12 Foods to Limit or Avoid in a Type 2 Diabetes Diet
A diabetes diet can be difficult to navigate. Here’s a list of foods to steer clear of to help improve your blood sugar.
By Jennifer Anderson Medically Reviewed by Kelly Kennedy, RDN
Reviewed: April 13, 2023
Knowing which foods to put in your shopping cart — and which ones to pass up — is key when it comes to managing type 2 diabetes.
What’s on your plate? It’s an important question. One of the most essential steps to avoiding complications from type 2 diabetes is managing your diet, says William Sullivan, MD, a senior physician at Joslin Diabetes Center and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Furthermore, a healthy diet is critical right now with the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. People with diabetes are more at risk for serious complications from the illness, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). For that reason, you’ll want to do everything you can to ensure you’re in good health.
This means knowing both what to eat and what not to eat. To keep your blood sugar in check, you’ll want to avoid less-healthy foods, such as foods or drinks with added fats, sugars, and sodium, according to the Mayo Clinic. At the same time, you’ll want to choose healthy sources of carbohydrates (including fruits; vegetables; whole grains like brown rice; legumes, such as beans and peas; and lowfat or fat-free dairy products, such as milk and yogurt), heart-healthy fish, and “good" fats, like nuts, avocados, and olive oil.
Type 2 diabetes increases your risk of heart disease and stroke, so avoiding saturated fats is key.
According to the Mayo Clinic, foods that contain saturated fat include:
- Whole-fat dairy products (butter, cheese)
- Coconut oil
- Egg yolks
- Baked goods
A healthy diet is even more critical if you’re overweight. "Weight loss has a dramatic effect on controlling diabetes," says Dr. Sullivan. Losing just 10 to 15 pounds may help you prevent and manage high blood sugar, according to the ADA. In fact, losing just 5 to 10 percent of your body weight has also been shown to help some people reduce the amount of diabetes medication they need, according to an article published in June 2015 in the journal Diabetes Care .
Here are 12 foods that you should specifically avoid — or at least limit — to help manage type 2 diabetes.
Skip Regular Soda and Sip Sparkling Water Instead
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If you have diabetes, you’re allotted approximately 30 to 45 grams (g) of total carbs per meal if you’re a woman, and 45 to 60 g per meal if you’re a man, says Amy Kimberlain, RDN, a certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES), a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a wellness dietitian at Baptist Health South Florida in Miami. Down a 12-ounce (oz) can of soda with your lunch and you’ve already used up 39 grams (g) of your carbohydrates for the day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — the equivalent of more than 9 teaspoons of sugar. All that sugar not only makes your blood sugar harder to control, but it can also tax your heart, kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, and immune system, says Bobbie Randall, RD, CDCES, who practices in Orrville, Ohio. Instead of soft drinks, she recommends sparkling water with a refreshing slice of lemon, lime, or cucumber.
Smoothies Aren’t Always as Healthy as They Seem
Sodas are a no-brainer, but other drinks that contain loads of sugar aren’t as easy to spot. Take fruit smoothies: They sound nutritious, but they can pack a sugary carb punch, especially if they’re oversize and made with sweetened fruit, sugar syrup, and sweetened yogurt. Nutrition stats on fruit smoothies vary widely, so always check the label on yours (if bottled) or request this information (if you’re ordering from a restaurant or quick-service spot). In general, one cup of fruit smoothie has 25 g of carbs, including 18 g of sugar, per the USDA. (Smoothies are usually bigger than one cup, so this is a very conservative estimate.) It’s possible to make a smoothie at home that’s diabetes-friendly, as long as you plan out the ingredients wisely. As an alternative, Randall recommends sipping sugar-free flavored waters, or eating fruit whole to get its beneficial fiber while keeping carbohydrates in check.
Cut Back on Sugar-Bomb Coffee Drinks
Other unhealthy beverages, such as coffee drinks, are seemingly ubiquitous. According to the USDA, a medium frozen coffee drink (which may be topped with whipped cream) packs a whopping 67 g of carbs, the majority of which come from added sugar. Before you place your next to-go order, see if the item’s nutritional information is listed on the menu so you can choose smarter.
You shouldn’t have to ditch coffee completely — try enhancing a regular coffee with sugar-free hazelnut syrup, some vanilla extract, or a dash of cinnamon. If you crave a little richness, Randall recommends using a few drops of half-and-half.
Avoid Fried Foods Like French Fries and Chicken Nuggets
Fried foods are usually breaded, which can add up to lots of carbohydrates, unhealthy fats, and calories, says Kimberlain. Too much fat in your diet can lead to weight gain, she adds, which can worsen type 2 diabetes. Weight gain also increases your risk of heart disease, a risk that’s already elevated when you have diabetes, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Rather than eating breaded and fried favorites like chicken nuggets, shrimp, okra, and onion rings, Randall suggests roasting or baking these foods without the breadcrumbs. Try a coating of fresh herbs or spices. If you must have breading, coat with whole-grain crumbs and bake the foods instead of frying — "that’s a happy medium," she says.
