foods to avoid with diabetes

What are foods to avoid with diabetes?

By Michelle Katz, MS, RD, certified diabetes care and education specialist Apr 20, 2023 • 6 min

If you have prediabetes or diabetes, following a healthy eating plan can lead to better blood sugar control and a lower risk of complications. Some foods are better choices for your diet than others.

The following are all foods you should generally avoid or limit in order to support your health and well-being.

Sugary foods

Foods sweetened with sugar, like cookies, cakes, candies and doughnuts, can cause dramatic spikes in blood sugar. To indulge your sweet tooth, look for alternatives made with low- and no-calorie sweeteners. It’s also important to limit portion size. You can also enjoy sweet, low-glycemic fruits like apples, oranges, pears, blueberries and strawberries.

Sugary drinks

Like sweets, sugary drinks can cause your blood sugar levels to rise rapidly. Water, diet soda and unsweetened tea and coffee are often considered better choices compared to regular soda, fruit juice, energy drinks, sports drinks and coffee drinks prepared with sugar or syrups.

Foods high in sodium

People with diabetes are twice as likely to have high blood pressure or hypertension than those who don’t have the condition. Hypertension increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney disease, so managing your blood pressure is important for your overall health if you have diabetes.

Consuming too much sodium can contribute to hypertension. 90% of the sodium in American diets comes from table salt. Do your best to limit the amount of salty foods you eat. Examples of foods with high levels of salt include:

  • Bacon, cold cuts and other smoked and cured meats
  • Frozen dinners
  • Canned foods
  • Salted nuts, potato chips and other snacks
  • Processed cheeses like nacho cheese sauce and American cheese
  • Soy sauce
  • Salted butter

Low-sodium versions of some of these foods are available. Read labels carefully to find out how much sodium is present. Use herbs and sodium-free seasonings instead of salt to add flavor to meals.

Highly processed foods

Overly processed food products often contain large amounts of sodium and added sugars. In addition, these foods are often high in calories and low on nutrients, which can potentially lead to weight gain.

Examples of highly processed foods include bottled salad dressings, condiments and packaged meals that come frozen or ready to eat. Although avoiding processed foods entirely is rarely an option, reading the labels can help you make better informed choices.

Foods high in saturated and trans fats

People with diabetes have an increased risk for heart disease. Saturated fats increase the risk even more by contributing to blockages in the arteries. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fats to 5 to 6% of your daily calories.

Foods high in saturated fats include:

  • Butter
  • Cream
  • Lard
  • Coconut and palm oils
  • Foods fried or baked using saturated fats
  • Whole and 2% milk
  • Whole-milk dairy products like yogurt and cheese

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are healthier options and when consumed in moderation, these healthy fats can help lower your risk for heart disease. Foods containing healthy fats include:

  • Olives and olive oil
  • Avocado
  • Peanut oil
  • Canola oil
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Cottonseed oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Nut butters
  • Fish

Fast food

Many options at fast food restaurants are high in sodium and saturated fat, and some popular menu items also contain added sugars. Fortunately, most chain restaurants publish their nutrition information online, so you can compare dishes and select healthier options when your schedule requires you to grab something from the drive-thru.

Processed grains

Refined grains have gone through a process that strips away fiber and other nutrients. Foods made with processed grains can raise blood sugar levels quickly. Many also contain hidden sugars and sodium. Examples of foods made with refined grains include:

  • White bread
  • White rice
  • White flour
  • Corn grits
  • Pastries
  • Cakes
  • Many types of crackers

Whole grains are more nutritious than refined grains. They contain dietary fiber that can help control blood sugar levels, and they also contain essential vitamins and minerals. Try the following whole-grain alternatives to refined grains:

  • Whole wheat and multigrain breads
  • Brown rice
  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Quinoa
  • Faro
  • Barley
  • Oatmeal
  • Bulgur
  • Millet
  • Buckwheat

Whole grains are a source of carbohydrates, so be mindful of your portions and pair whole grains with a source of protein for better blood sugar control.

Starting on a healthy eating plan for diabetes

If you’re striving to improve your diet to better manage your blood sugar and reduce your risk of diabetes complications, your healthcare provider can assist you. They can give you advice on how many calories to consume every day and how much of certain types of nutrients like protein, fat and carbs you should strive to eat on a daily basis based on your weight, age, sex, healthy history and other factors. 

Published April 2023.

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