Struggling to figure out the best and worst foods for diabetes? Then list of ‘divine and devil foods’ should help you take charge of your diet.
One of the most common questions I get asked by all people with diabetes is what diet to follow. ”Can they have fruits? Can they add jaggery to their tea?” and so on…
I have compiled here a short list of foods that you can and cannot eat if you have diabetes.
I have called them the ‘devil and divine foods’ for people with diabetes.
Diabetes Is The Devil Itself
Diabetes itself is the devil, given it can lead to a number of health problems. Heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease, eye disease and many such problems are all a part of the diabetes disease process.
With over 65 million people in India suffering from this problem, it is no surprise that India has become the diabetes capital of the world.
Before I dive into what the best and worst foods are for diabetes, here is something you need to know.
Terms You Should Know
Before I jump into details regarding the best and the worst foods for diabetes, it is important that you understand some of the terms I am going to use in this article.
1. GI value
A GI value or glycaemic index value is a number that is assigned to foods based on how slowly or how quickly they increase the levels of glucose in your blood.
Those that have a high GI value increase blood sugars rapidly while those with a low GI value increase blood sugars very slowly.
2. Glycemic load
This is a calculated value that provides more comprehensive information on how quickly the digested food becomes glucose and enters the bloodstream and how much glucose is actually going to affect the individual.
It is calculated by multiplying the quantity of carbohydrates (in grams) in the food to its glycaemic index and dividing the product by 100.
A glycaemic load of less than 10 is considered low while that of 20 and above is considered high. It is possible to have a high glycaemic index but a low glycaemic load.
Okay, now that we have that clarified, let’s start with the bad foods for diabetes first….
Devil Foods In Diabetes
When it comes to the devil foods, there are a handful that are considered the worst foods to eat if you have diabetes.
These foods have a high GI value and glycemic load.
This means that when they are digested, they release a large amount of glucose into the bloodstream and can cause large fluctuations in the blood sugar values.
Below is a short list of foods you must avoid if you wish to have your blood sugar levels under control.
White rice is a common staple food that is consumed as a part of most meals in South India and in some parts of north India.
Polished white rice, which is mostly starch, is considered by many to be one of the worst foods to eat if you have diabetes.
This is because white rice when digested can cause a sudden increase in the blood glucose levels. If you eat white rice every day, the fluctuations in blood sugar can be quite remarkable.
Over a period of time it can affect the average blood glucose levels.
In one study published in the British medical Journal, those who ate white rice regularly were at higher risk of developing type II diabetes. This fact is particularly important if you have been diagnosed with pre-diabetes.
The control of diabetes requires the average blood sugar value i.e. HbA1c to be less than 7%. Those who eat white rice regularly end up requiring additional medication to try and bring the average sugar levels under control.
If the average sugar remains high, the complications of diabetes can set in sooner rather than later.White rice is the devil food in diabetes. Opt for brown or red rice instead. Click To Tweet
White rice has a GI index of 72 and glycemic load of 29 as compared to that of brown rice which has a GI value of 50 and glycemic load of 16 (see chart later in article).
Instead of eating white rice regularly, choose either brown rice, red rice (Kerala or Mangalore rice) or wild rice. While these might be a little difficult to cook or possibly even a little expensive, over a period of time it will save you money on unnecessary medications.
Often, diabetes and high blood pressure coexist. The combination can place a great deal of stress on the heart and the kidneys and can lead to damage of these vital organs.
When it comes to managing blood pressure in patients with diabetes, salt reduction is probably the most important thing to do.
Avoid foods such as pickles, papads, cheese and foods that are preserved in salt such as canned foods.
Some people prefer low sodium alternatives but these usually have high potassium content which we advise against to all patients.
Instead, just reduce your total salt intake to no more than 2 g per day. Do not add salt on the side when having a meal.
The white bread that is available on the market and in bakeries contains maida which is refined wheat flour. This is notorious at increasing blood glucose values and disrupting your diabetes management.
The problem with most of the white bread that is available in India is that they add sugar to it during baking. The combination of the refined wheat flour and sugar can make diabetes control extremely difficult.
Instead, opt for whole grain bread which may not taste as good but is certainly a lot healthier for you.
It is always better to have fresh fruits rather than fruit juices.
This is because fresh fruits contain a greater amount of fiber and this can take some time to get digested. It therefore comes to pass that fresh fruits do not increase blood sugar levels rapidly but instead do so in a slow and steady manner.
