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Top 10 Foods to Avoid If You Have Diabetes - and What to Eat Instead

Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD
Foods to avoid with diabetes
American Diabetes Alert Day is in March, which is an important day for diabetes awareness, prevention, and management. In the spirit of the day, let’s examine some of the foods that are best to avoid if you have diabetes and some better alternatives for blood sugar control.

Diabetes is a very common condition in which blood sugar levels need to be monitored and managed regularly. Diet is an important factor in blood sugar control, and it can be frustrating to determine which foods are best - and worst - to eat when you have diabetes.

Fortunately, resources like diabetes-friendly meal kits can make it a little easier as you plan a healthy diabetes diet. But planning such a diet requires knowing exactly which foods to avoid, and which ones are healthier choices. So what are the basic do's and don'ts you need to know?

What is diabetes? 

Diabetes mellitus is a chronic condition affecting the way your body turns carbohydrates from food into energy for your body to use. The process is impaired in a way that makes blood sugar levels difficult to manage without help from medication and/or dietary practices. If you have diabetes, it’s important to monitor your blood sugar levels so that you know when intervention is needed to keep them in a healthy range. 

There are three main types of diabetes. You can either develop diabetes as a result of numerous lifestyle factors, be born with it, or experience it temporarily as a part of pregnancy.

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is generally something people are born with or develop in childhood. It’s thought to be an autoimmune disease in which the body mistakenly attacks itself and insulin is not produced. Type 1 diabetes accounts for around 5-10% of all diabetes cases. It requires continuous daily use of insulin to manage and there is currently no known cure or way to prevent it.

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes used to affect primarily adults but is developing among children and young adults more often. In this type, the pancreas produces insulin but the muscle cells don’t respond to it anymore, leaving blood sugar levels chronically high. Type 2 diabetes can be prevented and sometimes even reversed with healthy lifestyle practices, including a nutrient-dense diet based on whole foods, in addition to regular activity.

Gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes develops among pregnant women who don’t have a history of diabetes. It usually goes away after the baby is born, but can put women at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later. It’s generally managed by checking blood sugar levels and a healthy diet pattern, and using medications if needed.

Diabetes nutrition 

Regardless of which type of diabetes you have, diet is among the most important factors in managing it well. A healthy diet pattern may even help you reverse type 2 diabetes altogether.

Foods that are especially high in carbohydrates include bread, pasta, crackers, grains, dairy products, fruits, and certain vegetables. While there’s nothing inherently unhealthy about these food groups, certain types can affect your blood sugar more than others. It’s important to understand which ones should make up the majority of your diet and which ones should be avoided when you have diabetes. 

Additionally, diets that are high in saturated fat may further impair the ability of insulin to move blood sugar into muscle cells, worsening blood sugar management. 

What not to eat when you have diabetes

1. White bread and pasta

Bread and pasta that are made from white or refined flour are known to spike blood sugar more quickly when eaten, especially among people with diabetes. They’re also lacking in fiber, a critical nutrient for overall health and blood sugar management. 

Instead, choose a variety of whole-grain bread, pasta, and other grains instead, like quinoa, barley, oats, amaranth, and farro. Meal delivery kits like Sunbasket and Blue Apron offer diabetes-friendly meals that are loaded with healthy whole grains.

2. Soda

Sodas are among the worst beverages for anyone to consume, with diabetes or not. Not only do they lack any nutritional benefit, but sodas are also concentrated with sugar. In one can of soda, there are 45 grams of carbohydrates in the form of added sugar. 

Soda is also full of fructose, which has been linked to insulin resistance and diabetes. Some research suggests that consumption of fructose-rich beverages like soda can also lead to diabetes-related complications, like fatty liver diseases. 

Diabetic-friendly alternative: Healthier beverages like water and unsweetened tea or coffee.

3. Sweetened yogurt

Yogurt is often touted as a health food, but most varieties contain large amounts of added sugar per serving. This is because yogurt is usually made with low-fat or skim milk that’s high in carbohydrates and sugar.

Diabetic-friendly alternative: Choose unflavored, unsweetened yogurts and flavor them yourself with things like bananas, berries, and other whole fruits you enjoy. These may even be made from non-dairy milk like soy, oat, coconut, or almond. 

