What is the Best Diet for Type 2 Diabetes?

By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD  

Choosing what to eat with type 2 diabetes can be challenging and confusing. There are many different ways to manage the disease but having a plan for meals is one of the most important aspects!  

To understand why following a meal plan or schedule is helpful for type 2 diabetes, let’s first discuss diabetes basics.  

Type 2 diabetes is a chronic disease that results from insulin resistance in the body. Insulin is a hormone that helps your cells use the sugar that circulates in your blood after your body digests food.  

When you have type 2 diabetes, your cells become resistant to insulin. This mean that they do not pick up the sugar in your bloodstream, leading to a condition called hyperglycemia or high blood sugar.  

Signs and symptoms of type 2 diabetes include excessive thirst or urination, blurred vision, weight loss, hunger, fatigue, and tingling in the hands and feet.  

Type 2 diabetes can lead to negative effects over time, such as pain and numbness in the extremities, kidney disease, and vision issues. Chronically high blood sugar levels can also increase the risk for heart disease and heart attacks.   

The exact reasons why the body becomes resistant to insulin are unclear. Insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes are most likely caused by a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. Having a sedentary lifestyle and being overweight or obese are thought to contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes.    

Since type 2 diabetes affects how the body uses sugar, dietary changes are often necessary to manage the disease and can be very beneficial.  

Weight loss can be especially helpful for people with type 2 diabetes. Depending on your starting weight, even losing a few pounds can significantly improve outcomes and complications. 

One of the most effective ways to lose weight is to eat consistent, healthy meals. No matter what style of eating someone with type 2 diabetes follows, having a plan for meals will be invaluable to disease management. 

Type 2 Diabetes and Carbohydrates 

The three macronutrients are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.  

When it comes to type 2 diabetes, carbohydrates are the nutrient of most concern. This is because carbs are broken down into sugar molecules during digestion.  

The breakdown of carbs increases blood sugar in any person. In someone with type 2 diabetes, however, blood sugar can remain elevated for much longer than in a person without the disease.  

Depending on the person, he or she may use medications or injectable insulin to return blood sugar levels to normal. These medications are often vital to the management of type 2 diabetes.  

As opposed to carbohydrates, proteins and fats do not contribute to high blood sugar. Eating foods with these nutrients stabilizes or has no effect on blood sugar levels.  

Since the macronutrients have varying effects on blood sugar, a person with type 2 diabetes should aim to eat a balance of all three to maintain an appropriate blood sugar level.  

Diet Patterns and Meal Planning for Diabetes 

If you are someone with type 2 diabetes, you may find yourself wondering what exactly you can eat. You may even be afraid of carbohydrates and believe that you should avoid them to prevent increases in blood sugar.  

However, carbohydrates are a vital part of a healthy diet for people with and without type 2 diabetes. 

It turns out that people with type 2 diabetes can and should enjoy all foods. Instead of trying to eliminate carbohydrates, they should focus on eating a variety of healthful foods just like anyone else who is trying to make healthy food choices.  

Even more, following a meal plan or creating a schedule for meals ahead of time is an incredibly important part of managing diabetes. 

According to the American Diabetes Association, there really is no “one size fits all” diet. If a diet emphasizes nutritious foods and contributes to weight loss, it can be very helpful for people with type 2 diabetes. 

Some of the eating patterns that can be effective for blood sugar control are consistent carbohydrate diets, vegan and vegetarian diets, Mediterranean styles of eating, and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet.  

Regardless of the type of eating pattern that a person with type 2 diabetes pursues, he or she can almost always benefit from eating regular meals at similar times each day and not skipping meals. This can help keep blood sugar levels stable.  

In other words, following a meal plan or being prepared for meals ahead of time can be very beneficial.  

Consistent Carbohydrate and Healthy Plate Diets 

One of the most well-known styles of eating for the management of type 2 diabetes is a consistent carbohydrate diet.  

To begin eating this type of diet, most people work with a registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator to figure out their daily carbohydrate needs. The estimated amount of daily carbs is then divided over the meals and snacks a person plans to eat. 

