How to eat to manage diabetes – top 10 tips

    Douglas Twenefour, specialist dietitian and deputy head of care at Diabetes UK, explains what to eat when you have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes and shares his top 10 tips for managing diabetes.

    A woman checking blood sugar levels

    There are different types of diabetes, and no two people with diabetes are the same. This is why eating to manage diabetes has so many important nuances. There is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ eating pattern for everyone with diabetes, but below I have suggested tips that can be incorporated into individual healthy eating goals for people who have the condition. However, as everyone is different, it is important to ask for a referral to see a dietitian to discuss your individual needs and preferences.

    For people with Type 1 diabetes, the main priority is to estimate how much carbs to eat per meal, and match these with insulin dose (this is known as carb counting). For people with Type 2 diabetes who may be overweight, finding a way to lose weight (including healthy eating, low carb diets, Mediterranean diet or very low calorie diets when supervised by a medical professional) is the priority, as losing excess weight significantly improves diabetes management. However, not everyone with Type 2 diabetes is overweight so maintaining your current weight, or in some instances gaining a little more weight, may be the goal.

    These healthy eating tips are general and can help you manage blood glucose, blood pressure, and blood cholesterol levels. They can also help you manage your weight and reduce risk of diabetes complications such as cardiovascular disease (CVD). Eating healthily and maintaining an active lifestyle can also help reduce your risk of other health conditions.

    1. Choose healthier carbohydrates

    All carbohydrates affect blood sugar levels, so it is important to know which foods contain carbohydrates, choose the heathier sources and be aware of the portions you eat. Healthier sources of carbs include wholegrains, fruit and vegetables, pulses and dairy, so limit your intake of refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice and highly processed cereals.

    If you have Type 1 diabetes, carb counting can help manage your blood glucose levels. You can ask for advice from a dietitian for help with this, or you may also be referred to a diabetes education programme which will be able to provide information and guidance.

    2. Use less salt

    Having too much salt increases risk of high blood pressure. This in turn increases your risk of heart disease and stroke, which people with diabetes are already at higher risk of. Aim for a maximum of 6g (1tsp) of salt per day. As many pre-packaged foods already contain salt, try to rely less on processed foods – check food labels if you are not sure how much salt they contain. A good way to cut down on processed foods is to cook from scratch at home. You can also adapt recipes by cooking with herbs, spices and peppers to replace salt.

    3. Eat more pulses and fish

    Eating too much red and processed meat such as bacon, ham and sausages is associated with various health conditions such as CVD and certain types of cancers. Replace these with pulses, eggs, fish, poultry, and nuts. Beans, peas, lentils and dhal are high in fibre, have little effect on blood glucose levels and can be good alternatives to meat.

    Aim for two portions of oily fish a week. They are rich in omega-3 oil (polyunsaturated fat) which helps protect against heart disease, which people with diabetes are at higher risk of. Examples include salmon, mackerel, sardines and pilchards.

    4. Include fruit and vegetables

    A selection of vegetables

    Try to eat more fruit and veg at mealtimes and have them as snacks. This can help you get the range of vitamins, minerals and fibre your body needs. Fruits contain natural sugar, so choose whole fruit instead of fruit juices, and spread your intake through the day rather than eating huge portions at a go. Choose from fresh, frozen, tinned or dried.

    5. Choose healthier fats

    Foods such as nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, and oily fish have good mixtures of healthy fats. Swap saturated fats such as palm oil, coconut oil, ghee, butter and lard for vegetable oils such as olive oil, rapeseed oil, groundnut oil, corn oil and sunflower oil. Grill, steam or bake foods rather than frying.

    6. Reduce your intake of sugar

    Swap sugary drinks, energy drinks and fruit juices for water, unsweetened milk, unsweetened tea and coffee. Try to reduce sugary foods such as cakes, pastries and biscuits, and foods with added fructose and polyols. Artificial sweeteners may be an option to help you reduce your intake of sugars and calories.

    7. Be smart with snacks

    If you want a snack, choose yogurts, unsalted nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables instead of crisps, chips, biscuits and chocolates – and watch your portions.

    8. Drink sensibly

    If you drink alcohol, limit your intake to a maximum of 14 units a week, avoid binge drinking and go several days a week without alcohol. Remember: 1 unit is a single measure (25ml) of spirits, or half a pint (284ml) of normal strength lager, beer or cider, but a small (125ml) glass of wine is actually 1.5 units. Alcohol is high in calories. To lose weight, consider cutting back. It is not a good idea to drink on an empty stomach, especially if you take insulin or other diabetes medications that put you at risk of hypos, as alcohol can make hypos more likely to happen.

    9. Don’t bother with so-called diabetic foods

    These products offer no special benefits to people with diabetes and may still affect your blood glucose levels. They may contain as much fat and calories as ordinary versions, are often expensive and can have a laxative effect.

