Diabetes is a medical condition that occurs when the body has difficulty processing sugar, causing the blood sugar levels to be high. It is a chronic condition managed by medication and learning how to eat differently. Having diabetes doesn’t mean you can never eat some of your favorite foods, but you may need to eat them only occasionally and in smaller amounts.
This article discusses certain foods that people with diabetes should limit, including processed foods, fried foods, and foods high in sugar. Learn about some healthy alternatives and when to see a medical provider.
Foods to Avoid with Diabetes
Diabetes is a disease that occurs when your blood sugar, also called blood glucose, is too high. Sometimes this happens because the body isn’t making enough insulin, the hormone that helps cells take in glucose, or the cells don’t respond well to the insulin. Glucose is the body’s main source of energy which comes from the food you eat. Having diabetes means you need to learn which foods to eat that will fuel your body with nutrition without causing your blood sugar level to rise too high.
Avoid foods high in starch, refined carbohydrates, and sugar because they quickly add lots of glucose to the blood, causing your blood sugar to spike. These foods are also devoid of nutritional value. People with diabetes also need to be careful about eating foods that may make them gain weight because that puts them at an even higher risk for cardiovascular problems.
In the last half-century, the market for processed foods has increased substantially.
Processed food is any food that has undergone alterations during preparation. This includes freezing, canning, baking, and drying. Researchers classify foods based on their level of alteration, such as
- Unprocessed or minimally processed food
- Processed culinary ingredients
- processed foods
- Ultra-processed foods
Ultra-processed foods typically contain five or more ingredients that are usually not used in the typical kitchen, including:
- Hydrogenated oil
- Fructose corn syrup
- Artificial food additives
- Artificial sweeteners
- Artificial colors
- Artificial preservatives
These ultra-processed foods have minimal nutritional value but contain high levels of sugar, saturated fats, trans fats, and salt. If you have diabetes, avoid these foods, as they put you at risk for high blood sugar levels.
Instead of processed foods, eat whole foods that have undergone little or no processing. These food items tend to be on the outer edge of the grocery store, whereas processed foods tend to be in the aisles. When food shopping, it’s a good rule of thumb to shop the perimeter where you can stock up on fresh whole foods while avoiding the junk food in the center of the store.
Typically, fried foods are coated in breading, which adds extra carbohydrates. Fried foods also contain unhealthy fats and empty calories, leading to weight gain. Gaining weight can increase a person’s risk of heart disease, a risk that people with diabetes already face.
Rather than eating fried food, try roasting or baking these food items instead. For a similar crunchy texture, rather than the added breading, try coating these foods with spices or fresh herbs.
High-fat meats include:
- Prime cuts of beef
- Chicken with the skin
- Ground meat with a high-fat percentage
- Processed meats like sausage and bacon, deli meats
These meats contain high levels of unhealthy fats, and consuming too many foods high in fat can cause weight gain putting you at higher risk for heart disease. Because people with diabetes are already at an elevated risk for cardiovascular disease, unhealthy fatty meats should be limited.
Instead, eat foods high in healthy fats, such as
- Skinless chicken
Fast foods are often highly processed and may contain high amounts of sodium and sugar, which people with diabetes should avoid. However, that doesn’t mean all fast food is off-limits. When eating out, avoid fast food that is fried, like chicken strips and french fries, and stay away from sugary beverages like sodas, juices, and milkshakes.
If you are going to eat out, there are healthy options available in some fast food restaurants. Look for menu items such as:
- Salads (but avoid a lot of dressing!)
- Grilled chicken
- Lettuce-wrapped burgers or sandwiches (skip the bun)
- Vegetable or bean soups
- Steamed or roasted vegetables
- Brown rice rather than white rice
- Unsweetened ice tea or water
Starches include white bread, white rice, pasta, potatoes, crackers, and other refined-flour foods. All these foods contain carbohydrate, which breaks down into glucose in the body. While some starch is good for us to eat, other types cause the blood sugar level to rise too quickly, which makes managing diabetes difficult.
Some starches cause blood sugar levels to rise slowly and not to rise as high. These types of starches also contain more fiber, which helps slow blood sugar rise during digestion. So skip the white flour foods and eat these in small portions instead:
- Wholegrain bread or crackers
- Whole Grain cereal
- Whole grains such as barley or oats
- Whole-wheat pasta
- Brown or wild rice
Packaged Baked Goods
Packaged baked goods are typically made with refined white flour. These foods include:
- Snack cakes
These foods quickly break down to sugar in your body and cause your blood sugar levels to spike. They can also lead to weight gain when eaten in excess. Packaged baked goods often contain unhealthy trans fats, which, as previously discussed, puts a person at higher risk for heart disease.
Instead of eating packaged baked goods, make trail mix that contains a good serving of nuts and seeds, and have a side serving of fruit. Or have some fun in the kitchen experimenting with making your own desserts using no-calorie, low-calorie, or naturally occurring sweeteners like applesauce.
Sweetened beverages are extremely high in sugar and fructose, two very harmful ingredients for a person with diabetes to consume.
Sweetened beverages include:
- Sweetened coffee drinks
- Sweetened tea drinks
- Energy drinks
- Sports drinks
Instead of drinking those high-sugar beverages, try drinking these instead:
- Water flavored with fruit
- Unsweetened sparkling water
- Club soda
- Unsweetened ice tea
- Unsweetened coffee
It’s important to understand that alcohol can interfere with diabetes medications and how the body processes sugar. This makes managing blood sugar levels very difficult. Also, many alcoholic drinks contain high levels of carbs and sugar. People with diabetes should limit the number of alcoholic beverages they consume, especially:
- Dessert wines
- Alcohol with sweet mixers
- Alcohol that contains fruit
If you have diabetes, before you drink alcohol, discuss the risks with your medical provider and understand how to monitor your blood sugar. If you are taking insulin or oral medication for your diabetes, make sure you understand any possible interactions and side effects that alcohol may cause.
Anyone choosing to drink alcohol should drink in moderation. Guidelines suggest having no more than
- 5 oz of wine
- 12 oz of beer
- 1.5 oz liquor
When to See a Medical Provider
To learn more about what foods to enjoy and which to avoid, speak with your medical provider, who can help you understand this topic better and provide you with more resources about nutrition and meal planning.
If you are having trouble managing your blood sugar, call your medical provider and let them know. Keeping your blood sugar within a healthy range is crucial to your health and preventing complications.
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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The dessert dilemma: Can people with diabetes have dessert? (2022).
The hidden dangers of fast and processed foods. (2018.)
Ultra-processed food consumption and adult diabetes risk: A systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis. (2021).
Understand your risks to prevent a heart attack. (2016).
What is diabetes? (2016).