A Guide to Healthy Eating for Diabetes PreventionBy Carole Anderson Lucia Reviewed by Briana Rodriquez, R.D. Science-Backed
As we head into November, you may be looking forward to Thanksgiving and all the delectable foods and activities that come with it. But this end-of-the-month holiday isn’t the only event that’s notable about November: It’s also National Diabetes Month, the perfect time to arm yourself with knowledge about this disease.
In honor of this important awareness event, we’ve rounded up some of the best foods that may prevent diabetes from developing in the first place. Read on for information on some common questions about this condition.
What is diabetes?
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Diabetes is a disease that involves having too much glucose, or sugar, in your blood. It occurs when your body either does not produce enough (or any) of a hormone called insulin — or, if it does produce the correct amount, your body cannot use it properly. Since insulin helps move glucose out of your bloodstream and into the cells of your body, low amounts or ineffective action of this hormone causes glucose from the food you eat to remain in your blood, rather than being moved to the cells of your body to be used for energy.1
Over time, diabetes can lead to a number of serious health conditions, including heart disease and stroke, nerve damage, kidney disease and some types of cancer. That’s why it’s important to take steps to prevent diabetes from occurring.2
While there are different forms of diabetes (Type 1 where your body doesn’t make insulin, and gestational diabetes which can occur during pregnancy), the most common form of diabetes is Type 2.1 Type 2 diabetes occurs when your body doesn’t use insulin properly; this is largely related to lifestyle factors (primarily, your diet and activity levels).3 We’ll focus on Type 2 diabetes here.
How common is Type 2 diabetes?
Unfortunately, it is very common — and getting increasingly more so both in the U.S. and throughout the world. In fact, experts agree that the disease has reached epidemic levels: An estimated 451 million people had the disease worldwide in 2017, and researchers estimate those numbers will reach 693 million by 2045.3
Experts say they have seen a rapid increase in Type 2 diabetes in conjunction with the global increase in rates of obesity, an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and a shift toward less-healthy dietary patterns.4 Yet, they add, these are all “modifiable” risk factors: You can reduce some risk factors by changing your lifestyle.
What puts you at risk for Type 2 diabetes?
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, certain factors can increase your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, some of which you can control and some you cannot. They include:5
- Being 45 or older
- Being overweight or obese
- Having a family history of diabetes
- Having a history of heart disease or stroke
- Having low levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol or high levels of triglycerides
- Having high blood pressure
- Not being physically active
A poor diet — especially one high in sugar, refined carbohydrates and trans fats, and low in healthy foods like whole grains, vegetables and fruits — may also increase your risk of diabetes.8
Are there any specific foods that can help prevent or reverse diabetes?
While there are no foods that can reverse diabetes if you’ve already developed it, a good number have been shown to potentially reduce your risk of developing the disease. Here are eight.
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1. Apples: Rich in a variety of phytochemicals that have been shown to decrease the risk of Type 2 diabetes,9 apples are widely recommended as a top food for helping prevent this disease. One large study found that people who ate one apple per day had a 28% lower risk of Type 2 diabetes, compared with those who didn’t eat any.10
Eat it: Apples make the perfect mid-afternoon snack — they’re crunchy, slightly sweet and filling. Eat it raw or bake one in the oven with a little cinnamon on top for a healthy after-dinner dessert.
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2. Beans: The American Diabetes Association (ADA)11 calls beans a diabetes superfood, and for good reason: They’re loaded with magnesium, a mineral that has been linked to a reduced risk of diabetes. In fact, the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS)12 at the National Institutes of Health says that diets high in magnesium are associated with a dramatically lower risk of diabetes. Beans are also high in fiber, another important nutrient that may help head off diabetes.
Eat it: Beans make a great addition to any meal — use them to top your next salad or mix them into your next stir-fry. Try all different varieties: black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans and more!