4. Sweetened breakfast cereal

Cereals are super convenient in the morning, but unfortunately, these popular breakfast options aren’t great for blood sugar. The majority of boxed cereals contain far more carbohydrates from added sugar than consumers are led to believe. 

Diabetic-friendly alternative: Opt for a higher protein, lower-carbohydrate breakfast option like an egg or tofu scramble with plenty of veggies, or a bowl of oatmeal with berries and almond butter.

5. Maple syrup

White sugar isn’t the only sweetening agent that causes a spike in blood sugar and offers no benefit for diabetes management. Often called “alternative sweeteners”, things like maple syrup, agave nectar, brown sugar, and honey, aren’t any better for blood sugar. For comparison, there are 13 grams of carbohydrates in both one tablespoon of refined white sugar and maple syrup.

Diabetic-friendly alternative: Minimize the use of sweetening agents altogether and opt for naturally sweet foods like fruit or pitted dates for recipes.

6. Dried fruit

Fruits consumed in their whole form are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber that offer numerous health benefits. When fruit is dried, it loses its water content, and its sugar concentration increases. One example is grapes versus raisins. A one-cup serving of grapes contains 27 grams of carbs, while the same serving size of raisins contributes 127 grams. 

Diabetic-friendly alternative: A wide array of fruits in their natural state for the most benefits for health and blood sugar control. 

7. Fruit juice

The truth is that fruit juice isn’t much better than soda when you’re looking at its sugar concentration and impacts on blood glucose levels. This is true even for 100% fruit juices marketed as being a healthier drink option. 

An 8-ounce serving of fruit juice may contain upwards of 35 grams of carbohydrates. Plus, they’re full of fructose, consumption of which drives other health problems like obesity, insulin resistance, and heart disease. 

Diabetic-friendly alternative: Sticking to fruit in its whole food form and choosing unsweetened beverages like water, tea, and coffee to quench thirst and hydration needs. 

8. Flavored coffee drinks

Coffee, in its plain form, actually offers a number of health benefits, like better blood sugar control. It’s when the coffee has other ingredients added to it, like sugary syrups, whipped cream, and other flavoring agents, that it becomes problematic for diabetes. In fact, many of the fancier coffee drinks are more like a dessert than a beverage. 

Diabetic-friendly alternative: Enjoy your cup of coffee black or with a splash of unsweetened soy or oat milk. 

9. Red meat

Red meat, like beef and pork, is high in saturated fat. Some studies have found that eating around 50 grams per day of processed red meat, like bacon, sausage, and hot dogs, increased the risk for diabetes by 32%. One reason for this may be because saturated fat makes it harder for insulin to move sugar from the blood into your muscle cells. 

Diabetic-friendly alternative: Leaner proteins like poultry and fish, or non-meat proteins like soy foods, nuts, seeds, beans, peas, and lentils.

10. Fried foods

Fried foods, like potatoes or Oreos, tend to be high in carbohydrates as it is. When they’re fried, this is generally done using vegetable oils, resulting in both a high carbohydrate, high-fat end product with no nutritional value. Plus, fried foods contain toxic compounds called advanced glycation end products and aldehydes, which may promote inflammation and disease. 

Diabetic-friendly alternative: Foods that have been roasted, steamed, baked, or grilled as opposed to fried. 

Conclusion

Diabetes is a serious disease that requires intentional daily management and healthy lifestyle habits. Your diet is a significant piece of keeping your blood sugar levels in check.

Avoiding foods that are high in added sugar and saturated fats, especially things like sugary beverages, refined grains, and processed red meats, is a good practice. Consider trying a diabetes-friendly meal kit service to help make healthy eating even easier.

Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD
Lauren specializes in plant-based living and vegan and vegetarian diets for all ages. She also enjoys writing about parenting and a wide variety of health, environmental, and nutrition topics.

*The information on this site is based on research, but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new diet plan, we recommend consulting with a physician or other professional healthcare provider. Results may vary based on various health factors, individual weight loss plans and adherence to the meal plan.