Food and lifestyle choices affect the ability of your body to use insulin, a hormone that moves glucose from your blood into cells where it can be used for fuel. If you have prediabetes, you may need to make some changes in the foods you eat and how active you are in order to keep your blood sugar levels within a healthy range.
Food For Prediabetes
Eat More Veggies
Plant-based fiber fills you up without raising blood sugar. Vegetables are also full of nutrients. Aim for at least 3-5 servings a day. That’s ½ cup cooked or 1 cup raw. You can choose fresh, frozen, or canned. But be sure to go for the low- or no-sodium kind. Fill half your plate with colorful, nonstarchy vegetables. Examples include carrots, bell peppers, broccoli, and leafy greens like spinach or kale.
Cut Back on Starchy Vegetables
These have more carbohydrates than their nonstarchy counterparts. But they have healthy nutrients, too. If you use the plate method, give them a quarter of the space. Starchy vegetables include white potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, and winter squash like acorn or butternut.
Snack on Fruit
These plant-based sweets have sugar, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid them. Fruit is packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Aim for two to three servings a day. That could be one small apple or ½ cup of strawberries. Ask your doctor if you should opt for low-sugar choices. That includes berries, kiwi, melons, and oranges. Try pairing your fruit with healthy proteins like natural nut butter, Greek yogurt, or almonds.
Choose Whole Grains
Unlike refined grains, whole grains have all their original fiber and other nutrients. You can eat them for breakfast or as a side dish for lunch or dinner. They come in lots of forms, including oatmeal, brown rice, whole-wheat bread or pasta, and quinoa. You can even make cookies with whole-grain flours. If you buy a packaged product, make sure you see the word “whole” before grain on the label.
Add More Nuts and Seeds
Grab a handful of any kind you like. Just make sure they’re unsalted. And stick to the serving size, about an ounce. Nuts and seeds have healthy fats, but they’re also high in calories. Good choices include walnuts, pistachios, peanuts, sunflower seeds, and cashews.
Add Some Protein
Try including protein with all your meals and snacks. It helps you feel full and slows how fast carbohydrates go into your bloodstream. That’s important when it comes to keeping your blood sugar steady. Sources include fatty fish and seafood, plant-based protein like beans and lentils, eggs and low-fat dairy, and lean meats.
Avoid Sugary Drinks
These beverages spike blood sugar because they don’t come with other nutrients — like fiber and protein — to slow down the digestion process. If you have prediabetes, it’s a good idea to limit or skip the following 100% fruit juice, soda, and sweetened coffee drinks. Try to avoid energy or sports drinks, mixed alcohol cocktails, and lemonade or sweet tea. Experts aren’t sure how artificial sweeteners affect people with prediabetes. Ask your doctor if they’re OK for you.
Limit Added Sugars
Read the Nutrition Facts label to see how much added sugar is in a packaged food or drink. You can use the 5-20 rule: 5% daily value (DV) or less means it’s a low source of sugar. If it’s 20% DV or higher, then you’ll want to put it back. You’ll find added sugar in lots of processed foods, such as cookies, candy, and cakes. It’s also in flavored oatmeal, ketchup, and jelly.
Don’t Skip Breakfast
Try to eat within 2 hours of when you wake up. That may help control your blood sugar later in the day. In general, it’s a good idea to eat when you feel hungry. That’s because you might overeat or grab something easy — and possibly less healthy — if you go a long time without food.
Talk to a Dietitian
You don’t have to figure all this out on your own. Ask your doctor to refer you to a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). That’s a trained professional who’ll help you make simple dietary changes based on your lifestyle.
Explore Healthy Eating Patterns
If you’re looking for a specific eating plan, a Mediterranean or plant-based (vegetarian or vegan) diet may help. The DASH (dietary approaches to stop hypertension) diet is also an option.
What About the Glycemic Index (GI)?
The GI ranks food according to how much it spikes your blood sugar. In general, experts don’t think it’s a great tool for people with prediabetes. It can be really confusing. And you might leave out foods that are healthy. Instead, it’s better to make sure your meals and snacks are a mix of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. If you’re not sure how to do that, ask your doctor or dietitian.
What to Eat If You’ve Been Diagnosed With Prediabetes
The diagnosis of pre-diabetes should set off alarm bells. It means you’re on your way toward developing type 2 diabetes, a disease that greatly increases your risk of heart attack and early death.
But there is good news: Diabetes isn’t inevitable. Dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, says making lifestyle changes can actually prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes.
The goal is to reduce your carbohydrate intake by choosing more complex carbs and exercising to burn them off.
Here she explains what foods to avoid, what to eat instead, what to enjoy only in moderation — and tips for making changes.
What not to eat
Rethinking your diet to reduce the risk of diabetes doesn’t mean giving up the foods you love. It means eating less of them. The first rule is to cut down on simple carbohydrates like sugar, a quick-release carb.
Eliminate sweetened beverages. “They have no fat or protein to prevent the carbs from rocketing your blood sugar,” Zumpano explains.
Similarly, cut back on:
- Sweet tea.
- Fruit juices.
- Coffee drinks.
Next, look at foods that have added sugar:
- Jams and jellies.
- Baked goods.
Then cross off empty “white foods”:
- White rice.
- White bread.
- White pasta.
Make smart substitutes
“Begin choosing whole-grain breads and pastas, brown rice and wild rice. Focus on the first ingredient ‘whole’ and at least three grams of fiber per serving,” Zumpano says.
Experiment with other grains and starches:
- Sweet potatoes, yams or redskins.
“Limit your carb intake to about 1 cup (or two slices of bread) per meal,” Zumpano suggests.
What else to eat
Protein slows the rate that carbohydrates enter your bloodstream, keeping blood sugar levels steadier. Eating protein at every meal can help you feel full and reduce the urge to snack.
Healthy proteins include:
- Lean meats.
- Dried beans and peas.
- Part-skim cheese and cottage cheese.
- Nuts and seeds.
If you have cardiovascular disease, limit red meat and stick with skinless poultry and fish. “Load up on vegetables, particularly non-starchy veggies. The fiber in vegetables and legumes will help you feel full and satisfied,” Zumpano says.
Because fiber slows down digestion and absorption, you are less likely to get hungry between meals and reach for a sugary snack.