The statement “food is medicine” is very valid when it comes to diabetes. What you eat, how you eat, and when you eat can directly impact your blood sugar, both short term and long term. But with so much information on best practices, it can be hard to decipher what will work for you.
While there are general recommendations—like eating fewer refined carbohydrates, less sugar, less sodium, and fewer high-fat meats, while adding more fiber and lean protein—everyone’s needs are unique.
Finding an eating plan that fits your cultural identity, helps you maintain the pleasure of eating, keeps you full and satisfied, and is nutritionally balanced to meet your nutrient needs and blood sugar goals is important for sustainability.
The best type of meal plan is one that’s easy to follow consistently and includes foods you enjoy. In this article, learn more about meal planning for diabetes and see sample meals for breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner.
Type 2 Diabetes and Meal Planning
All people with diabetes should receive medical nutrition therapy (MNT) from a credentialed professional, such as a registered dietitian (RD)/registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) or certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES).
According to the American Diabetes Association Standards for Diabetes Care, the goals of MNT are multifaceted and should support the individual. MNT should intend to:
- Promote and support healthful eating patterns, emphasizing a variety of nutrient-dense foods in appropriate portion sizes to improve overall health and achieve and maintain body weight goals, achieve glycemic, blood pressure, and lipid goals, and delay or prevent diabetes complications.
- Address individual nutritional needs based on personal and cultural preferences, health literacy and numeracy, access to healthful foods, willingness and ability to make behavioral changes, and existing barriers to change.
- Maintain the pleasure of eating by providing nonjudgmental messages about food choices while limiting food choices only when indicated by scientific evidence.
- Provide an individual with diabetes with practical tools for developing healthy eating patterns rather than focusing on individual macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein, fat), micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), or single foods.
While there are no forbidden foods on a diabetes eating plan, certain foods add more benefits than others, and some foods should be eaten less often.
Foods That Can Increase Blood Sugar
Certain foods can increase blood sugar more quickly and can contribute to weight gain when eaten in excess. These foods include things like refined ultra-processed snack foods such as chips and desserts, white bread, white pasta, bagels, soda, and juice.
This does not mean you can never eat these foods, but they should be eaten infrequently. Extra planning will be important to keep blood sugars in a good range.
Type 2 Diabetes Meal Plan Foods to Add
Fruits, vegetables, seeds, and legumes (such as peas, beans, and lentils) provide vitamins, minerals, filling fiber, and antioxidants.
Foods that contain carbohydrates, such as fruits, starchy vegetables, grains, legumes, and dairy products like milk, will need to be portion controlled because these foods contain carbohydrates. Carbohydrates impact blood sugar the most. They do not need to be avoided, but rather monitored.
Lean protein, like white meat chicken, turkey, fish, tofu, and lean beef, is filling and supports immunity, wound healing, and muscle production.
Heart-healthy fats like olive oil, avocado, fatty fish, nuts, and seeds increase feelings of satiety (fullness), assist in reducing inflammation, and support healthy cholesterol levels.
These whole foods should be incorporated into a balanced eating plan that supports diabetes management and overall health.
Keep in mind that your portions should be individualized based on your blood sugar targets and control, activity level, and macronutrient and micronutrient needs.
Eating a high-fiber, higher-protein breakfast is a great way to give your body sustainable energy and help to prevent large blood sugar spikes. Here are some good choices:
- Low-fat Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, or nondairy alternatives, with hemp, flax, or chia seeds, chopped nuts, or a tablespoon of nut butter, and a serving of fruit like berries, apple, pear, pumpkin, peaches, plum (you can use frozen if you don’t have fresh)
- Smoothie made with two parts fruit and one to two parts vegetables, a liquid of choice (milk, nondairy alternative), protein powder, nut butter or ground seeds
- Eggs your way (one to two whole eggs plus one to two egg whites), including hard-boiled, in an omelet, scrambled, or poached; with vegetables, such as spinach, peppers, lettuce, or vegetable leftovers from the night before; and one slice of whole-grain bread or a lower carbohydrate wrap
How Many Carbohydrates Should I Eat in the Morning?
If you are carbohydrate counting or following a consistent carbohydrate diet, your healthcare provider may have prescribed a certain amount of carbohydrates to eat in the morning.
Many people with type 2 diabetes have insulin resistance, which is when your body doesn’t respond to insulin as it should, cannot take up sugar (glucose) into the bloodstream, and requires more insulin to be produced. One of the ways to prevent insulin resistance is weight loss. If you think you need to lose weight, skipping lunch is not the answer, especially if you take medicine to manage your diabetes.