For example, if someone needed 150 grams of carbohydrates a day, he or she might have 45 grams at three meals and 15 grams at one snack.  

The consistent carbohydrate style of eating is often associated with the “healthy plate.” There are many styles of the “healthy plate,” but typically they all recommend half of the plate as non-starchy vegetables, one quarter of the plate as carbohydrates, and one quarter of the plate as lean protein, with a serving of healthy fat or dairy.  

Aiming for a healthy plate and consistent carbohydrate intake at each meal can lead to a steady and stable blood sugar level throughout the day.  

Vegan and Vegetarian Diets 

Vegetarian diets exclude meat but sometimes include dairy and eggs, whereas vegan diets do not allow any animal products. If these diets are well planned, they can be very healthy and may help with the management of type 2 diabetes.  

Both vegan and vegetarian diets encourage consumption of a variety of highly nutritious fruits and vegetables, plant proteins, and healthy fats.  

These diets have been linked to a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. People who already have the disease may also pursue these eating patterns to manage their blood sugar and lose weight.  

The Mediterranean Diet  

The Mediterranean Diet is a style of eating that encourages mostly plant-based foods, nuts, seafood, and whole grains. It also recommends the use of healthy fats, such as olive oil, and a small amount of low-fat dairy products.  

The abundance of nutrients in the Mediterranean Diet may help with the control of type 2 diabetes and improve blood sugar levels.  

The DASH Diet 

The DASH diet was developed to help people with high blood pressure. It focuses on eating mostly plant foods with low-fat proteins and limiting salt intake.  

Even though the recommendations for the DASH diet are focused on preventing and managing high blood pressure, they are usually helpful for controlling blood sugars.  

In addition, many people with type 2 diabetes have high blood pressure and benefit from a diet that is also good for their heart.  

Similarities Among All Diets 

As you can see, there are several different eating patterns that might be beneficial for the management of type 2 diabetes. Even though they go by different names and have slightly variable recommendations, they are all similar in their approach to healthy eating.  

None of the diets encourage the elimination or avoidance of carbohydrates. Instead, they recommend choosing healthy carbs, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. These options are rich in fiber, a nutrient that slows down the increase in blood sugar that results from carbohydrate digestion.  

These eating patterns also suggest limiting consumption of sweets and desserts. Since these foods are mostly made of refined carbohydrates, they can lead to quick spikes in blood sugar and should only be eaten in moderation.  

In addition, all of the diets that are recommended for type 2 diabetes encourage lean proteins, such as poultry, eggs, or fish, and healthy fats from olive oil and nuts. Eating more of these foods in place of refined carbohydrates and foods that are higher in saturated fats may help with weight loss and lower the risk for heart disease.  

While the recommended diets for type 2 diabetes may have different names, they are based on the same principles.  

Similar to all people who are trying to pursue a healthy lifestyle, people with this disease should fill their plates with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Less healthy foods such as sweets and fried foods should be eaten in moderation.  

Managing Diabetes  

The management of type 2 diabetes can be stressful for individuals with the disease. Treatment typically includes dietary changes and medication.  

In addition to these treatment options, people with type 2 diabetes are encouraged to get regular exercise. During exercise, the body becomes more sensitive to insulin. In fact, physical activity can be one of the most effective ways of lowering blood sugar.  

Implementing portion control, staying hydrated, controlling stress levels, and getting a good night’s sleep are also important in the management of type 2 diabetes.  

If you are someone who has type 2 diabetes, diet and exercise can help you can control your blood sugars and prevent negative health effects. Be sure to consult with a registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator to figure out the best options for you.  

Remember, there is no “one size fits all” diet. Instead, people with type 2 diabetes should focus on having a plan for meals and losing weight if needed.  

Note from Healthy for Life Meals: If you are someone with type 2 diabetes, don’t stress about planning your meals and trying to lose weight on your own. Get started with HFLM instead! Our plans follow the nutrition guidelines of the American Diabetes Association and provide healthy meals that can help with weight loss and keep you on a regular eating schedule! Learn more

Stef Keegan