Spotlight on... diabetic diets

A healthy, balanced diet is key to keeping your blood sugar levels in check and your diabetes under control...

A woman taking a blood sugar reading

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a lifelong condition caused by a failure of the blood sugar regulation mechanism in the body. This is controlled by a hormone called insulin. Diabetes results when the pancreas does not secrete enough insulin or cells of the body become resistant to insulin so blood sugar levels are not controlled as they should be. Without the proper function of insulin, sugar cannot enter muscle or fat cells, causing serious secondary complications such as heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, neuropathy and other complications.

How many types of diabetes are there?

Recent research has suggested that diabetes could be seen as five separate diseases, with the potential for treatment to be tailored to each of the different forms. The study was published in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology and looked at 14,775 Scandinavian patients. However, while experts saw the results as promising, they cautioned that further research would be necessary before changes could be made to treatment.

The NHS still classifies diabetes in two types.

Type 1 diabetes

Insulin dependent, less common and usually develops before the age of 30.

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas stops producing insulin. The exact cause is unknown but some believe that it is an autoimmune response in which the body attacks its own pancreatic cells. People with Type 1 diabetes must take insulin for life.

Type 2 diabetes

Non-insulin dependent, used to be most common in later life but is becoming increasingly more prevalent in younger generation largely due to an increase in obesity.

In Type 2 diabetes, the pancreas still produces insulin, but either it is not producing enough or the body does not respond to it properly. The most common cause of type 2 diabetes is obesity. In many cases, Type 2 diabetes can be avoided through eating a healthy, balanced diet and taking regular exercise and often can be controlled in the same way if diagnosed. However, some cases will require medication and your doctor should be the one to determine whether this is necessary.

Recent research has reported interesting evidence to support the reversal of type 2 diabetes. Research funded by Diabetes UK and performed by a team at Newcastle University reported that type 2 diabetes can be reversed by an extremely low-calorie diet (600 kcals per day).

This diet is extreme and Diabetes UK strongly recommends that such a drastic diet is only undertaken under professional medical supervision. People with diabetes who want to lose weight should consult their GP before undertaking any new eating plan.

...a note on gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that affects women during pregnancy, when some women have slightly higher than normal levels of glucose in their blood and their body cannot produce enough insulin to transport it all into the cells.

Read more from the NHS on gestational diabetes.

A pregnant woman next to a bowl of salad


Symptoms of diabetes can include tiredness, thirst, frequent urination and skin infections. A full list of symptoms can be found at . Diabetes must always be controlled under the management of a doctor. For further advice and information see:

Health implications

People with diabetes of either Type 1 or 2 have a higher chance of developing a range of health conditions including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, circulation problems, nerve damage and damage to the kidneys and eyes. If you are overweight then losing this excess weight healthily and steadily can have a very positive effect on blood sugar levels and can reduce the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. It's also particularly important to build up a good exercise routine as this will help the body maintain good blood sugar levels.

Food choices for diabetics

Dietary modification is fundamental to the successful management of both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, though making sensible choices will mean you can continue to enjoy a wide range of foods. It's imperative that weight is kept within the normal range. The dietary guidelines are very similar to those recommended for a healthy lifestyle: eat less sugar and fat, include more fibre-rich starchy foods and more fruit and vegetables with moderate amounts of meat, fish, milk and dairy. Choosing the right foods can make a big difference and eating regularly helps to ensure blood sugar levels do not fluctuate too much.

A magnifying glass and a calculator next to food nutrition labels

Foods to eat

- Starchy carbohydrates provide energy and help maintain and control blood glucose levels so should factor in every meal, though portion sizes and carb intake should be discussed with a dietitian to ensure you are eating to your individual needs. Look for wholemeal or wholegrain breads, high fibre breakfast cereals, wholemeal pasta and brown rice.

- Fibre can slow the rate at which the starch and sugar in foods enter the bloodstream. It can also help manage cholesterol levels as part of a balanced diet. This kind of soluble fibre is found in oats, pulses, fruit and vegetables.

- Whether you are taking insulin or not, stick to low GI foods (see below for suggestions).

- Magnesium, chromium, zinc and vitamin B3 all help to stabilise blood sugar. Eat plenty of green vegetables, whole grains, dairy foods, brewer's yeast, seafood and pulses to ensure adequate amounts of these micronutrients.

- Maintain your hydration levels with water, herbal teas etc. but avoid squash and sugary drinks.

Foods to avoid

- Diabetes is linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease so the same heart friendly healthy eating principles apply. See our Spotlight on heart disease article

- If you decide to drink alcohol, avoid drinking more than the recommended amount, and never drink alcohol on an empty stomach. Men and women are advised not to reguarly drink more than 14 units a week. Depending on the amount you drink, alcohol can cause either high or low blood glucose levels (hyperglycaemia or hypoglycaemia). Drinking alcohol may also affect your ability to carry out insulin treatment or blood glucose monitoring, so always be careful not to drink too much.

- Minimise refined carbohydrates and enjoy more foods with a low GI instead. When buying processed or packaged foods check labels and be sure to understand those ingredients which may influence blood sugar levels – these include ingredients ending in '-ose' as well as additives like maltodextrin.