Instead, a lunch choice that contains fiber, protein, and heart-healthy fat is a great way to assist in reaching weight loss goals while combating insulin resistance. Ideas include:
- Large salad with grilled protein (chicken, fish, turkey, shrimp, tofu, or hard boiled eggs), non-starchy vegetables, one-half cup of beans or roasted sweet potato, avocado, lemon and olive oil
- Low-sodium vegetable-based soup with a serving of fruit.
- Tuna salad made with avocado, carrots, and cucumber, with lettuce and a drizzle of olive oil on a whole grain wrap
- Bento box lunch: One serving of roast turkey and low-fat cheddar cheese, raw vegetables, hummus, and lower carbohydrate crackers or one to one to two slices of whole-grain bread
Dinner is a time when you might worry about overeating. However, eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods throughout the day and having a plan can help prevent that.
When planning your dinners, aim to consume fiber-filled carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, beans, whole grains, lean protein (plant-based or animal-based), and healthy fat.
- Roasted chicken with baked sweet potato and sauteed asparagus
- Black bean quesadillas with sautéed onions, tomatoes, and peppers, topped with avocado on a whole corn tortilla
- Grilled lemon and garlic salmon with roasted butternut squash, kale, and pumpkin seeds
- Zucchini and bean pasta Bolognese made with lean beef
Snacks in small portions can provide your body with energy in the hours between meals. They can help to keep blood sugar in a healthy range, prevent it from dropping, and reduce the chance of eating past feelings of fullness at your next meal.
When balanced, snacks boost overall nutrition by providing vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and other important nutrients.
Include some fiber and protein in your snacks to keep your blood sugar in a good range. Both delay how quickly food leaves the stomach, which can prevent large blood sugar spikes.
Depending on your blood sugar and activity levesl, you may choose either a low-carbohydrate snack or a snack that contains more carbohydrates. Consistency of timing and the amount of carbohydrates you eat at snack time will help manage your blood sugar.
- 1 ounce of cheese or unsalted nuts with cut-up vegetables (peppers, carrots, cucumber, or another veggie of your choice)
- A serving of fruit like an apple or pear with 1 to 2 tablespoons of nut butter
- Low-fat Greek yogurt or cottage cheese with three-fourths cup to 1 cup of berries and a tablespoon of nuts
- Hummus or guacamole with vegetables or whole-grain crackers
- About 3 cups of popcorn sprinkled with Parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast
Specific Diets for Managing Type 2 Diabetes
There is no set macronutrient prescription for all people with diabetes. To be effective, dietary patterns must be individualized and sustainable. One strategy for meal planning is the plate method.
This type of eating style ensures that you are eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods, while also balancing your blood sugar by consuming fiber, fat, and protein at each meal.
A diabetes plate is broken into three sections: half of the plate is for non-starchy vegetables, one-fourth is lean protein, and the other one-fourth is a whole grain, a starchy vegetable, or another source of carbohydrates, such as a legume.
People with diabetes can also find success in following a Mediterranean style of eating, a vegetarian diet plan, or a lower-carbohydrate type of diet. If you choose to follow a more restrictive eating plan, it is recommended to work with a professional to ensure you are meeting your nutrient needs.
The glycemic index is a ranking system for carbohydrates. In simplest terms, it ranks a food (low, medium, and high) based on how it can impact blood sugar. Although it can be useful in meal planning, it is also complicated to interpret.
How a food is prepared, how much is eaten, whether it is refrigerated, and what it is eaten with are just some of the various things that can affect the glycemic index.
Can Dietary Changes Alone Reverse Type 2 Diabetes?
Dietary changes can assist in managing blood sugar, but whether they can reverse type 2 diabetes (or put it in remission) depends on a variety of other factors. These include how long you have had diabetes, your diabetes control, and whether or not you lose weight (if weight loss is indicated).
Include Some Superfoods in Your Diet
The American Diabetes Association lists some superfoods for diabetes on its website. These include beans, berries, dark leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, tomatoes, nuts, seeds, fish high in omega-3s, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains. Aim to get a wide variety of these foods in your eating plan.
An individualized approach to eating that considers a person’s nutritional needs, food preferences, culture, and lifestyle is essential for people with diabetes.
While no specific macronutrient prescription or generalized diet will work for everyone, foods that contain carbohydrates impact blood sugar the most. Therefore, following an eating plan that includes fiber-filled carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes in appropriate portions can help to optimize blood sugars, weight, and overall health.
Consider which type of meal planning strategy will work for you. It might be the plate method, a Mediterranean style of eating, or a plant-based eating plan. If you have questions or need support, contact your healthcare provider.