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Having diabetes doesn’t mean all carbs are off the table. There are plenty of popular low-carb eating plans out there, but the extreme restrictions are difficult to maintain long-term.
So, what foods should you be limiting if you have diabetes? Replace the items on this list with more nutrient-rich options and you’ll be on your way to better meals and regulated blood sugar bliss.
Whether you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, paying attention to your daily carb intake is important. Though, there’s no set recommendation for the amount of carbs a person with diabetes should eat in a day.
The American Diabetes Association suggests taking a few days to track your blood glucose before and after meals, and then working with your healthcare team to figure out the right amount of carbs for you.
Once you figure out the right number for you, aim to evenly distribute your carb intake throughout the day.
Just as important as figuring out how many carbs to eat is knowing the right types for a healthy diet. Foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber are better choices.
Choose more whole grains over those that are highly processed. Beans, peas, lentils, quinoa, rolled oats, wild rice, and whole-grain bread products provide protein, iron, B vitamins, and fiber. People with diabetes should try to consume about 25 grams of fiber daily.
The same goes for fruits, like berries, melons, peaches, grapes, apples, oranges, and mangoes. You may be thinking these contain more sugar and might raise blood sugar levels, but they’re packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber.
The key to preventing blood glucose spikes with fruit is eating the properly sized portion for you.
Dairy products can also be a source of carbs because cow’s milk contains lactose which is a natural sugar. But dairy products provide essential nutrients such as calcium, Vitamin D, phosphorus, potassium, B12, magnesium, and protein. Again, keeping serving sizes under control is important.
Although you can eat a wide variety of foods with Diabetes, there are certain foods that won’t do you any favors. Limiting these 12 or substituting with a more nutrient-rich, fiber-packed alternate may help keep blood glucose better controlled.
1. Sugary cereal
A big bowl of Frosted Flakes may sound like a yummy way to start the day — we think so too — but it’s also a recipe for blood glucose spikes. Many breakfast cereals are primarily made with refined grains and added sugar.
Instead, go for a homemade bowl of oatmeal topped with nuts or nut butter. A dash of cinnamon, too! Or, choose a higher-fiber cereal with less added sugar. As a protein-packed alternative, try a lower-sugar Greek vanilla yogurt topped with a few berries and nuts.
2. Dried fruit
Although most dried fruit is just, well, fruit, the dehydration process means there’s more sugar and carbs per square inch than in fresh fruit.
Some dried fruit has 20 to 30 grams of carbs or more per 1/4 cup serving, and some candied varieties come with lots of added sugar (more reason to get comfy reading labels).
If you’ve got a hankering for fruit, your best bet is to reach for something fresh, frozen, or canned without any added sugar.
3. Sugar-sweetened soda
Shocked to see soda on this list? Didn’t think so. It really should be renamed sugar-water, considering all the sweeteners that give fizzy drinks their flavor.
A 12-ounce can of soda can have upwards of 39 grams of carbs — aka close to the amount you should have in one meal.
If you want some bubbly with a hint of sweetness, stop fighting it and hop on the seltzer train. Substitute with a sugar-free version of your favorite soda, free of calories and carbs, or try a sugar-free flavored water for variety.
4. Fruit juices vs. fruit drinks
When it comes to fruit juice, there are two things to keep in mind — portion size and ingredients. Most products labeled “juice” are 100 percent fruit, while those labeled “fruit drink” or “juice drink” may have only some real fruit juice with added sugar.
If you love your morning glass of OJ, that’s okay. Just keep it to 4 ounces (that’s half a cup) and remember to count the 15 grams of carbs in your breakfast total. Some lower-sugar versions of favorite juices are also available.
5. Bagels and muffins
Some large New York-style bagels can have upwards of 50 grams of carbs, and that’s not including any sugar-sweetened toppings, like a fruit flavored cream cheese or jelly.
Look for smaller bagels or use half a bagel as a serving. Large “breakfast” muffins may contain over 200 calories and more than 30 grams of carbs despite the healthy-ish names like “fresh blueberry” or “banana nut.” Read nutrition labels for total carb content and take care with added toppings.
