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Consuming less-processed grains can help blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Cavan Images/Getty Images

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The bodies of people with diabetes do not produce enough insulin or cannot use insulin properly, causing glucose to accumulate in the blood. Choosing low glycemic index (GI) foods is one way to help manage the condition.

For people with diabetes, foods and beverages that the body absorbs slowly are best because they do not cause spikes and dips in blood sugar.

The GI measures the effects of specific foods on blood sugar levels. People who are looking to control their blood sugar levels should pick foods with low or medium GI scores.

People can also pair foods with low and high GI scores to ensure that a meal is balanced. Researchers suggest that low GI patterns of eating can improve a person’s blood sugar response over time.

However, there is no evidence to suggest that eating a certain type of food can lower a person’s blood sugar levels in a diabetes-related emergency.

Below are some of the best foods for people who are looking to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.

Many kinds of bread have high GI scores and can cause a spike in blood sugar levels. So, for people with diabetes, many are worth avoiding.

However, the consumption of whole grain foods has been associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Some breads are considered a good way to consume whole grain foods.

Pumpernickel bread and 100% stone-ground whole wheat bread have low GI scores, at 55 or below on the GI scale. They have lower GI scores than regular whole wheat bread because the ingredients go through less processing. Processing removes the fibrous outer shells of grains and cereals. Fiber slows digestion and helps stabilize blood sugar levels.

The researchers behind a 2020 trial found that consuming less-processed grains caused an improvement in blood sugar levels for people with type 2 diabetes.

A separate 2020 study involving people with type 2 diabetes also found that the particle size of the whole grains in bread had an impact on blood sugar levels. This reflects their level of processing.

A 2021 review looked at the effect of millets, which have a low GI score. The researchers found that the regular consumption of millets, including sorghum, reduced average fasting blood sugar levels by up to 12% and decreased post-meal blood sugar levels by up to 15%.

Breads to eat

  • whole wheat, especially stone-ground whole wheat bread
  • pumpernickel
  • spelt
  • rye
  • rice
  • bread made with ancient grains, such as emmer and einkorn
  • bread made from less-processed grains

Breads to avoid

  • white bread
  • bagels
  • other breads made from refined or highly milled grains
  • breads with added sugar
  • fruit breads and raisin toast

Except for pineapples and melons, most fruits have low GI scores of 55 or below. This is because most fresh fruits contain lots of water and fiber to balance out their naturally occurring sugar, which is called fructose.

However, as fruits ripen, their GI scores increase. Fruit juices also have very high GI scores because juicing removes the fibrous skins and seeds. So, fresh fruit is best.

A study from 2020 that followed around half a million people in China for 7 years found that those who ate fresh fruit daily had lower rates of type 2 diabetes.

Also, a large 2013 study found that people who consumed whole fruits — especially blueberries, grapes, and apples — had significantly lower risks of developing type 2 diabetes. The researchers also report that drinking fruit juices increased the risk of developing the condition.

Fruits to eat

  • apples
  • apricots
  • avocadoes
  • blackberries
  • blueberries
  • grapefruit
  • grapes
  • peaches
  • plums
  • raspberries
  • strawberries

Fruits to enjoy in moderation

  • dried fruit
  • watermelon
  • pineapple
  • fruit juice
  • overripe bananas
  • dates

Regular potatoes have a high GI score, but sweet potatoes and yams have low scores and are very nutritious.

Some research indicates that the flesh of the sweet potato contains more fiber than the skin, indicating that the whole vegetable could be beneficial for those with diabetes.

Reporting the findings of an animal study, the researchers also note that sweet potato consumption may lower some markers of diabetes.

Although there is still no conclusive evidence to suggest that sweet potatoes can help stabilize or lower blood sugar levels in humans, they are undoubtedly a nutritious food with a low GI score.

People can substitute sweet potatoes or yams for potatoes in a variety of dishes, from fries to casseroles.

Potatoes to eat

Potatoes to avoid

  • white potatoes
  • French fries
  • mashed potatoes

Oats have a GI score of 55 or lower, making them less likely to cause spikes and dips in blood sugar levels.

Oats also contain β-glucan, which can:

  • reduce glucose and insulin responses after meals
  • improve insulin sensitivity
  • help maintain glycemic control
  • reduce blood lipids (fats)

The authors of a 2021 meta-analysis of 103 trials looked at how β-glucan affects blood sugar levels after a meal. They found evidence to suggest that carbohydrate-based meals containing β-glucan were linked to lower blood sugar levels than those without.

Also, a 2015 review of 16 studies concludes that oats have a beneficial effect on glucose control and lipid profiles in people with type 2 diabetes. Determining the impact of oat consumption on type 1 diabetes requires more research, however.

One serving is equal to half a cup.

Good ways to enjoy oats

  • stone-ground oats
  • rolled oats

Oat products to limit

  • processed oats
  • instant oats
  • cereal bars

Nuts are very rich in dietary fiber and have GI scores of 55 or below.