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3. Berries: Bursting with phytochemicals and other nutrients, berries — whether fresh or frozen — have been shown to improve blood glucose and insulin measurements in people with metabolic syndrome or insulin resistance, both of which can be precursors to diabetes. Citing cranberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries as the best berries in this regard, researchers13 say these fruits have beneficial effects on diabetes prevention, particularly as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Eat it: Top your next bowl of oatmeal with fresh berries or snack on them solo for a mid-day treat.
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4. Whole grains: Whole grains, in general, have been shown to be a powerhouse when it comes to helping prevent diabetes. A review of multiple studies14 showed a “strong inverse relationship” between whole-grain intake and the risk of Type 2 diabetes: The more whole grains that were eaten, the lower the risk of developing the disease. But you don’t have to consume copious amounts of whole grains to reap the benefits — simply try to opt for whole-grain versions of your favorite foods to start.
Eat it: Try swapping simple carbohydrates (which can be full of sugar) for whole grains at your next meal. Whole-grain cereal, brown rice and whole-grain pasta are all great options!
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5. Dairy products: Numerous studies have found that low-fat dairy products are linked to a reduced risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. For instance, one large study of post-menopausal women,15 found an inverse relationship between the consumption of low-fat dairy products and the risk of diabetes: The greater the intake of low-fat dairy products, the lower the risk of diabetes, particularly for women who were obese.
Eat it: Yogurt (especially nonfat plain Greek yogurt), milk and cottage cheese are all great dairy options. Make sure to opt for nonfat or low-fat products if your goals include weight loss.
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6. Fish: While research on the topic seems mixed, several studies have indicated that including fish in your diet may help prevent Type 2 diabetes.16 One study,17 for instance, found that a high intake of fatty fish, such as salmon, may prevent or at least delay the development of Type 2 diabetes.
The ADA seems to agree, naming fish, particularly ones that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, a diabetes superfood. In fact, the organization recommends that people with diabetes eat fish — preferably fatty fish — twice per week, citing its positive effects on heart disease and inflammation.11
Eat it: Salmon and albacore tuna are a couple of examples of fatty fish. Make sure to keep an eye on your portion sizes if your goals include weight loss.
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7. Green leafy vegetables: Virtually all vegetables play an important part of a healthy diet, but when it comes to preventing Type 2 diabetes, leafy greens may be particularly important. Several studies have pointed to their role in helping prevent the disease, including a review of research18 that found people who had the highest intake of these veggies — in this case, 1.35 servings daily — reduced their risk of diabetes by 14%, compared with people who ate just 0.2 servings per day (the lowest intake).
Eat it: There’s nothing wrong with loading your plate with extra greens! From spinach to kale, arugula to bok choy, there are plenty of options to choose from. And they’re extremely versatile — try experimenting with different cooking methods such as sautéing, steaming and roasting. Cooked greens make the perfect complement to a warm winter’s meal.
So, what’s the bottom line?
While there are some uncontrollable factors that may increase your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, there are other factors within your control that may reduce your risk.
Tuning up your diet can have dramatic positive effects not only when it comes to potentially preventing diabetes, but for your overall health as well.
Do you need help reaching a healthy weight? Jenny Craig can help. View our different menu plans that can help you reach your goals today.
Carole is an award-winning journalist based in Southern California who specializes in health and wellness topics. Her work has appeared in Parents, Fit Pregnancy, Mom & Baby, Yahoo News, Viv magazine and Lifescript. She's won several national awards for her work including a National Science Award and two National Health Information awards. A frequent contributor to Jenny Craig’s Blog, Healthy Habits, she enjoys gardening, spending time at the beach and adopting far too many rescue animals in her spare time.
Favorite healthy snack: jicama dipped in homemade hummus
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and fact-checked by Briana Rodriquez, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig.
Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions based on factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy.
This article contains trusted sources including scientific, peer-reviewed papers. All references are hyperlinked at the end of the article to take readers directly to the source.