If you're managing diabetes, you likely know that keeping your blood sugar steady is key to feeling good and staying healthy. The more you can keep that glucose number within the range recommended by your endocrinologist, the more likely you are to stay energized and reduce your risk of health complications.
"I encourage my clients with diabetes to think of their blood glucose as a tool that can help them make changes to feel better," says Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDCES, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Association of Diabetes Care and Education Specialists. "The roller coaster of high and low blood sugars can take a toll on your energy level, mood and ability to function at your peak."
There are several things you can do to manage your blood sugar, including eating regularly throughout the day, staying hydrated, reducing stress, taking medications as recommended and exercising, says Sheth. One of the most impactful ways to keep your blood sugar stable is to eat balanced meals and snacks that contain a combination of vegetables, protein, fat and starchy carbs or fruit.
Frankly, there are no foods that will magically stabilize your blood sugar. No foods are off-limits when you're managing diabetes. The American Diabetes Association explains that because everyone's body responds differently to various foods and eating patterns, there's no definitive list of "good" and "bad" foods for diabetes, just as there's no single diabetes diet.
That said, adding certain foods to your grocery list can make it easier to whip up balanced meals and snacks that help keep your blood sugar in a healthy range. Here are nine items that dietitians recommend.
Time to get cracking. "Nuts are a common recommendation for people who are managing diabetes, as they are an excellent source of both mono- and polyunsaturated fats," says Kari Garner, RDN, a certified diabetes care and education specialist and owner of Springtime Nutrition. "These heart-healthy fats not only help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, but also contribute essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to the diet." A handful of nuts makes a great snack when you're in a pinch, and nuts are low enough in carbohydrates that snacking on them won't spike your blood sugar. In addition, nuts make a great addition to any meal, as the fat and fiber will slow the absorption of glucose into your bloodstream. Choose the type of nut that you like the best, whether that's pistachios, almonds, walnuts or a variety, for Sweet and Salty Roasted Nuts.
Whole nuts are great, but when you'd rather have something spreadable, nut butters are another fantastic choice. "Peanut butter is high in heart-healthy fats that when paired with a carbohydrate, help slow the absorption of sugar [from the carb], preventing a blood sugar spike," says Rebecca Jaspan, M.P.H., RD, CDCES. "Spread peanut butter on a banana or apple, rice cake or toast for a quick and easy snack," she recommends.
"Berries are an excellent choice for individuals managing diabetes looking to enjoy fruit without compromising blood sugar control," Garner says. Because they're high in fiber and lower in sugar than some other fruits, berries are a fantastic way to add sweetness and flavor to a meal or snack. "Plus, berries are rich in antioxidants associated with cardiovascular and cognitive health," she says. For instance, some research has found that eating a diet higher in specific antioxidants called anthocyanins (from which berries get their bright colors) is associated with a lower risk of heart attacks and a reduced risk of hypertension, a major risk factor for heart disease, according to a review in Advances in Nutrition.
Tangy and creamy, "this versatile food can be a great way to boost the protein content of a variety of recipes or foods to help reduce the impact on blood sugar," says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDCES, a New Jersey-based dietitian and the author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet. "Adding Greek yogurt into carbohydrate-containing meals, such as a fruit smoothie or mixed into overnight oats, can help to reduce the glycemic load of the food and the overall impact on blood sugar levels," she says.
Related: Homemade Plain Greek Yogurt
"Chickpeas provide a good source of both fiber and protein, which can not only balance blood sugar, but also promote a feeling of satiety for hours to come," Palinski-Wade says. "Chickpeas can be added into everything from stir-fries to soups, salads, chili or even roasted for a crunchy snack," she suggests. According to a study published in 2017 in the Journal of Food Science and Technology, eating chickpeas at meals may help to reduce post-meal blood glucose levels and improve appetite regulation, adds Palinski-Wade.
It's not just chickpeas that are great for managing blood sugar—other beans, from black to pinto and kidney, have a similar effect. "Beans and legumes are great for managing diabetes because they contain resistant starch, which doesn't get digested and therefore does not raise blood sugars," says Justine Chan, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator based in Toronto. (To maximize the resistant starch content of beans, let them cool after cooking, or purchase canned varieties, research suggests.) "They also help to promote a healthy gut by acting as food for your good bacteria," she explains. Beans are also high in soluble fiber, which can help slow digestion and potentially lower LDL cholesterol.
"Rolled oats can be a wonderful addition to your plate when working to balance blood sugar," Palinski-Wade says. "This whole grain contains both resistant starch and the beneficial fiber beta glucan, which can help to promote gut health, balance blood sugar and reduce unhealthy LDL cholesterol levels," she says. According to a 2021 meta analysis in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, consuming oat beta glucans decreases blood sugar and insulin responses to a carbohydrate-containing meal in people with or without diabetes.
Sprinkle on some seeds! "Chia seeds are loaded with fiber, an excellent source of plant-based omega-3 fats, and they also provide some protein," Sheth says. "The soluble fiber in chia seeds can help reduce blood sugar because of the slower rate of digestion." The combination of fat, protein and fiber can also help you feel full for longer.
If you're not sure how to use chia seeds, start by stirring them into your morning oatmeal or yogurt, or toss a tablespoonful into your salad.
Dietitians recommend eating nonstarchy vegetables to boost the nutrient and fiber content of your meals. All nonstarchy vegetables are a fantastic choice, but Sheth thinks broccoli deserves a special shoutout. "It provides nutrients such as magnesium, vitamin C and plant compounds such as sulforaphane," she says. Sulforaphane is a compound found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli that has potential cancer-protecting properties. You can't go wrong with a broccoli-and-chicken stir-fry, steamed broccoli next to salmon or a few broccoli florets dipped in hummus. Or follow one of these broccoli recipes that will change how you think about the veggie.