Although pretzels are a rather low calorie snack, they’re made from refined white flour and are, consequently, rich in carbs. A serving of about 5 pretzels (and who eats just 5 pretzels?) has about 20 grams of carbs and no other real nutrients.
For something crunchy and salty, try a 1/4 cup of roasted crunchy chickpeas or nuts for some protein, fiber, and heart healthy fats.
7. Fried foods
Anything deep-fried may make your mouth water, but if the food has been “breaded” with added carbs such as bread crumbs, cornmeal, or flour, those carbs need counting.
Depending on the method of frying, these foods also pack a calorie punch when you consider the amount of extra fat involved. Fried foods can be eaten in moderation and it’s best to choose those fried in a heart-healthy oil.
Consider purchasing an air fryer which allows you to indulge in crispy fried veggies and meats without added breading or oil.
8. Syrups and jellies
Considering that a 1/4 cup serving of maple syrup or molasses has 45 to 70 grams of carbs, and we really like to use it on a stack of pancakes or waffles, this combo can really drive your blood glucose skyward. If you’re craving a short stack, try a sugar-free, low calorie syrup alternative.
Jellies and jams are usually made with fruit juice and added sugars. Even those products that claim to be 100 percent fruit are 100 percent carbs. Most jams and jellies contain between 9 to 15 grams of carbs per tablespoon.
Of course the biscuit or toast where the jelly goes must also be counted in the carb total. Look for sugar-free versions of your favorites for a 3 to 5 gram carb alternative.
We hate to lump together all forms of candy, but it’s true that most of them just don’t fit into a diabetes-friendly diet. Whether it’s a sugary pack of Skittles or a Reese’s, most regular-sized candy bars have at least 25 grams of carbs.
If you’re absolutely dying for something sweet, try three dark chocolate Hershey’s Kisses, which tallies about 9 grams of carbs. Beware that most candy labeled “sugar-free” usually isn’t free of sugar. It may contain sugar alcohols but these can still raise blood glucose and do not significantly reduce the calorie content.
Some brands have incorporated the sweetener Stevia into their chocolate, but keep in mind that sugar-free does not equal calorie-free or mean that you can partake in unlimited amounts.
10. Granola or breakfast bars
Granola bars or breakfast bars have a reputation for being “healthy” alternatives but reading the nutrition label reveals that many of these bars contain 25 to 30 grams of carbs and little protein or fiber.
Also, check the label for the serving size because the package may contain two bars but the serving size is one bar. Chances are we’re going to eat both bars at a sitting which means double the carbs listed on the label.
11. Sugary coffee drinks
A caramel macchiato is just coffee, right? Lawd, we wish that were true. Flavored coffee drinks do more than give you a caffeine boost, they also contribute a significant amount of sugar and carbs to your diet.
A 16-ounce caramel macchiato has a whopping 35 grams of carbs, and that’s only one option on a lengthy menu of dessert coffees you can choose from. Ask for the sugar-free syrup options and request lower-fat milk to keep carbs and calories in check.
12. Breakfast pastries
Donuts, cinnamon rolls, and danishes, oh my! Whether they’re sold in plastic wrapping or come fresh from a bakery, pastries disguise themselves as breakfast, but they’re really dessert.
As tempting as it might be, when someone brings in a box of treats to the office (really, Karen?) avoid the break room and head straight for your stash of healthier options.
Keep a low-carb protein shake, small fruit cups, or packages of nuts in your desk. These don’t need refrigeration and they can hit the spot when that mid-morning stomach growling starts.
- Carbs aren’t the enemy for someone with Diabetes but keeping track of carb intake is essential for better control of blood glucose levels.
- Remember that a well-balanced diet with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and lean proteins will help deliver much-needed essential nutrients to the diet.
- Living with diabetes should not be about deprivation or guilt when it comes to food choices.
- When in doubt, talk to a registered dietitian about creating a meal plan that works for you.
Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, is a New York City-based dietician, national speaker, award-winning writer, spokesperson, and media personality.