Moderate your intake of the following:

  • Over-ripe bananas
  • Fruit yogurts and desserts high in sugar
  • Fruit juices
  • Dried figs & dates
  • White bread, baguettes and bagels
  • Cream crackers & white rice cakes
  • Iced cakes & pastries
  • Scones, crumpets and waffles
  • Sweet pies
  • Fruit canned in syrup
  • Breakfast cereals containing sugar
  • Baked & mashed potatoes & chips
  • White rice
  • Corn & rice pasta
  • Pizza
  • Popcorn
  • High sugar jams & jellies
  • Crisps & other potato & corn snacks
  • Fruit drinks containing added sugar
  • Fizzy drinks containing sugar
  • Sweets & chocolate bars
  • Thickened soups
  • Table sugar
  • Ice cream containing glucose syrup or high levels of other sugars

Three cans of fizzy drinks next to lots of sugar cubes

Swap higher GI foods for lower GI foods:

  • Swap refined sugary cereal for oatmeal porridge, All Bran or muesli
  • Swap white bread sandwiches for whole grain or granary bread sandwiches
  • Swap white rice for basmati rice or wholegrain rice
  • Swap biscuits or cookies for a small handful of nuts
  • Swap sugary fizzy drinks for water
  • Swap sweets or sugar candy for raw vegetable sticks with cheese or low-GI fruit
  • Swap milk chocolate bar for plain dark chocolate (70% or more cocoa solids)
  • Swap jam or marmalade on toast for avocado or nut butter on toast
  • Swap curry with rice for curry with chickpeas or lentils
  • Swap rice cakes for oatcakes
  • Swap pretzels for walnuts

Recipe suggestions

Simple salads to keep those blood sugar levels in check:

Mexican bean salad
Chickpea & roasted pepper salad
Salmon & soya bean salad

Use beans and pulses in chillis and stews and serve with brown rice:

Spicy meatballs with chilli black beans
Spicy root & lentil casserole
Slow cooker chicken casserole

Managing your weight can help control Type 2 diabetes. Check out some of our favourite low-fat recipes which don't compromise on taste:

Zesty haddock with crushed potatoes & peas
Superhealthy Singapore noodles

For further advice or information regarding the diagnosis or management of diabetes please consult your doctor.

This article was last reviewed on 27 June 2019 by Kerry Torrens.

A qualified nutritionist (MBANT), Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

Jo Lewin is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health. Follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.

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 health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Comments, questions and tips

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7th Oct, 2019
You rightly advise avoiding potatoes, among other things, yet some of your supposedly "diabetic friendly" recipes include potatoes in some form, including as a topping for Shepherds Pie and Roast Potatoes. This is appalling. sort it out
15th Jun, 2019
As a newly diagnosed diabetic, i have found this article very useful. I hope some of the advice here and in the comments below can reduce my blood glucose to non-alarming levels.
23rd Nov, 2016
There's quite a lot of research which now proves beyond doubt that dieting by pregnant women (especially in the forst trimester when most docotrs tell you not to put on weight) lead to the child having a predisposition to gain weight faster on normal levels of food. Dieting can also 'kick-start' diabetes in children. So it's not simply 'obesity causes diabetes' in fact it doesn't - but what causes the obesity in the first place - and it begin in the womb.
16th Feb, 2015
Thanks for sharing this useful information. Now I know what healthy food to eat. gain targeted twitter followers
3rd Feb, 2015
try testing your blood sugar after eating meals containing the 'complex' carbs, e.g brown rice, wholemeal pasta, recommended. You may find, like me, that they push up your blood glucose levels just as much, and as quickly, as white rice, white pasta. It is these high levels of glucose in your blood that cause damage. I go for half a plate of veg (no starchy root veg), very small spoon of a carb, then some protein, e.g. Chicken, which can have a good dollop of something fatty like creme fraiche mixed with it. My doctor says my HBA1c levels are now not showing signs that I have diabetes (though of course I still do)
16th Jun, 2014
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12th Jun, 2014
Thanks for this, now I'm aware of the foods that should and not to take by a diabetic people. Thank you very much. For more information kamagra
Rose Woodbridge 1
24th Jan, 2014
what desserts can a diabetic have ?
22nd Jan, 2014
Carrots appear in the diabetics' list of what not to eat. Should we really be eating the Puy lentil, spiced roast carrot and feta salad recommended above?
8th Jan, 2014
"White bread, baguettes and bagels, Baked & mashed potatoes and chips, White rice, Corn & rice pasta, Pizza." Are diabetics not allowed anything but vegetables for dinner???
Sridhar Nyapathi's picture
Sridhar Nyapathi
10th Mar, 2018
More information on Indian fruits for diabetics is needed. The question whether banana, which is widely available throught the year in India , can be part of a type2 diabetic's daily diet has never been clearly answered. Similarly, the practice in India is that soon after one diagnosed with type2 diabetes, is to add wheat chapatis/pulkas , to the diet in place of rice. Now even wheat that is available in the market is said to be not ideal. Millets have issues like digestion,etc. What are the alternatives ?
31st Oct, 2016
If basmati rice and brown rice are on the acceptable substitute list, why are chick peas and lentils given for accompaniments for curry when rice is more normal and in my opinion more acceptable, please?
15th Dec, 2013
My boyfriend is diabetic (Type 1) and we're trying to start eating healthier in the new year I would be really grateful if you could possibly reccomend any more healthy recipes like the ones above to try out? Many thanks! xx
goodfoodteam's picture
28th Jan, 2014
Hi there, try some of these diabetes-friendly recipes, selected by Diabetes UK:
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