Favor Lean Proteins Over Fatty Cuts of Meat
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Many cuts of red meat are high in unhealthy saturated fat, says Kimberlain, Too much of this type of fat increases your risk for heart disease, the AHA notes. Because people with diabetes are already at higher risk for heart disease compared with those without diabetes, Randall recommends limiting fatty cuts of meat in favor of foods that supply healthy fats, such as fish, nuts, and avocado, as well as lean proteins like skinless chicken and tofu. Fatty meats include poultry with skin, ground meat with a high fat percentage, prime cuts of beef, and processed meats like sausage and bacon, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Pass on Unhealthy Packaged or Processed Sweets
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Packaged snacks and baked goods like cookies, doughnuts, and snack cakes typically contain refined carbs that cause a sharp spike in your blood sugar and can lead to weight gain when eaten in excess, says Kimberlain. They also may still contain unhealthy trans fats, which can further raise your risk of heart disease, she adds. (Trans fats have been phased out as an ingredient because they are so dangerous to health, but as this change takes effect, some foods may still be made with these partially hydrogenated oils, notes Mayo Clinic.) Randall recommends limiting your consumption of high-carb, white-flour, and sugar-sweetened treats (once in a while is okay) and choosing whole-grain versions whenever possible.
Give the Heave-Ho to Heavily Salted Processed Foods
Because salt works wonders as a preservative, most packaged and processed foods contain plenty of it, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out. You may love the taste, but the sodium in salt is an electrolyte that can increase blood pressure, and people with diabetes are already more likely to have high blood pressure, another risk factor for heart disease, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Hot dogs and boxed macaroni and cheese are prime examples of high-salt foods that will have your heart working overtime if you eat them regularly, says Randall. When you must choose packaged foods for convenience, look for low-sodium or no-salt-added versions, suggests the AHA.
Take Biscuits and Sausage Gravy Off Your Menu
Randall singles out this traditional Southern meal as an example of a combination that people who have diabetes should avoid. The biscuits usually are made with white flour, and the sausage gravy is high in fat, calories, and sodium. According to the USDA, a single biscuit with gravy has 475 calories, 27 g of fat (7 g of which is saturated), and 45 g of carbs. As an alternative, Randall recommends eggs, whichever way you like them, and a whole-grain English muffin.
Eat High-Fiber Fruit Instead of Drinking Juice
One hundred percent fruit juice may seem like a healthy choice because it contains no added sugar, but a mere ½ cup (equivalent to 4 oz) serving contains 15 g of carbs and about 63 calories, per the USDA. Beyond that, the body metabolizes 100 percent fruit juice in the same way it processes soda, leading to a quick increase in blood sugar levels. Either way, the result is a higher risk for weight gain and heart disease, note the authors of an article published in May 2019 in JAMA Network Open.
Therefore, fruit isn’t ideal for people with type 2 diabetes, says Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDCES, a health, food, and fitness coach in Prescott, Arizona, and a medical reviewer for Everyday Health.
Other fruit drinks can contain added sugar and even more carbohydrates. Keep in mind that no matter what, it’s easy to drink more than ½ cup of juice, which means the carbohydrates and calories increase as well.
If you simply can’t give up fruit juice, limit your serving size to 4 oz per day, says Grieger. A better choice still is to eat a piece of fresh fruit, which contains valuable fiber that is lacking in juice, and drink water, she advises.
Choose Granola, Energy, and Protein Bars Carefully
Granola, energy, or protein bars seem like a healthy option, but read the list of ingredients and nutrition facts and you’ll be surprised at the added sugars and artificial ingredients present in most bars, says Grieger. Look for bars that contain the least amount of added sugar possible and several whole-food ingredients, such as oats, nuts, or dried fruit, and avoid bars with long, unpronounceable chemical ingredients, she says. Finally, always check the nutrition facts for calories and grams of carbohydrates so you can accurately determine how to fit a bar into your daily food choices, she says.
Stay Away From Sweetened Yogurt and Go Greek
Yogurt is often synonymous with “healthy,” but buyer beware, warns Grieger. Unless labeled “plain,” yogurt contains added sugar. In order to best manage blood sugar, you’ll want to limit added sugar in your diet, says the ADA. The very best yogurt option is plain Greek yogurt, she says. For people with type 2 diabetes who are looking to lose weight, nonfat is a great choice — according to the USDA, 1 typical, 150 g container contains just 5.4 g carbs (and a whopping 15.3 g protein, 0.585 g of fat, and 4.9 g of naturally occurring sugar). The same serving size of flavored Greek yogurt, on the other hand, contains 17.8 g carbs, 3.9 g fat, and 16.8 g of sugar.
Any yogurt that contains sprinkles, granola, or candies is going to contain even more carbohydrates, not to mention added sugar, Grieger adds.
Opt for Plain Oatmeal Over Sweetened Cereals
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Hot breakfast cereal is usually made from whole-grains such as wheat (porridge) or oats (oatmeal), which naturally contain carbohydrates, explains Grieger. Sprinkling any kind of sugar (brown included) on top increases carbohydrates dramatically.
A good example is the difference between plain oatmeal (101 calories and 20 grams of carbohydrate per instant packet) and maple brown sugar flavored oatmeal (158 calories and 33 grams of carbohydrate per instant packet), notes the USDA.
To enjoy a truly healthy oatmeal, choose plain steel-cut or old-fashioned oatmeal and add your own fruit and a bit of cinnamon for sweetness, she suggests.