11 Vitamin-Packed Superfoods for People With Type 2 Diabetes

This content originally appeared on Everyday Health. Republished with permission.

By Sarah Hutter

Medically Reviewed By Reyna Franco, MS, RDN of American College of Lifestyle Medicine

What makes a food “super”? When it comes to type 2 diabetes, it’s not just about foods that pack lots of nutrients. For a diabetes-friendly diet, you also need foods that will help keep your blood sugar (glucose) levels in check. There is no one single best food for type 2 diabetes. Instead, the best diet for type 2 diabetes is one that is based on whole foods and is rich in fiber, protein, and a moderate amount of healthy carbohydrates.

It’s true that people with type 2 diabetes need to watch their carb intake, but they don’t have to follow a fad low-carb diet. On the contrary, says Leah Kaufman, RD, CDCES, a dietitian nutritionist at NYU Langone Health in New York City, the best diet for people with type 2 diabetes is “a well-balanced diet that has a healthy amount of carbs, protein, healthy fats, and vegetables per meal.”

RELATED: 12 Popular Low-Carb Diets, and Their Pros and Cons

While changing your diet won’t cure diabetes, it can lower your risk for type 2 diabetes complications, such as heart disease, kidney disease, and neuropathy (nerve damage). Keeping your blood glucose in check is extremely important, and food can play a big role in that effort. In fact, the food you eat affects type 2 diabetes in several ways, including glucose regulation, heart health, weight maintenance, and mood.

How can you tell a good food from a bad one when it comes to managing diabetes? “Look for items that contain healthy fats and are high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber,” says Sue McLaughlin, RD, CDCES, at Burgess Health Center in Onawa, Iowa. It’s also crucial to eat a wide variety of foods to make sure you’re getting a healthy mix of macronutrients, phytochemicals, and essential fatty acids.

RELATED: 10 Bad Habits to Kick When You Have Type 2 Diabetes

Researchers are also continuing to find evidence of links between diet and type 2 diabetes development. One study looked at the impact of nutrition in more than 64,000 women for 15 years. Researchers found that eating antioxidant-rich foods significantly lowered type 2 diabetes risk. Increasingly, such antioxidant-rich foods are being called superfoods.

“Superfoods is a term used to describe nutrient-packed foods that may have more health benefits than other foods,” says Kaufman, adding it’s not a medical term.

You’ll also find that, when it comes to diabetes, superfoods are all whole, unpackaged foods — meaning they aren’t processed with added sugars, fats, or preservatives.

Unsure where to start? Check out these 11 tips for adding more superfoods to your diabetes diet!

1 — Swap Out Meat for Beans and Lentils for Less Fat and More Fiber

High in fiber and protein, beans are digested slowly in your body, making them great for managing blood glucose levels in a type 2 diabetes diet. Just ½ cup of any type of beans will provide as much protein as 1 ounce (oz) of a meat protein equivalent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

No matter which type of bean you choose, you’ll also gain a significant amount of your daily fiber needs from a 1-cup serving. For example, according to the Mayo Clinic, 1 cup of baked beans offers 10 grams (g) of fiber, while 1 cup of black beans has 15 g. Women need an average of 21 to 25 g of fiber per day, while men need between 30 and 38 g. According to one article, only about 5 percent of the U.S. population meets that threshold, and yet a high-fiber diet is associated with a reduced risk of various diseases, including type 2 diabetes, obesity, stroke, heart disease, and even some cancers. (Just be sure to increase your intake of fiber slowly, and drink plenty of water, to reduce diarrhea, per the Mayo Clinic.)

Other legumes offer similar health benefits that are key in managing diabetes. In one study, Canadian researchers found that eating beans, chickpeas, and lentils was associated with improved blood glucose control, reduced blood pressure, and lower cholesterol and triglyceride (fat found in the blood) levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Those qualities are important because people with diabetes are at a higher risk for heart problems than the general population, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

What’s more, beans are good sources of magnesium and potassium. Diabetes is associated with magnesium deficiency, notes one article, and potassium plays a role in further boosting heart health because it helps regulate blood pressure, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

RELATED: 10 Foods High in Potassium

2 — Eat Salmon for Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Many types of seafood are good for people with diabetes. According to the NIH, salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines, and herring are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which promote heart health by helping lower the blood fats called triglycerides. Just be sure to avoid or limit your consumption of fish with high levels of mercury, such as tilefish, swordfish, marlin, and king mackerel, as outlined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Eating fish twice a week has other far-reaching benefits: A study found that fish may protect people with diabetes against kidney problems. Fish is considered a diabetes-friendly food as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. Choose blackened or grilled fish over fried preparations.

