Food matters in diabetes.
Three reasons why

  • What, when and how many carbohydrates you eat directly affects your blood glucose levels. This in turn impacts your long-term health, such as your risk of developing heart disease.
  • Eating well and having sensible portions can help you watch your weight. Keeping to a healthy weight can reduce your risks of developing serious problems with your heart, eyes and feet.
  • Food is your body’s fuel. Eating regular balanced meals means you are more likely to have a range of important nutrients as well as steady energy levels throughout the day.
Several large jars filled with different types of pasta

Carbs and your blood glucose

All carbohydrates turn into glucose (sugar). Some are broken down more quickly and can cause a spike in blood glucose (high glycaemic index (high GI) foods) and some are broken down more slowly (low GI foods). Low GI foods are sometimes called slow-release foods.

Making changes to your diet that help lower the overall GI of a meal or snack can help regulate blood glucose levels.

The type of fibre found in pulses such as beans and lentils, and grains like oats and barley, is more slowly digested. This helps you manage your blood glucose levels and provide a steadier source of energy.

Should you count carbs?

For people living with type 1 diabetes and people living with type 2 diabetes on insulin, matching quick-acting insulin to carbs is crucial for blood glucose management.

Knowing the carb content in your food and drink helps you adjust quick-acting insulin accurately. Your diabetes team can teach you how to do this and factor in other variables, like exercise. They can also inform you about local education programmes.

Fruit and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables contain fibre, and are rich in vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C and potassium. Studies show that eating more fruit and vegetables helps cut your risks of high blood pressure and strokes.

Aim for at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day. Fruit contains higher levels of natural sugar compared to vegetables (particularly tropical fruits). Try to limit fruit to
two to three portions and spread throughout the day. Eating more vegetables or salad will have less impact on blood glucose levels.

What counts as a portion?

People are sometimes unsure about how much fruit and veg makes a portion. A typical portion
is about 80 grams, and a helpful guideline is that a portion of fruit or vegetables should be roughly the size of what fits in your hand. For instance, one portion might be equivalent to a pear, a peach, two satsumas, an apple or a handful of berries. Tinned, fresh and frozen all count. Limit dried fruit to 30g or a tablespoon amount as these are higher in natural sugars.

Pasta Bolognese

Five top tips for adding fruit and veg to meals

Get into the habit of adding an extra portion of vegetables or a side salad to all your main meals. Here are five ideas to give you some inspiration.

  • Add broccoli, red onion, tomatoes or peppers to pasta.
  • Throw in a handful of red lentils, a can of beans or frozen peas when making soups, stews or curries.
  • Making rice? Mix in an equal amount of frozen mixed vegetables before cooking.
  • Add chickpeas or kidney beans to salad or rice dishes.
  • Add spinach leaves, onions, peppers or mushrooms when making an omelette.

Your weight really matters!

Weight loss is fundamental if you have type 2 diabetes. Losing just 5% of your body weight can reap significant benefits to your long-term health, such as reducing your risks of heart disease. Keep healthier foods within easy reach, stay active, ask for support from friends and family, and get enough sleep. Keeping a record of your portion sizes can make you more aware of your eating habits.

Intermittent fasting may benefit people with type 2 diabetes. You will need to plan your diet
carefully to make sure you are eating balanced meals. If you find this approach leads to binge
eating, then try a different approach. Talk to a healthcare professional for guidance on medication adjustments and blood glucose monitoring before trying intermittent fasting.

If you are not overweight, it is important to eat a variety of healthy foods in the right amounts for
you. Ask for a referral to a dietitian for support if you are losing weight unintentionally. 

The key to healthy eating is the kind of foods you choose, how much you eat and
how often you eat them.

The tops of assorted fizzy drink cans.

Sugar and diabetes

Living with diabetes does not rule out any food. However, it is important to eat fewer higher-sugar foods as they can have a quick, direct impact on blood glucose levels.

Foods with lots of sugar are usually processed and might also be high in fat – like chocolate, cakes, biscuits and puddings. It is better to enjoy naturally sweet-tasting foods that are less processed. For example, dried fruits such as raisins, apricots and dates bring sweetness in baking and also provide fibre goodness.

Sugar in liquid form like juice or cola can make your blood glucose levels rise quickly. This can
be useful in certain circumstances where a small amount (equivalent to 15g carbohydrate) is recommended for treating a hypoglycaemic episode (low blood glucose level under 4mmol/l).

Is fruit juice okay?

Fruits contain natural sugars but when eaten as a whole fruit they also provide fibre, which helps slow down the rise in blood glucose levels. When fruit is juiced, we take out most of the fibre and your blood glucose is likely to rise more quickly. Also, when fruit is taken in the form of juice, it is easier to consume a larger amount of natural sugar than you would have if you had eaten whole fruits.

For these reasons, it is recommended not to drink more than 150ml of unsweetened fruit juice or fruit-based smoothies per day. Adding vegetables instead of fruit to a smoothie can help boost fruit and veg intake and have less impact on blood glucose levels.

Takeaway Pizza

Ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods (known as UPFs) often contain a long list of ingredients. Examples of these UPFs include crisps, biscuits, cakes, doughnuts, muffins, pastries, processed meats like sausages, burgers and hot dogs, as well as some ready meals. Many of these foods have ingredients that you might not use at home. They include additives, preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, and artificial colours and flavours. Ingredients lists may also include added sugars, such as brown sugar, fruit nectar, dextrose and molasses. Remember, they are all types of sugar and can affect your blood sugar levels.

Sometimes people pick these foods for the sake of convenience. It is okay to have them on occasion, but be mindful they do not add much nutritional benefit to your diet. Foods that are heavily processed tend also to be higher in fat, sugar and salt and many are high in calories, so they can lead to weight gain. They can often be low in nutrients such as fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals. Note that some foods that might be considered ultra-processed can actually provide important nutrients. Fortified high fibre breakfast cereals are a good example. Choose lower-sugar versions and those with a shorter list of ingredients, by reading food labels and checking the ingredients list for any added sugars.

The key to healthy eating is the kind of foods you choose, how much you eat and how often you eat them. UPFs are not to be feared. This is not about restricting – it is about reducing. If you are choosing ready meals, fast food or takeaways for example, be mindful of how much you have. Takeaway serving sizes can be larger than you need and are often higher in fat and calories – consider sharing and adding a side salad or some steamed vegetables to make your meal go further. If you are trying to lose weight or improve your glycaemic control, aim to choose a ready meal that has less than 50g carbohydrate in total per meal.

Try to choose foods that are less processed and keep to the recommended portion sizes on the pack. Get into the habit of looking at food labels and choose brands that are lower in fat, sugar and calories, yet still fit within your budget.

DRWF Healthy Eating For Diabetes 1

Healthy eating and diabetes

Use this leaflet as your dietary guide. It highlights three key messages to improve your diet and food choices: choose healthier carbohydrates, eat less sugar and cut down on ultra-processed foods.

This guide cannot give you a strict eating plan, as we are all different with unique medical
needs, cultural and food preferences.

Visit our information leaflets page

A group of fruits and vegetables

Healthy Living

Adjusting your diet and regularly exercising can help people living with diabetes achieve greater stability with their blood glucose levels, reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease, support the management of a good body weight and maintain a good quality of life. 

Learn more about healthy living with diabetes