Strategic diet choices can help you hit your A1C goal. Check out these expert-approved picks that offer bonus health perks.
Anyone who’s been managing diabetes for years knows the power of healthy diet choices. In addition to effective stress management, ample shut-eye, regular exercise, and sticking with your medication regimen, what you eat and drink plays a big role in your chances of hitting your A1C goal. A1C is a three-month average of your blood sugar levels, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Blood sugar management ultimately affects your overall health. “Managing blood glucose levels is key to preventing future complications,” says Toby Smithson, RDN, CDCES, of Hilton Head, South Carolina, the coauthor of Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition for Dummies and the founder of Diabetes EveryDay. According to MedlinePlus, having elevated blood sugar for an extended period of time can lead to vision problems, nerve damage, amputations, and kidney damage.
The Importance of Counting Carbs
While diabetes management goals can vary, there are certain kinds of foods experts agree are good and bad in a diabetes diet, based on both their nutritional value and where they lie on the glycemic index — a scale that measures how quickly foods can cause blood sugar fluctuations, with low GI foods increasing glucose slowly and high GI foods increasing it quickly, per MedlinePlus.
It’s important to factor in glycemic load (GL), too. Like glycemic index, GL measures how a food will affect blood sugar on the basis of carb content, but it incorporates a food’s serving size and therefore offers a more complete picture of the food’s effect, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A GL of 10 or less is considered low, 11 to 19 is medium, and 20 and above is high, according to Oregon State University.
A good foundational approach to diabetes management is to count carbohydrates. During digestion, your body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, which is a type of sugar, and certain types of carbs, namely simple carbs, can raise the amount of sugar in your blood quickly, according to the NIH.
Why Calories Also Matter in a Diabetes Diet
Also keep in mind that maintaining a healthy weight is key to reducing insulin resistance, per the CDC. Bansari Acharya, RD, a nutritionist with FoodLove.com in Detroit, says it’s important to pay attention to the calories you take in. “Even if you are managing the number of carbohydrates that you consume, you still may be consuming too many calories from fat and protein sources, which may lead to weight gain,” she says.
Just a 5 to 10 percent loss of body weight can improve your blood sugar numbers and lower your risk of diabetes by 58 percent, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. A healthy weight not only will minimize your diabetes risk, but it’ll also help your heart, says the American Heart Association. That’s a must for people with diabetes, as diabetes and heart disease go hand in hand, according to the CDC.
10 Healthy Diet Choices for People With Diabetes
To stay on track with your diabetes management, start with these 10 diabetes-friendly choices that can help keep blood sugar on target and provide nutrition to boot.
Oatmeal for Filling Fiber
Oatmeal contains beta-glucan, a heart-healthy soluble fiber, says the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. This makes it a great food to prevent blood sugar spikes, Smithson says. The beta-glucan in oatmeal has also been shown to improve blood sugar control and increase feelings of satiety, according to the results of a controlled clinical trial published in the February 2021 Journal of Functional Foods involving patients with type 2 diabetes. Of course, not all oatmeal is created equal, so opt for a steel-cut or old-fashioned variety, Acharya says. Instant oatmeal can be loaded with sugar.
One-half cup of dry oats contains 150 calories, 27 g of carbs, 5 g of protein, and 2.5 g of fat, according to the USDA. That carb count may sound high, but keep in mind that oatmeal is a complex carb, which means it’s digested more slowly by the body and supplies a steadier release of sugar to the bloodstream, according to the American Heart Association. Each serving also contains a GL of 13, per Oregon State University.
Just remember that oatmeal is a carbohydrate, so you’ll need to practice proper portion control. A standard portion is ½ cup of cooked oatmeal. Enjoy it for breakfast, add it to a smoothie, or use it to make homemade granola bars, Acharya says.
Salmon for Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Salmon is a rich source of key nutrients. A 3-ounce (oz) serving of cooked wild Atlantic salmon contains 155 calories, 0 g of carbohydrate, 21.6 g of protein, and 6.91 g of fat, according to the USDA. Because there are 0 g of carbohydrates, the GL is 0. Salmon is also rich in vitamin D, and getting a healthy dose of vitamin D is important, as low levels of the vitamin have been associated with type 2 diabetes, Smithson says.
The fish is also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. According to the American Heart Association, omega-3 fatty acids in fatty fish, like salmon, can improve heart health, which, as mentioned, is especially important for people with diabetes because of their increased risk of heart disease.
Top your salads with grilled or broiled salmon, and try baking salmon patties, Smithson suggests.
Almonds for Magnesium
Almonds are another nutritious food for people with diabetes. One ounce of unsalted almonds contains 172 calories, 5.76 g of protein, 15.3 g of fat, and 5.78 g of carbs, according to the USDA. Almonds have a GL of 1.9, per the website Glycemic-Index.net.
According to the USDA, they’re also high in vitamin E (with 6.67 milligrams [mg] in a 1 oz serving) and a good source of magnesium (with 76.8 mg in each serving). Almonds also contain fiber, which is an important nutrient for people with diabetes as it can improve blood sugar levels by slowing the rate at which sugar is absorbed, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The American Heart Association advises that diabetes makes you more likely to have high LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, so adding nuts to your diabetes diet is a smart move. Almonds are an excellent source of unsaturated fats, which can help lower your LDL cholesterol and raise your HDL, or “good,” cholesterol levels, Smithson notes.
Add almonds to salads or try a tablespoon of almond butter on apple slices as a snack, she suggests. Just watch your portions since the calories and carb count can really add up if left unchecked, and steer clear of packaged nuts that may contain added sugar and salt.