RELATED: The Best Types of Seafood for People With Type 2 Diabetes

3 — Consider Tree Nuts for Other Sources of Healthy Fats

Loaded with fiber and protein, nuts are filling and contain high levels of unsaturated fats, the kind that contribute to HDL, or “good” cholesterol, making them a boon to your heart health. But when it comes to stabilizing blood sugar, polyunsaturated fats in tree nuts — such as almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, and pistachios — are especially beneficial. (As a side note, peanuts aren’t tree nuts; they’re legumes.)

In a review and meta-analysis, Canadian researchers looked at data from 12 clinical trials and found that eating two servings of tree nuts a day lowered and stabilized blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes and unhealthy cholesterol levels (dyslipidemia), and stabilized metabolic syndrome.

“Plant-based healthy fats can improve lipid levels,” says Kaufman. She recommends adding foods rich in polyunsaturated fats to help reduce high cholesterol related to elevated blood glucose, but with a caveat. “Although healthy, these foods do have a higher amount of calories, so I would limit them to one serving per day,” Kaufman notes. The Cleveland Clinic defines one serving as 1 oz or 35 peanuts, 24 almonds, 14 walnut halves, or 18 cashews.

4 — Grab a Handful of Fresh Blueberries for Disease-Fighting Antioxidants

While all berries contain high levels of antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber, blueberries may be one of the most beneficial for people who have, or are at risk for, type 2 diabetes. “Antioxidants,” says Kaufman, “are a broad term used to describe a food that can help protect the body from damage. Antioxidants can be found in the vitamins of the actual food, or even the coloring.” In general, the deeper the color, the higher the antioxidant content.

In one article, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that for every three servings of blueberries (as well as grapes and apples) eaten per week, people reduced their risk for type 2 diabetes by as much as 26 percent compared with those who ate less than one serving per month.

Fiber-rich berries also have the added benefit of satisfying your sweet tooth without any added sugars. Swapping out cookies for blueberries and other antioxidant-rich fruits will reduce blood sugar while keeping sugar cravings at bay. “Patients with diabetes should generally stay away from refined sugars and processed carbs to improve glucose control,” Kaufman says.

RELATED: The 8 Best Fruits for People With Type 2 Diabetes

5 — Have a Side of Broccoli to Increase Your Intake of Vitamins A and C

A review of research found that a diet rich in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli may help reduce the risk of cancer.

Loaded with antioxidants, broccoli is a good source of vitamin A and is high in vitamin C, two nutrients essential for anyone, regardless of a diabetes diagnosis. According to the USDA, 1 cup of cooked, previously frozen broccoli (without added fat) supplies 93.8 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin A, or about 10 percent of the daily value (DV), and 73.4 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C, or about 82 percent of the DV.

Plus, with 5.5 g of fiber (22 percent of the DV), broccoli is filling — which makes it a good choice for people who are trying to lose weight and control type 2 diabetes.

6 — Indulge Your Potato Craving With Fiber-Rich Sweet Potatoes

When it comes to foods for type 2 diabetes, not all potatoes are created equal. To keep your blood sugar levels in check, it’s best to reach for sweet potatoes, which are high in fiber (eat the skin for more fiber), as well as a host of other vitamins. According to the USDA, one boiled medium sweet potato (with no fat added during cooking) offers 3.8 g of fiber, or 15 percent of the DV.

“I typically recommend about one-half a plate of nonstarchy vegetables per meal and one-quarter a plate of fiber-rich starchy vegetables, such as sweet potato with skin on, to increase overall fiber intake,” says Kaufman, though it’s important to work with your healthcare team to figure out how much starchy vegetables is right for you, she adds. Other starchy vegetables you can eat in moderation include peas and corn.

