Nearly 26 million people–8 percent of the U.S. population–now has diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Foundation. And, an additional 79 million people have pre-diabetes.
The good news is, you can do something about it if you’re one of the 100 million+ people who falls into one of these categories. The right type 2 diabetes diets can make an enormous difference and help you manage or prevent this disease.
Type 2 diabetes basics
When you eat food with carbohydrates, your digestive system breaks these carbs down into sugar. This makes your blood sugar levels increase, which prompts your body to release insulin. Insulin acts as a “sponge” that soaks up excess blood sugar. This, in turn, signals your pancreas to release glucagon, another hormone that tells your liver to start releasing stored sugar. This is your body’s way of making sure you have a steady supply of blood sugar.
Still with me?
If you have type 2 diabetes, this leads to a response known as “insulin resistance,” which causes your blood sugar and insulin levels to remain high for a long time after you eat. This eventually causes insulin production to slow down … and eventually stop. So … your body can’t make enough insulin or can’t properly use the insulin it makes.
The bigger problem with insulin resistance is this: it has been linked with a variety of other problems. These include high blood pressure, high levels of triglycerides (fats) in the blood, low HDL (good) cholesterol, and excess weight. This combination of risk factors is called metabolic syndrome, and it can lead to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and possibly some cancers.
Type 2 diabetes diets research
Here’s what several research studies have found about the link between diet and type 2 diabetes:
1. Insulin resistance is caused by a combination of genes, an inactive lifestyle, being overweight or obese, and eating a diet high in processed, refined carbs. Research shows that replacing refined grains with more whole grains can improve insulin sensitivity.
2. Data from the Nurses’ Health Study suggest that behavioral and lifestyle factors play a more important role in type 2 diabetes than genes do. 90 percent of type 2 diabetes in women can be attributed to excess weight, lack of exercise, a poor diet, smoking, and drinking alcohol.
3. The Diabetes Prevention Program studied how weight loss and increased exercise affected development of type 2 diabetes in people with pre-diabetes. There were 58 percent fewer cases of diabetes after three years in the group assigned to weight loss and exercise.
4. The Health Professionals Follow-up Study found that a typical “Western” diet, combined with lack of exercise and excess body mass, dramatically increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes in men.
5. Controlling your body weight is the most important factor in preventing type 2 diabetes, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Overweight people are seven times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Obese people are 20 to 40 times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
I could keep going, but I think you get the point.
Type 2 diabetes diets: what to eat
Carbohydrates are a vital component of all type 2 diabetes diets. Carbs provides the “fuel" for your body in the form of glucose and are a primary source of energy. But choosing the right sources of carbs is key.
That’s because not all carbs are created equal for type 2 diabetes diets. Most carbs most folks eat are “refined,” which means they’ve been milled and stripped of their nutritional benefits (vitamins, minerals, and fiber). Refined flour is used to make “white" bread, rice, pasta, and all types of processed, packaged foods. Refined grains are digested faster than whole grains, leading to dramatic fluctuations in your blood glucose levels.
Instead, choose healthy complex carbohydrates that are unprocessed and unrefined. These carbs are digested slowly, keeping your blood sugar levels in check and your digestive system working properly. In fact, research has shown that women who averaged two to three servings of whole grains a day were 30 percent less likely to have developed type 2 diabetes than those who rarely ate whole grains.
The American Diabetes Association says that type 2 diabetes diets should contain healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) and should limit saturated fat and trans fat. Opt for the following foods higher in healthy fats:
- Olive oil and other vegetable oils
- Nuts and seeds
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables (9-10 servings/day).
- Add beans and lentils to your meals a few times each week.
- Eat fish 2-3 times a week.
- Choose lean sources of protein like chicken, turkey, and lean beef and pork like sirloin and pork tenderloin.
- Opt for skim milk, non-fat yogurt, low-fat cheese, and other lean sources of dairy.
- A diet that is high in fiber (25 to 30 grams per day) may help to control blood glucose levels and hemoglobin A1c goals.
- Eat less sodium (under 2,300 mg per day). This may help reduce your risk of hypertension and high blood pressure, two of the most common conditions for people with diabetes.
- Drink more water, tea, and diet drinks instead of regular soda, juice, and other sweetened beverages.
- Avoid highly processed, high calorie snack foods and desserts.
- To successfully control your type 2 diabetes with your diet, it can also help to make sure the timing and amount of carbohydrates are the same each day, especially if you take diabetes medications or insulin. The American Diabetes Association has a useful page on carb counting here.
- Exercise 4-5 times per week.
The “Plate Method” for type 2 diabetes diets
Using the plate method is a simple way to help you remember how to fill your plate with the correct proportions of healthy foods. Check out the quick video below to learn how to use the plate method.
Long story short for type 2 diabetes diets: eat more “good carbs” from whole foods like vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Choose healthy sources of fat and protein. When you need sugar, stick to natural sources of sugar like milk or a piece of fruit. The closer to nature your food is, the better.
 Johnson LW, Weinstock RS. The metabolic syndrome: concepts and controversy. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2006; 81:1615–20.
 Liese AD, Roach AK, Sparks KC, Marquart L, D’Agostino RB, Jr., Mayer-Davis EJ. Whole-grain intake and insulin sensitivity: the Insulin Resistance Atherosclerosis Study. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2003; 78:965–71.
 Anderson JW, Randles KM, Kendall CW, Jenkins DJ. Carbohydrate and fiber recommendations for individuals with diabetes: a quantitative assessment and meta-analysis of the evidence. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2004; 23:5–17.
 Maki KC, Rains TM, Kaden VN, Raneri KR, Davidson MH. Effects of a reduced-glycemic-load diet on body weight, body composition, and cardiovascular disease risk markers in overweight and obese adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2007; 85:724–34.
 Ebbeling CB, Leidig MM, Feldman HA, Lovesky MM, Ludwig DS. Effects of a low-glycemic load vs low-fat diet in obese young adults: a randomized trial. JAMA. 2007; 297:2092–102.
 Hu FB, Manson JE, Stampfer MJ, et al. Diet, lifestyle, and the risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus in women. N Engl J Med. 2001; 345:790-7.
 de Munter JS, Hu FB, Spiegelman D, Franz M, van Dam RM. Whole grain, bran, and germ intake and risk of type 2 diabetes: a prospective cohort study and systematic review. PLoS Med. 2007; 4:e261.