Oranges for Pectin
An orange is an excellent source of pectin, a soluble fiber that has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol levels, Smithson says. Although they’re sweet, oranges are actually low on the glycemic index (GI), according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA) and have a GL of 4, per Oregon State University.
Do factor in that one orange isn’t exactly a low-carb food, Smithson notes. It contains about 18 g of carbs, plus 72 calories, 1.45 g of protein, and less than 0.2 g of fat, according to the USDA.
Oranges provide other key nutrients, including vitamin C. Opt for the whole fruit instead of juice for more fiber and antioxidants that may help prevent cell damage, Smithson adds, as well as decrease any effect on blood sugar.
Beans for Plant-Based Protein
Beans are a great source of soluble fiber and an inexpensive source of protein that is low on the glycemic index, making them ideal for preventing big swings in blood sugar levels, Smithson says. “A higher fiber content in foods is beneficial for slowing the rise in blood glucose levels because it takes longer for your system to break down the fibrous foods,” she explains.
The ADA calls beans (including black, navy, kidney, and pinto varieties) a superfood for people with diabetes and recommends draining and rinsing them before eating to get rid of much of the added salt.
Try eating beans in soups, tacos, Indian curry dishes, pilaf dishes, and salads, Acharya suggests.
Kale for a Variety of Vitamins and Minerals
Of all the leafy greens you could enjoy on a diabetes diet, kale is the superstar, Smithson says. The ADA names it a superfood, because it offers a slew of essential nutrients, including vitamins A, C, E, and K, iron, calcium, and potassium.
Plus, it’s low in calories and carbs. One cup of raw kale contains about 9 calories, 1.1 g of carbs, and less than 1 g of protein and fat, according to the USDA. The GL is very low, around 1 or 2.
Smithson adds that kale contains bile acid sequestrants. These can lower LDL cholesterol, as shown by research published June 2017 in Preventive Nutrition and Food Science. Smithson suggests tossing kale into a salad, steaming it, or baking it into chips.
Dark Chocolate for Flavonoids
Limiting sugar is important when managing diabetes, so it may sound surprising to learn that dark chocolate can be part of a diabetes-friendly diet. But consider this: A review looked at studies involving more than 114,000 people and found that those who ate the most chocolate had a 31 percent lower risk of diabetes and a significantly reduced risk for heart disease and stroke compared with people who ate the least. And a separate study found that having about 10 g of flavonoid-rich cocoa powder a day (about 1.5 tablespoons) could lower LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels in people with diabetes.
Look for dark chocolate ideally with at least 85 percent cacao, Acharya says. One ounce of 85 percent dark chocolate contains 136 calories, 1 g of protein, 14 g of fat, and 12 g of carbs, according to the USDA. Dark chocolate has a GL of 2.76, based on a glycemic index of 23, according to Beyond Type 1.
Be sure to keep in mind that chocolate also contains fat and sugar, so limit yourself to one small square (about 1 oz) a day, Smithson cautions.
Cinnamon as a Smart Sweetener
Another possible management tactic is to incorporate new flavors in your plate by way of diabetes-friendly spices, and when it comes to sweetening food, consider adding cinnamon to the top of your list. One study suggests the spice is associated with a drop in fasting blood sugar levels, while cinnamon may help increase insulin sensitivity, reduce inflammation, and lower LDL cholesterol. But ultimately, results may vary from person to person, depending in part on the type and amount of cinnamon used.
Cinnamon won’t add much nutrition wise — according to the USDA, it doesn’t contain calories, protein, fat, or carbohydrates and has a GL of 0 — but your taste buds will thank you and your blood sugar levels may improve, to boot.
Try adding cinnamon to tea or sprinkled on top of fruit, Acharya says.
Vinegar for a Healthier Salad Dressing Base
The potential health benefits of vinegar are still under investigation, but previous research found that vinegar helped improve insulin sensitivity to high-carb meals in people with diabetes or insulin resistance. The findings suggest that vinegar’s effects on the body are similar to the effects of the commonly used diabetes drug metformin (Glucophage, Glumetza).
And a study published in the Journal of Community Hospital Internal Medicine found that vinegar slowed the absorption of sugar. Two ounces of apple cider vinegar added to a high-carb meal improved fasting blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity, researchers found.
A tablespoon of apple cider vinegar contains 0 calories, 0 carbohydrates, 0 protein, and 0 fat, per the USDA. The lack of carbohydrates means it has a GL of 0.
Try using it as a base for a homemade salad dressing, Acharya says.
Green Tea for Polyphenols
Tea has been used medicinally in Japan and China for thousands of years, but its exact health benefits in treating or preventing ailments like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes are unknown, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Yet some research offers clues as to how green tea in particular may impact insulin resistance and blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
For example, a prior review cited research that suggested people who drank six or more cups of green tea per week were 33 percent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than people who consumed only a cup of green tea per week. The review cited a study that suggested those who drank green tea regularly for more than a decade had smaller waistlines and a lower body fat composition than those who didn’t consume green tea regularly. The super-brew also contains polyphenols, antioxidants shown to regulate glucose in the body, which may help to prevent or control diabetes, according to a review published in the July 2019 Current Neuropharmacology.
Per the USDA, green tea does not contain calories, carbohydrates, protein, or fat, and has a GL of 0.
When drinking green tea, mind your caffeine intake, because too much may affect your sleep, according to the Mayo Clinic.
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