soybean oil. They contain healthier fats. Eat small amounts of nuts and avocado, which contain healthy fats.

Limit sugary foods and sweets
This includes refined snack foods, baked goods, candy and sweet desserts. Put a lid on the amount of beverages sweetened with added sugars. These foods are high in calories and have little nutritional value.

It’s in our nature to want a one-size-fits-all answer to the question what should people with diabetes eat. But there’s not just one answer for the millions of diabetes patients.

Consider the challenge. For starters, people with diabetes come in all ages, shapes and sizes. Plus some people with diabetes require insulin injections to control their glucose levels and to adjust the amount of rapidly acting insulin they take to the amount of food (particularly carbohydrate) they eat.

Many people with pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes are overweight. For people with pre-diabetes and those with relatively early type 2 diabetes, losing 10 to 20 pounds can provide enormous benefits to control blood glucose, blood pressure and blood lipid (fats).

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that people come to their diagnosis of diabetes or pre-diabetes with existing food preferences and eating habits. These are ingrained in our DNA and can be hard to change. Get the picture?

When you learn that you have diabetes, don’t think you need to dramatically change your eating habits and food choices, follow “a diabetic diet,” purchase “diabetic foods,” or prepare “diabetic-friendly recipes.” You may need to make significant changes over time, but reality is that most people don’t make long-lasting changes when they’re made dramatically. Research repeatedly shows that people experience much greater success making changes slowly and gradually overtime.

The changes you make should focus on what’s possible for you as an individual based on what you are willing to change. Take small steps, one at a time, to transition to healthier eating habits. Pick the easiest ones first. Success will fuel further behavior changes.

For more information about how to change your eating habits and plan and prepare healthy meals, read my book, “Diabetes Meal Planning Made Easy” (American Diabetes Association).

Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDE has been a dietitian and diabetes educator for over thirty years. Her work spans from corporate consulting to writing consumer articles and authoring numerous best-selling books. She counsels people with diabetes and those with weight concerns. Hope is best known for her expertise in the areas of diabetes nutrition management and healthy restaurant eating. For more information, visit her blog at

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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