While fruits do have their health benefits, it must not be forgotten that these too contain different kinds of sugars. Excessive consumption of fruits can also increase the blood sugar. We usually advise all patients to consume no more than one fruit a day.
I have discussed the best fruits to eat in the divine foods section below.
Okay, this is an obvious one.
I am not going into too much detail regarding avoiding sugar in diabetes. This is because you already know that it should be avoided.
Even consumption of small amounts of sugar can lead to significant spikes in your blood glucose values.
Foods that contain added sugar such as canned fruits, ice creams, chocolates, cakes, biscuits, gulab jamuns, jalebi, cashew barfis and everything that is delicious (!!) must be avoided. Sorry.
The corn flakes that are sold in India contain added sugar to them and must be avoided if you have diabetes. Opt instead for a bran flakes or oats that have no added sugar to them.
When purchasing items off the shelf in a supermarket, make sure you check the label to see if there is added sugar. Make the healthy choice and avoid the ones that contain added sugar.
What about sweeteners? Can they be used?
I have already discussed this in another article. Just to put it briefly, artificial sweeteners like aspartame can increase weight and lead to metabolic syndrome.
However, research has shown that you could use a small amount the natural sweetener stevia if you wish.
So is jaggery a good alternative to sugar if you have diabetes?
The answer is unfortunately no.
Jaggery is basically sugar itself, and has the same glycemic index as sugar. In fact, the blood sugar spike seen with jaggery is worse that sugar, according to some studies.
In other words, it would do the same damage to your blood sugar levels as sugar would.
It is therefore best to avoid this completely.
The good ol’ potato is full of starch, making it one of the bad choices in diabetes.
With a GI value of around 85, it has a high glycemic load and can increase blood sugars rapidly once you have eaten it.
This includes any form of potato such as french fries, gnocchi, crisps and namkeens.
There is a ‘sweet’ alternative to the potato that I have discussed later in this article.
Ah, the honey Vs sugar debate!
Honey has a high GI value. Just like sugar, it too can increase glucose values significantly, especially if large amounts are consumed.
However honey does beat sugar in certain aspects, particularly in that it has a lower sugar content and is full of nutrients.
That being said, raw honey has a lot more advantages compared to the regular processed honey we buy from the shops. Combining a small amount of raw honey with cinnamon boosts it’s antioxidant properties.
In one study, 48 patients with diabetes were divided into 2 groups. One group ate natural honey as a part of their diet, while the other half did not. Blood sugar values were checked 8 weeks later.
Honey helped reduce blood cholesterol levels and overall body weight. However, it increased the average blood glucose (HbA1c) levels.
This means that even honey can increase the blood sugar levels over a period of time, and is best avoided if you have diabetes.
Unfortunately, the research is still not very clear. Given the health properties of honey, it may be that a small amount would not hurt as much.
Soft drinks such as Coca Cola, Pepsi, Limca etc are all loaded with sugar and can ruin diabetes control. They are widely considered one of the worst foods for diabetes.
For example, a normal 330 ml can of coke contains over 9 spoons of sugar!!!
If you wish to control your sugars, you probably should not even be looking at drinks like this….it might raise your blood sugar levels!!
I often tell patients to avoid eating ripe jack fruit as it is full of natural sugars that can elevate blood sugar values.
Despite having additional health benefits, it might be best to avoid ripe jack fruit as a fruit choice.
There is a common misconception that once you have developed diabetes that you should avoid many foods. Fortunately, this is far from the truth.
Below are certain divine foods which are considered the best foods for diabetes.
Whole grain foods are especially good when it comes to the ideal food choices in diabetes. This is because they have a property of being digested slowly and releasing glucose into the bloodstream in a controlled manner.
By consuming whole grain foods, you are unlikely to have blood sugar spikes. Instead, your blood sugar levels will be very well controlled throughout the day.
Opt for whole grain bread, bran flakes, millets and quinoa as they fall in the better foods for diabetes category.
Oats have an GI of 58 and glycemic load of just 12 making it an excellent choice for breakfast. Make sure you consume this on a regular basis. Pearl barley is also an excellent choice.
Choosing the right grain (from Harvard Health)
Compared to our regular potato, sweet potato has a lower GI value of 70.
Not just that, it is packed with vitamin A, and even surpasses some of the best sources of the vitamin. In fact, a single serving of this wonder veggie provides over 700% of your daily requirement.
They are also rich in antioxidant flavonoids that can protect you against cancer and other illnesses.