    10. Get your minerals and vitamins from foods, not supplements

    There is no evidence that mineral and vitamin supplements can help manage diabetes. Unless you’re at risk of deficiency of specific minerals or vitamins, or you require a particular supplement for a medical condition or other reason (e.g. folic acid for pregnancy), supplements are unnecessary. It is better to get your essential nutrients from eating a mixture of different foods. If you think you may have a nutrient deficiency, speak to your healthcare team before you take supplements. This is because some supplements could affect the way your medications work or make some diabetes complications (e.g. kidney disease) worse.

    It is also important to keep physically active, if you can. Being more active can help with diabetes management and also reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a week spread over at least three or more days. This can be broken down into bite-size chunks of at least 10 minutes. Try to spend less time sitting down and have regular, active breaks – just getting up and going for a walk can be beneficial for both body and mind!

    This article was last reviewed on 6 June 2018 by Diabetes UK.

    All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

    Do you have diabetes or know someone who does? Let us know how you manage your diet below...


    Comments, questions and tips

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    19th Jun, 2015
    I know, right?! This whole list had me shaking my head.
    19th Feb, 2014
    Thank you good food for trying to get some clarification, as vague as it may be. This helps to show what a mindfield it is for those people freshly diagnosed!!
    goodfoodteam's picture
    28th Jan, 2014
    Hi thanks so much for your comments. We put your concerns to Diabetes UK who had the following to say:Diabetes UK would like to make clear that our tips are not meant to replace specific advice given by your health practitioner, as people will have different goals depending on their individual circumstances.In providing general information, we are careful not to be too prescriptive.  With the second tip, for example, not everyone has to cut back on carbohydrates. That is why we recommend that people be aware of how many they are consuming. For some people, reducing carbohydrate intake would be the right thing. For others, this may not be necessary and, for those on insulin and certain medications, reducing their carbohydrate intake without support to review their insulin and/or medications would put them at risk of hypoglycaemia. You can find more information about diabetes and carbohydrate intake on our website.With regards to eating your five a day, a small glass of fruit juice counts as a portion and we recommend that people limit this to a maximum of one glass a day, whether they have diabetes or not. Also, a portion of dried fruit, which is a tablespoon, has a similar amount of carbohydrate as in a portion of fresh fruit, so there is no need to avoid these so long as people are aware of what a portion size is. Our emphasis is on promoting increased intake of fruit and vegetables as general consumption is low.
    18th Aug, 2015
    I agree that T2 should eat a lot more non-starch veggies. It makes up the bulk of my diet, yet contain low carbs. As to, "not everyone has to cut back on carbohydrates." As a T2, if I didn't need to cut back on carbs, I wouldn't have been diagnosed as a diabetic. As my blood glucose levels would have been normal.
    22nd Jan, 2014
    I whole hartedly agree with Mike313. This is average sound advice for those with average health and diet issues, but not for diabetics. I think there are some serious issues here, that could be harmful for someone newly diagnosed, who is trying to get their levels under control.
    20th Jan, 2014
    I'm pleased that the Diet Plan includes recipes and advice for diabetics. At the same time, I am a bit concerned! I recently attended a talk given by an NHS nurse relating to diabetes and she gave advice on diet. With reference to Point 2 above, while she recommended basmati rice etc., she recommended cutting back on carbohydrates in general and avoiding potatoes - a different emphasis than is expressed here. With reference to Point 4 above, she advised us to AVOID fruit juice due to its high sugar content. Also, she told us that some fresh fruit, such as ripe grapes, are HIGH in sugar. She also warned us that dried fruit should be avoided as it is generally VERY HIGH in sugar since the drying process tend to concentrate the sugar so that, ounce for ounce, dried fruit has a lot more sugar than fresh fruit. In terms of getting 5-a-day, she recommended more vegetables than fruit and when choosing fruit she recommended fruit that had less sugar, such as apples and raspberries rather than say grapes or pineapple. There seems to be a lot of 'mixed messages' being given out with regards to diabetic diet, not least from Diabetes UK itself; this author seems to give different advice from the NHS specialist nurses. Confusing, and worrying.
    8th Nov, 2016
    Newly advised I am borderline diabetic, I was given this news ' it's not serious' by the GP's receptionist over the telephone and this and everything I have read has made me want to throw in the sponge 'que sera' Diabetic nurse had practically no advice. An association which contacted me without my having been informed they would , seemed to assume that every diabetic is fat, inactive and can take time off from kids or work to attend a session every week for 10 weeks and thereafter once a month to have a chat about the lifestyle changes etc.The inference was that if you didn't agree to all this you would be on your own.Neither the nurse, GP, or this Association (which is a contracted out service) seemed inclined to give me details of a beginner's guide to diabetes or a recipe book. I am 78 not overweight am as active as I can be having quite bad arthritis but still walk to the local shops and garden and do most things briskly. There seems to be a lot of concern over the number of diabetics which is growing, but everyone seems to be having a tug of war to prove that they have the right information/lifestyle/diet and I fail to make sense of it or if not like that, they leave the job to someone else. Sorry, but I am in limbo.


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