What can I eat with type 2 diabetes?

If you think living with type 2 diabetes means giving up your favourite food, then think again. Everyone, with or without type 2 diabetes, responds to food in their own unique way and while there's no 'one-size fits all' diet for people with type 2 diabetes, there are food choices you can make to help you manage the condition.
Annabel Nicholson
3/12/21
9
min read
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Quick summary

  • Through diet alone, it's possible to manage type 2 diabetes—a condition that was previously considered chronic and lifelong.
  • There is no single diabetes diet because everyone has their own unique response to food so its important to learn about your response to the food you eat.
  • Reducing your intake of processed foods, choosing healthier carbohydrates, staying hydrated, and eating healthy fats are all positive choices you can make when building your personal type 2 diabetes eating plan.
  • Take the time to explore different methods of eating that suit you, your lifestyle, your budget, and your goals.

Hands up if you used to think that diabetes, type 1, 2, or otherwise, meant you couldn’t eat sugar at all, ever again. Well, if you’ve arrived here in a hot sweat thinking about all the foods you’re going to have to give up forever more...take a breath and let us be the bearer of good news: a type 2 diabetes diagnosis doesn’t mean giving up the foods you love.

So, what is a suitable diet for someone with type 2 diabetes? There isn’t actually a prescribed ‘type 2 diabetes diet’ so ignore any claims that there is a single best diet for managing diabetes. Instead, it’s about adjusting your diet and learning about how the foods you eat impact your body because everyone has a unique response to food. The single slice of toast that causes your blood sugar levels to spike might not do the same for someone else, while the small bowl of pasta you can enjoy is a definite no-go for them. 

Type 2 diabetes is a lifelong condition, so you’re in it for the long haul. We haven’t said that to bring you down, but rather to back up the point that it is incredibly important for you to take the time to understand your own response to food. Crack that, and you’ve got the key to controlling your blood sugar levels.

Rather than dictate exactly what to eat (because remember, there is no diabetes diet!), we’ve put together a few pointers for how to choose foods that can help you manage your type 2 diabetes.

Avoid eating processed foods

Processed foods, and by that we mean foods that have had fat, salt, and sugar added to them, tend to cause huge spikes in blood sugar levels. It can be easy to far exceed the recommended intake of salt, fat, and sugar in a diet that’s heavy in processed food simply because they’re so hidden. Breakfast cereals for example, including the ‘healthy’ mueslis, are full of sugar but they are cleverly packaged and marketed to make us think we’re making a healthy choice.

We’d never tell you to cut something out of your diet for good (we all deserve a treat sometimes!), but it’s worth being aware of how often you eat processed foods and when you do, being mindful of the portion size can help keep spikes under control.

Through diet alone, it’s possible to manage what was previously considered a chronic, lifelong condition

Choose healthier carbohydrates

All carbohydrates break down into glucose and elevate blood sugar levels. We’re not saying you need to cut carbs out completely; they’re an important part of our diet as they provide us with energy for fuel. However, if you have type 2 diabetes it can make sense to think about your carb intake as part of your diet strategy. 

An easy place to start is to choose complex over simple carbohydrates—so, 100% whole grain brain instead of white bread, brown rice instead of white etc. Complex carbohydrates cause your blood sugar levels to increase at a slower rate than simple carbs, which break down rapidly and cause that dangerous spike. Bear in mind that cutting out carbs doesn’t work for everyone—you need to find out what works for you and choose healthy carbs whenever possible.

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Fruit is still your friend

Whole fruit, by that we mean a whole orange or apple, and not their juice equivalents, contains loads of healthy vitamins, minerals, and natural fibres. It contains sugar too, but these are natural sugars that are much better than processed sweet alternatives. Fruit is good for you, no arguments there, but if you have type 2 diabetes it’s best to eat small quantities of whole fruit throughout the day rather in one big portion to avoid blood sugar spikes. Most of all, avoid fruit juices—these contain all the sugar and far fewer nutrients. If you’re struggling to wean yourself off fruit juice, start small and slowly add water to your juice to get used to less sweetness.

Stay hydrated

We all need to stay hydrated—water makes up about 60% of the human body after all—but if you have type 2 diabetes, it's especially important because you'll be more prone to dehydration. If ignored, dehydration can be really dangerous. We’d recommend reading our article about hydration and type 2 diabetes because it's useful (and interesting!) information to know.

We get that some people just don’t like water and even if you do, no one wants to drink all day long. Luckily there are loads of ways to make a glass of water more interesting, from making your own flavoured waters and fizzy drinks, to making homemade herbal infusions and ice cubes.

Avoid food that’s labelled as ‘suitable for diabetics’

There’s not much more to add here except to reiterate it—steer clear of foods advertised as ‘suitable for people with diabetes’ as they are often highly processed and contain lots of unhealthy ingredients to make them tasty.

Choose healthy fats

The tide is turning in our understanding of fat and the body, and the much-loved ‘low fat’ way of eating is slowly giving way to low-carb and keto diets for conditions such as type 2 diabetes. Instead, it's more about the type of fat you eat. Type 2 diabetes makes you more prone to cardiovascular disease, so it's important to look after your heart health. Fat gives us energy, so keep it in your diet but choose healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocados, oily fish, and olive oil.

Find a diet that suits you

Some people will choose to adopt a diet to help manage diabetes or to lose weight, such as  low-carb, keto, veganism, or intermittent fasting. Research is still weighing up the merits of different diets for diabetes management, but a lot of the evidence is pointing towards a diet that is low in carbohydrates - as opposed to the traditional ‘low fat’ diet - as the best way to manage blood sugar levels and weight loss simultaneously.[1,2]

For people looking to lose a significant amount of weight, the best non-surgical intervention is for total diet replacement (TDR).[3] TDR is a low-calorie diet that replaces all your food with nutritionally-complete powdered meals in the forms of soups, shakes, or porridges. TDR meals are nutritionally complete, meaning they contain all the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients your body needs, making it a safe and effective tool for rapid, significant weight loss for people needing to lose 10-15kg.

Your diet is in your control

It might feel like a lot of this advice echoes general healthy eating advice, and you’re not wrong. The difference now though is that if you have type 2 diabetes, you have the power to take healthy eating advice on board to change your health for the better. We find it pretty incredible that through diet alone, it’s possible to manage what was previously considered a chronic, lifelong condition. The body and how we fuel it is endlessly fascinating, so we encourage you to take your time and figure out what way of eating suits you, your lifestyle, and your budget. And remember, it’s all about creating sustainable habits—so, enjoy the foods you love as a treat and savour every bite!

References

[1] Goldenberg, J.Z., Day, A., Brinkworth, G.D., et al. Efficacy and safety of low and very low carbohydrate diets for type 2 diabetes remission: systematic review and meta-analysis of published and unpublished randomized trial data. (2021). BMJ 372:m4743. Accessible here
[2] Saslow, L.R., Summers, C., Aiken, J.E., Unwin, D.J. (2018). Outcomes of a Digitally Delivered Low-Carbohydrate Type 2 Diabetes Self-Management Program: 1-Year Results of a Single-Arm Longitudinal Study. JMIR Diabetes 3(3):e12. Accessible here
[3] Lean, M.E.J., Leslie, W.S., Barnes, A.C., et al. (2017). Primary care-led weight management for remission of type 2 diabetes (DiRECT): an open-label, cluster-randomised trial. Lancet 391(10120):541-551. Accessible here.

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