Clinical studies have shown that sweet potato extract can improve the function of a hormone in the body called adiponectin.
Adiponectin is produced by the fat cells in the body and is responsible in the regulation of insulin levels. Better insulin levels mean better sugar control.
Sweet potatoes are best eaten baked or fried, though I personally recommend the baked way!
I previously spoke of how fruit juices should be avoided and fresh fruits must be consumed. It is a poorly understood concept among people as to what the best fruits are to consume if you are have diabetes.
Here is a brief list of fresh fruits you can have diabetes.
Rather than have fresh fruits of the meal, it is recommended that you have it as a snack in between meals.
To make the fruits even more nutritious, you could either sprinkle them with cinnamon or flax seed powder. Some people even go to the extent of eating fruits with nuts and olives.
The choice is entirely yours. Just make sure you include one or 2 portions of fruit in your diet every day.
Despite being a sweet vegetable, pumpkin actually has a number of benefits if you have diabetes.
Pumpkin has a high GI value of 75. But the good news is that it has a low glycemic load of just 3.
The pumpkin contains complex sugars that do not increase blood sugar levels dramatically. Instead, they increase the blood sugar level in a gradual manner, making it an excellent choice of vegetable if you have diabetes.
By the way, I love roasted pumpkin soup 🙂
Pumpkins are also high in soluble fiber content. Soluble fiber prevents blood sugar spikes and also has the property of controlling cholesterol levels.
We all know that nuts are super foods, and I have discussed this in a post of mine here.
There are many nuts that are a great snack in diabetes. The good news is that they have low sugar content, high protein content and will not raise your blood sugar levels.
For example, peanuts have a GI value of 13, and a glycemic index of 1 – one of the lowest there is.
Similarly, cashew nuts, almonds and walnuts are all great. Even pistachios, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds are great to much on if you are hungry.
Try and have a handful of nuts as a snack instead of the usual cereal bar or fried junk foods.
Millets are becoming ever more popular these days. It is now being considered one of the better choices of foods to eat if you have diabetes.
Some of the millets that are now available include foxtail, common, barnyard, pearl millet and finger millet (ragi).
Clinical studies have shown most millets to possess a low GI value and glycemic load.
I have discussed the ragi controversy later in this article.
Semolina, or ‘rava’ as it is sometimes called, is also a great choice in diabetes.
With a glycemic index of 44, semolina is a great way to start your day. Try a rava idli or ‘uppitu’ to fill your stomach and to control your sugars.
Please do not confuse this with the durum wheat semolina that is used in pastas. That has a high glycemic index, and is best avoided.
In The Twilight Zone
There are some foods that seem to elevate sugar levels only in a handful of patients. There is no clear evidence whether they should or should not be avoided in diabetes.
Here are some foods that fall in the ‘twilight zone’.
Who doesn’t love chomping down on juicy mangoes? It is called the King of Fruits for a reason you know!
The sweet and succulent mango fruit is a seasonal delight. However, it is packed with sugar.
Regular consumption of mango is frowned upon when it come to diabetes. The high sugar content can increase blood glucose levels and make it hard to control diabetes.
That being said, mangoes are packed with vitamins and minerals that help you stay healthy. If eaten in small amounts, it is unlikely to increase the blood sugar levels too much.
I generally advise patients to avoid eating mangoes and opt for the fruits I mentioned in the table above.
The reason? No one can eat just one piece of mango and stop!!
Ragi, or finger millet, is a staple food for many, especially in South India. It has been referred to by some as a wonder grain.
It is rich in calcium, loaded with iron and contains a good amount of fiber as well.
However, there are mixed opinions about ragi when it comes to diabetes.
I referred to a journal article which suggest that ragi has a glycemic index of 103, which is equal to eating glucose directly. This is bad for diabetes.
On the other hand, some go on to say that ragi is excellent in diabetes as well.
The basic principle when it comes to glycemic loads and GI values is the rate at which foods are digested. At one meeting I attended, a renowned diabetologist suggested that ragi roti is a better alternative to the traditional ‘mudde’ and ‘kanji’. This is because the roti needs chewing for longer.
The jury is out on ragi. I personally feel that if your sugars are controlled, opt for ragi roti due to the other health benefits you will reap.
There are many foods for diabetes that we can choose from as a part of our diet in India. Some are the devil’s choices while some are divine. Make sure you make the right choice to ensure your diabetes is controlled.
Did I miss out any foods? If you think so, please add them in the comments and I will find the research on it!