Nuts also contain high levels of plant proteins, unsaturated fatty acids, and other nutrients, including:

A 2014 systemic review concludes that eating nuts could benefit people with diabetes.

As with other foods in this article, it is best to eat nuts that are as whole and as unprocessed as possible. Nuts with coatings or flavorings have higher GI scores than plain nuts.

One serving is equal to one-quarter of a cup.

Nut products to eat

  • raw almonds
  • raw cashews
  • raw walnuts
  • raw pecans
  • other tree nuts
  • raw peanuts
  • peanut butter
  • sunflower seeds

Nuts with higher GI scores

  • cashews
  • macadamia nuts
  • roasted or salted nuts
  • candied nuts

Legumes — such as beans, peas, chickpeas, and lentils — have very low GI scores. Even baked beans, which are not as preferable, still have a medium GI score.

Legumes are also good sources of nutrients that can help maintain healthy blood sugar levels. These nutrients include:

  • fiber
  • complex carbohydrates
  • protein

A 2012 study found that incorporating legumes into the diet improved glycemic control and lowered the risk of coronary heart disease in people with type 2 diabetes.

People with diabetes may wish to avoid legume products that contain added sugars and simple starches, such as those in syrups, sauces, or marinades. These additions can significantly increase a product’s GI score.

Legume products to eat

  • black beans
  • pinto beans
  • green beans
  • lima beans
  • navy beans
  • black-eyed peas
  • chickpeas
  • lentils
  • snow peas
  • hummus

Legumes to limit

  • any beans with added sugar

Garlic is a popular ingredient in traditional medicines for diabetes and a wide variety of other conditions.

The compounds in garlic may help reduce blood sugar by improving insulin sensitivity and secretion.

The authors of one 2017 study found that garlic supplements helped manage blood sugar levels, cholesterol, and lipid levels in people with type 2 diabetes.

In a 2013 study, 60 people with type 2 diabetes and obesity took either metformin alone or a combination of metformin and garlic twice daily after meals for 12 weeks. Those who took metformin and garlic saw a more significant reduction in their fasting and post-meal blood sugar levels.

Ways to add garlic to the diet

  • eating it raw
  • chopping it and adding to dips, savory spreads, and salad dressings
  • sauteing it with vegetables
  • adding it to cooked meals
  • taking garlic capsules

Fish and other meats do not have GI scores because they do not contain carbohydrates.

However, consuming fish containing the omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid may help manage or prevent diabetes better than other types of meat.

The researchers behind a 2021 study found that people who consumed oily fish developed type 2 diabetes at lower rates than those who did not.

Also, participants who ate plenty of fatty fish in a 2017 study showed better glucose regulation after a meal than those who avoided fish.

One 2014 study included data from 33,704 Norwegian women over a 5-year period. The researchers found that eating 75–100 grams of cod, saithe, haddock, or pollock daily reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

However, the researchers were unsure if the reduction in risk was a direct result of eating the fish or if other healthy lifestyle factors, such as exercise, could have influenced the findings.

Researchers have not found evidence of a link between mercury and diabetes. However, experts recommend limiting fish high in mercury, especially for pregnant people, those who are breastfeeding, and children.

Fish products to eat

  • anchovies
  • cod
  • haddock
  • herring
  • pollock
  • saithe
  • salmon
  • sardines
  • fish oil capsules

Fish to limit

  • bigeye tuna
  • king mackerel
  • marlin
  • shark
  • swordfish
  • tilefish

Eating plain yogurt daily may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

The authors of a large 2014 meta-analysis conclude that yogurt may be the only dairy product that lowers the risk of developing the condition. However, they also note that other dairy products do not seem to increase a person’s risk.

Researchers are still unsure why yogurt helps lower the risk of type 2 diabetes. However, plain yogurt is generally a low GI food. Most unsweetened yogurts have a GI score of 50 or below.

It is best to avoid sweetened or flavored yogurts, which often contain too much sugar for a person who is looking to lower their blood sugar levels. Greek-style yogurt can be a healthy alternative.

Yogurt to eat

  • Greek yogurt
  • unsweetened yogurt

Yogurt to avoid

  • sweetened yogurt
  • flavored yogurt

Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is key. Some additional strategies to help lower or manage blood sugar levels include:

  • staying hydrated by drinking plenty of clear liquids
  • staying active throughout the day
  • eating small portions more frequently
  • not skipping meals
  • managing or reducing stress
  • maintaining a moderate body weight or losing weight, if appropriate

People with diabetes may also need to take medications and measure their blood sugar regularly to reduce the risk of experiencing potentially dangerous symptoms and complications.

Speak with a doctor about how to incorporate a healthy diet into a diabetes care plan.


The foods listed in this article are available in most grocery or health food stores and online:


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