Nutrition and physical activity are important parts of a healthy lifestyle when you have diabetes. Along with other benefits, following a healthy meal plan and being active can help you keep your blood glucose level, also called blood sugar, in your target range. To manage your blood glucose, you need to balance what you eat and drink with physical activity and diabetes medicine, if you take any. What you choose to eat, how much you eat, and when you eat are all important in keeping your blood glucose level in the range that your health-care team recommends.

Becoming more active and making changes in what you eat and drink can seem challenging at first. You may find it easier to start with small changes and get help from your family, friends, and health-care team.

Eating well and being physically active most days of the week can help you…

  • Keep your blood glucose level, blood pressure and cholesterol in your target ranges,
  • Lose weight or stay at a healthy weight,
  • Prevent or delay diabetes problems,
  • Feel good and have more energy.

What foods can I eat if I have diabetes?

You may worry that having diabetes means going without foods you enjoy. The good news is that you can still eat your favorite foods, but you might need to eat smaller portions or enjoy them less often. Your health-care team will help create a diabetes meal plan for you that meets your needs and likes.

The key to eating with diabetes is to eat a variety of healthy foods from all food groups in the amounts your meal plan outlines.

The food groups are…

  • Vegetables
    —nonstarchy: includes broccoli, carrots, greens, peppers, and tomatoes
    —starchy: includes potatoes, corn, and green peas
  • Fruits—includes oranges, melon, berries, apples, bananas, and grapes
  • Grains—at least half of your grains for the day should be whole grains
    —includes wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, and quinoa
    examples: bread, pasta, cereal, and tortillas
  • protein
    —lean meat
    —chicken or turkey without the skin
    —fish
    —eggs
    —nuts and peanuts
    —dried beans and certain peas, such as chickpeas and split peas
    —meat substitutes, such as tofu
  • dairy—nonfat or low-fat
    —milk or lactose-free milk if you have lactose intolerance
    —yogurt
    —cheese

Learn more about the food groups at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ChooseMyPlate.gov.

Eat foods with heart-healthy fats, which mainly come from…

  • Oils that are liquid at room temperature, such as canola and olive oil,
  • Nuts and seeds,
  • Heart-healthy fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel,
  • Avocado.

Use oils when cooking food instead of butter, cream, shortening, lard, or stick margarine.

What foods and drinks should I limit if I have diabetes?

Foods and drinks to limit include…

  • Fried foods and other foods high in saturated fat and trans fat,
  • Foods high in salt, also called sodium,
  • Sweets, such as baked goods, candy and ice cream,
  • Beverages with added sugars, such as juice, regular soda and regular sports or energy drinks.

Drink water instead of sweetened beverages. Consider using a sugar substitute in your coffee or tea.

If you drink alcohol, drink moderately—no more than one drink a day if you’re a woman or two drinks a day if you’re a man. If you use insulin or diabetes medicines that increase the amount of insulin your body makes, alcohol can make your blood glucose level drop too low. This is especially true if you haven’t eaten in a while. It’s best to eat some food when you drink alcohol.

When should I eat if I have diabetes?

Some people with diabetes need to eat at about the same time each day. Others can be more flexible with the timing of their meals. Depending on your diabetes medicines or type of insulin, you may need to eat the same amount of carbohydrates at the same time each day. If you take “mealtime” insulin, your eating schedule can be more flexible.

If you use certain diabetes medicines or insulin and you skip or delay a meal, your blood glucose level can drop too low. Ask your health care team when you should eat and whether you should eat before and after physical activity.

How much can I eat if I have diabetes?

Eating the right amount of food will also help you manage your blood glucose level and your weight. Your health-care team can help you figure out how much food and how many calories you should eat each day. Look up how many calories are in what you eat and drink at the USDA’s Food-A-Pedia.

Weight-loss planning

If you are overweight or obese, work with your health care team to create a weight-loss plan.

To lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories and replace less healthy foods with foods lower in calories, fat, and sugar.

If you have diabetes, are overweight or obese and are planning to have a baby, you should try to lose any excess weight before you become pregnant. Learn more about planning for pregnancy if you have diabetes.

Meal plan methods

Two common ways to help you plan how much to eat if you have diabetes are the plate method and carbohydrate counting, also called carb counting. Check with your health care team about the method that’s best for you.

Plate method

The plate method helps you control your portion sizes. You don’t need to count calories. The plate method shows the amount of each food group you should eat. This method works best for lunch and dinner.

Use a nine-inch plate. Put nonstarchy vegetables on half of the plate…a meat or other protein on one-fourth of the plate…and a grain or other starch on the last one-fourth. Starches include starchy vegetables such as corn and peas. You also may eat a small bowl of fruit or a piece of fruit and drink a small glass of milk as included in your meal plan.

You can find many different combinations of food and more details about using the plate method from the American Diabetes Association’s Create Your Plate. Your daily eating plan also may include small snacks between meals.

Portion sizes

You can use everyday objects or your hand to judge the size of a portion.

  • 1 serving of meat or poultry is the same size as the palm of your hand or a deck of cards
  • 1 three-ounce serving of fish is the size of a checkbook
  • 1 serving of cheese is the size of six dice
  • ½ cup of cooked rice or pasta is a rounded handful or the size of a tennis ball
  • 1 serving of a pancake or waffle is the size of a DVD
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter is the size of a Ping-Pong ball

Carbohydrate counting

Carbohydrate counting involves keeping track of the amount of carbohydrates you eat and drink each day. Because carbohydrates turn into glucose in your body, they affect your blood glucose level more than other foods do. Carb counting can help you manage your blood glucose level. If you take insulin, counting carbohydrates can help you know how much insulin to take.

The right amount of carbohydrates varies by how you manage your diabetes, including how physically active you are and what medicines you take, if any. Your health-care team can help you create a personal eating plan based on carbohydrate counting.

The amount of carbohydrates in foods is measured in grams. To count carbohydrate grams in what you eat, you’ll need to…

  • Learn which foods have carbohydrates,
  • Read the Nutrition Facts food label, or learn to estimate the number of grams of carbohydrate in the foods you eat,
  • Add the grams of carbohydrate from each food you eat to get your total for each meal and for the day.

Most carbohydrates come from starches, fruits, milk, and sweets. Try to limit carbohydrates with added sugars or those with refined grains, such as white bread and white rice. Instead, eat carbohydrates from fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans and low-fat or nonfat milk.

In addition to using the plate method and carb counting, you may want to visit a registered dietitian (RD) for medical nutrition therapy.

What is medical nutrition therapy?

Medical nutrition therapy is a service provided by a registered dietitian (RD) to create personal eating plans based on your needs and likes. For people with diabetes, medical nutrition therapy has been shown to improve diabetes management. Medicare pays for medical nutrition therapy for people with diabetes. If you have insurance other than Medicare, ask if it covers medical nutrition therapy for diabetes.