Another important consideration is the cooking process. When boiled, sweet potatoes are a low glycemic index (GI) food, meaning they won’t spike your blood sugar as much as regular potatoes, according to research. Baking, roasting, and frying are the worst ways to prepare sweet potatoes for people with type 2 diabetes, they found.

RELATED: All the Health Benefits of Sweet Potatoes for People With Diabetes

7 — Incorporate Spinach and Kale Into Pastas and Salads

According to a review of research, eating about 1 cup of dark leafy greens, including spinach and kale, each day can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 14 percent. Though the reason is unclear, it may be that leafy greens have a protective effect because they contain antioxidants like vitamins A and C. A cup of fresh, cooked kale (without fat added) offers 172 mcg of vitamin A, or about 20 percent of the DV, and 21 mg of vitamin C, or about 25 percent of the DV, notes the USDA. Leafy greens are also low in calories and carbohydrates (the same serving of kale has 52 calories and only 6.3 g of carbs), which is ideal for folks with type 2 diabetes.

8 — Savor Your Morning Bowl of Oatmeal for Blood Sugar Control

Eating whole-grain oats may help you hit your target A1C and boost heart health. One systematic review and meta-analysis found that people with type 2 diabetes who ate oatmeal for breakfast had better postprandial glucose readings and lipid profiles than people who ate control breakfasts. Postprandial glucose readings measure glucose levels two hours after eating, and lipid profiles can help indicate heart health. It’s no mystery why oats are great in a diabetes diet — they’re another good source of fiber. The USDA notes that a ½ cup of cooked oats provides 4 g, or 15 percent of the DV, of fiber.

For the healthiest options of oatmeal, choose unsweetened steel-cut or old-fashioned oats with no added salt or preservatives. For a creamier texture and added protein, cook them in low-fat or nonfat milk. Add toppings like berries, seeds, cinnamon, and nuts for a flavorful, filling breakfast.

RELATED: 10 Easy Breakfasts for Type 2 Diabetes

9 — Slice Open a Tomato for Heart-Healthy Lycopene

Nothing beats biting into a ripe, juicy tomato — and luckily, folks with diabetes don’t have to give them up. In fact, tomatoes are ideal for a diabetes diet. “Foods such as blueberries and tomatoes with rich coloring can be higher in antioxidants and should be consumed regularly by those with diabetes,” says Kaufman.

This superfood may help lower blood pressure and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which may lessen the risk for heart disease. A report from a 10-year study suggested that lycopene, a key nutrient in tomatoes, may help reduce the risk of heart disease by 26 percent. Keep in mind that your body will be able to absorb more lycopene from cooked tomatoes than from raw ones.

10 — Go Greek With Your Yogurt for More Protein and Other Nutrients

Creamy and delicious, yogurt is a rich source of calcium, protein, and magnesium. It can also deliver valuable probiotics, which, according to a study, can help reduce the risk of weight gain and obesity, as well as cardiovascular disease.

Opt for Greek yogurt; it’s slightly higher in protein than regular yogurt, which helps keep you fuller longer. According to the USDA, 1 cup of nonfat plain Greek yogurt offers 23 g of protein, while the same serving of nonfat plain yogurt contains 14 g of protein.

Read nutrition labels carefully, and avoid any Greek yogurt products that have added sugars. Your best bet is to select plain, fat-free versions and to add some sweetness with berries.

RELATED: Is One Type of Yogurt Best for People With Type 2 Diabetes?

11 — Get Your Monounsaturated Fats With Heart-Healthy Avocados

Known for their heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, avocados top the charts in terms of health benefits. According to a review of research, avocados can help lower cholesterol, promote normal blood pressure, and reduce inflammation, thanks to their high fiber content, potassium, and lutein. One serving of avocado (a third of a medium-sized avocado, or 50 g) has 80 calories, 6 g of healthy fats, and a variety of vitamins and minerals, according to California Avocados.

Additional reporting by Kristeen Cherney.

Everyday Health follows strict sourcing guidelines to ensure the accuracy of its content, outlined in our editorial policy. We use only trustworthy sources, including peer-reviewed studies, board-certified medical experts, patients with lived experience, and information from top institutions.
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