If you’re reading this, you likely belong to the roughly 34 million Americans who suffer from type 1 or type 2 diabetes[1]. This brings with it some good news and some bad news. First, the good news: diabetes is not the end of the world. In fact, with the advent of modern medical techniques and massive improvements in medical knowledge, diabetes is often quite a treatable condition.  The bad news is that treating diabetes is a lifelong endeavor that will probably require you to develop and maintain strict habits around diet, exercise, and possibly medication.

Exercising is sweaty and hard, and insulin injections can be a pain (for you and your wallet alike), but keeping a healthy diet doesn’t have to be unpleasant at all. In fact, making smart choices about which foods to eat and which to avoid will not only reward your health, but can be cost-effective and delicious too. The catch: figuring out the best way forward with your diet can be a little difficult, due to the volumes of conflicting, confusing, and downright misleading information available online and elsewhere.

For advice on how to approach your diet as part of managing your diabetes, it’s important that you consult with trusted healthcare professionals. However, this guide will offer some general information to help you cut through the noise and navigate your path to a healthy, delicious, and diabetes-friendly diet.

One Diet to Rule Them All?

The American culinary scene is somewhat chaotic, to put things mildly. Almost every street corner is overcrowded with multiple fast-food franchises, every checkout counter in the country is surrounded by literal walls of candy, and apps like Uber Eats make it easy to have any food you can dream of appear at the push of a button. Unsurprisingly, waistlines have been ballooning for decades, and the diet and weight loss industries have ballooned right alongside them. For diabetics looking for sound nutritional advice, the resulting landscape of wacky diets and endless contradictory diet advice makes it difficult to know where to begin.

Fortunately, some research exists that suggests a simple low-carb diet can be a useful framework to start from, when adopted on the advice of a doctor and combined with a holistic treatment regimen[2]. Please note that this does not mean that a low-carb diet is the only healthy option for diabetics – other diets may also have benefits for diabetics, and low-carb may not be suitable for you. However, low-carb might be a solid place to start, due to its simplicity and flexibility, and its lack of gimmicky or extreme measures.

Low Carb Diet | Diabetes Friendly Foods

Low-Carb Diets: What’s the Big Idea?

To understand the theory behind why the low -carb diet works, it’s important to understand the basic categories of food and how they’re digested in a (diabetic) person’s body.

Simply put, all food can generally be sorted into three macronutrient categories – carbohydrates, proteins, or fats. Carbohydrates (or carbs) include anything sugary, starchy, or fibrous, and contain about 4 calories of energy per gram. While proteins and fats contain just as much energy as carbs or more (4 calories per gram of protein and 9 calories per gram of fat), they take longer to metabolize, as they must go through complex metabolic pathways before they can be converted to sugars.

In comparison, sugary and starchy carbs break down much more easily into simple sugars, and therefore cause a larger and quicker spike in blood sugar levels. Constantly combating these spikes with insulin can quickly become difficult and inconvenient.

Limiting one’s intake of carbs can therefore make for a smoother, steadier increase in blood glucose after a meal, and can make it more likely for your blood sugar levels to stay within a healthy range with less active maintenance on your part. Some research also indicates that a low-carb diet can have additional benefits for your health, such as aiding in weight loss, lowering your cholesterol levels, reducing the intensity and frequency of food cravings, and giving you a feeling of having more energy throughout the day.[3]

Getting Started with a Low-Carb Diet

As mentioned, the simplicity of the low-carb approach is one of its virtues. To adopt this diet, simply figure out what proportion of each macronutrient should make up your diet, and then pick recipes that conform to your targets while staying within your overall calorie target for the day. For instance, the Mayo Clinic states that somewhere between 0.7 to 2 ounces of carbs per day is typical for a low-carb diet[4]. Two ounces of carbs contain roughly 240 calories, which means if you were aiming to eat 2,000 calories per day (which is roughly the average required daily amount for an adult female[5]), you would need to eat a combined 1,760 calories (or 88% of your calorie goal) of proteins and fats.

The math can seem a bit daunting at first, but apps like MyFitnessPal contain easy-to-use food trackers that can help you keep track of your macronutrients and calories throughout the day. Reading labels to learn about the macronutrient contents of a given food item can be a little tedious at first, but it’s also a great way to pay closer attention to what you’re eating, and after a while, you’ll start to know the calories and macros for your favorite foods off by heart.

Before you get started with the low-carb diet, make sure you confirm with a doctor or healthcare professional that this diet is appropriate for your specific circumstances, and that you understand how it works. Also, you may need to do some experimenting or ask for professional advice on what the best ratio of carbs, proteins, and fats is for your purposes. Remember, this is not an exact science – your mileage may vary depending on your activity levels, age, weight, and a whole host of other factors.

If you feel really unsure of where to begin, one possible strategy involves tracking the macronutrients in your current diet without making any changes and noting your blood sugar levels around mealtime. Then, once a baseline is established, one would slowly reduce their carb levels over a period of time and keep track of how their blood sugar levels respond. Again, this is not a recommendation, and you should discuss with your doctor before making any changes to your diet.

Eat This, Not That

Now that we’ve determined that minimizing carbs can be a helpful way to stabilize blood sugar levels, we still need to determine which foods are the healthiest choices to meet those macronutrient targets. After all, eating nothing but bacon and lard might qualify as low carb, but won’t do any favours for your overall health. This section will lay out some of the foods to look for, and some to avoid, when planning out your diet.

Refined Sugars and Starches

When trying to keep a low-carb diet, knowing which foods are chock full of carbs can help keep you on track with your goals. Be aware that starchy vegetables like potatoes, or other starchy foods like white pasta and bread, can contain lots of carbs, even though they aren’t sweet or sugary.

Processed foods, and foods that are full of refined sugars like corn syrup, are also major sources of carbs that are likely to spike your blood sugar and throw your diet out of line, while also containing very little additional nutritional content (otherwise known as “empty calories”).

Potatoes and scoop of flour | Diabetes and Carbohydrates

Good Fats and Bad Fats

Another important nutritional fact is that not all fats are created equal, and some fats should be avoided. Specifically, saturated fats and trans fats are known as “unhealthy” fats and are associate with many negative health outcomes. Many fried foods are full of these fats, as are processed foods and many baked goods. Opting for moderate amounts of healthier fats, like olive oil, avocados, or nut butters, can be a smarter choice for your health.