A diabetes-friendly diet includes plenty of fiber-packed veggies.
Invest in the right tools. It all starts with the right equipment. “Cooking healthy meals at home is a lot easier when you have a few basic tools,” says Stack. Sharp knives — both a large chef’s knife and a small paring knife — make it easy to cut fresh vegetables and lean protein. Stack also recommends purchasing a julienne peeler for slicing vegetables into appealing noodle-shaped pieces. For an added bonus, invest in a large cutting board, some quality cookware, and a cast iron pan; it conducts heat, making cooking a whole lot easier, she says.
Try new cooking techniques. One of the best ways to adhere to a diabetes-friendly diet is to use non-frying methods of cooking and to replace saturated fats (like butter) with healthy monounsaturated fats (like olive oil and canola oil). “Use canola oil or spray when cooking over high heat, and olive oil when making dressings or using low heat,” suggests Laura Cipullo, RD, CDE, author of The Diabetes Comfort Food Diet Cookbook. For vegetables, try steaming or roasting them, or sauté them in broth with a little bit of olive or canola oil and lots of garlic for flavor. If you’re cooking lean protein, roast, broil, or grill the foods. Trim the fat before cooking and, if roasting, use a roasting rack. “The skin and fat add flavor but are very high in saturated fat,” notes Cipullo.
Flavor foods with herbs and spices. Make sure your pantry is stocked with herbs and spices that you can use in place of salt. Our favorites include sage, rosemary, tarragon, oregano, and, of course, garlic and pepper. “Creating meals using spices and herbs is one of the best ways to add flavor,” says Stack. If using fresh herbs, choose those that are bright and not wilted, and add them toward the end of cooking your meal; add dried herbs in the earlier stages of cooking. When substituting dried herbs for fresh, use about one-half the amount.
Go lean on protein. When shopping for meat, choose cuts like skinless chicken breast and ground turkey breast, and consider buying ones labeled “choice” or “select” instead of “prime.” Consider swapping out high fat versions of meat with leaner ones. For example, if you like bacon with breakfast, try Canadian bacon or turkey bacon instead of pork. Or swap out the ground beef for burgers with half extra-lean ground beef and half ground turkey. Plan on eating seafood twice a week. Salmon, sardines, and mackerel are all high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. A study review published in 2013 in the British Journal of Nutrition suggests that eating omega-3s might also help stem the onset of weight gain. “I like buying individually wrapped frozen fish, like salmon, because they are pre-portioned and quick to defrost,” says Stack.
Load up on vegetables. You can never have enough vegetables on hand when you’re following a healthy diabetes-friendly diet. Stack looks for sturdy and hardy vegetables that can hang out in the refrigerator for a couple of days without going bad. “I call them my fabulous 15 vegetables,” she says, citing mushrooms, celery, cauliflowers, fennel, cabbage, and broccoli, plus dark leafy greens like kale and bell peppers, among her favorites. “They hold up well, are low in carbs, and add a lot of flavor to meals.”
Cipullo suggests people have a mix of non-starchy (cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, spinach, collards, and swiss chard) and starchy (root vegetables like beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, and jicama) veggies on hand for a lively mix. Including many veggies — both non-starchy and (appropriately-portioned) starchy ones — at meals gives you the opportunity to get quantity and variety,” says Cipullo.
Focus on fiber. Stock your pantry with whole grain, high fiber cereals, breads, pasta, and rice. “Dietary fiber decreases insulin resistance and prevents prediabetes and diabetes,” says Cipullo. And to get more specific, there are two types of fiber that perform two different jobs: Insoluble fiber, like wheat bran, keeps your digestive tract working well, while soluble fiber, like that found in oatmeal, can help lower your cholesterol and improve blood glucose control if eaten in large amounts. Research published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that when people with type 2 diabetes ate 50 grams (g) of fiber, particularly the soluble kind, they experienced dramatic health improvements, including improved glycemic control. Most Americans eat far less fiber than is recommended. Aim for at least 25 to 35 g a day, Cipullo recommends.
Make room for beans. Beans are packed with a combination of protein, vitamins, and fiber, which makes them an ideal food for a diabetes-friendly diet. “They have just the right type of fiber and complex carbohydrates that are slow to digest and therefore don’t result in a spike in blood glucose levels,” says Cipullo. Black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, and lentils are good choices. You can purchase beans dry and soak them overnight or buy canned versions, which can be more convenient. Check that the label says “no added salt” and that the ingredients list shows that there are no added sugars or fats. Before eating, be sure to rinse them first; Stack often soaks her dried beans in low sodium broth for added flavor. Once they’re cooked, she’ll freeze them in half cup portions in freezer bags. “Any time I’m making soup, salad, or stew, I defrost a package of beans and they’re ready to go.”
Be strategic about dairy. Choose high-protein dairy options like 1 percent cow’s milk and low-fat yogurt. “Low-fat dairy options have a small amount of fat to help satiate you and regulate your blood sugar,” says Cipullo. For cheese, which contains vitamins and minerals in addition to protein, Cipullo suggests opting for the full-fat kind but keeping the quantity small. Strongly flavored cheese, such as sharp cheddar, blue cheese, or feta, will allow you to cut down on the amount you use in recipes, which means fewer calories and less saturated fat. Hard cheeses, like Parmesan and Romano, are also good to have on hand because they’re lower in saturated fat and great for flavor, with the added benefit of calcium, says Cipullo.
Use plates and glasses for portion control. If you keep large plates and glasses in your kitchen, consider replacing them with smaller ones. Research by food psychologist Brian Wansink, PhD, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab in Ithaca, New York, shows that by replacing 12-inch plates with 10-inch plates, you might serve yourself 22 percent fewer calories. The same goes for glassware: Tall thin glasses, Dr. Wansink finds, can decrease fluid intake, which makes them perfect for serving up caloric beverages like wine and juice. For water, use short, wide glasses to encourage more drinking.
When serving up meals, use the half plate rule for portion control: Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables; a quarter with protein, like fish, poultry, tofu, eggs, or lean meat; and the final quarter with starch like whole grains, beans, or whole wheat pasta. “The key to being able to stick to healthy portions of carbs and protein is to fill up on delicious and interestingly prepared vegetables,” says Stack. “They’re the fillers and what I think of as super foods for people with diabetes.”
Keep healthy foods within reach. Leave a bowl of fruit on the kitchen counter, for example, and a pitcher of ice water in the fridge. In a study published in October 2015 in Health, Education & Behavior, researchers from Cornell found that people who left fruit on the counter weighed 13 pounds less on average than those who didn’t. Other good grab-and-go foods to have on hand include nuts like walnuts and pistachios, natural nut butters like peanut and almond, and fresh veggies and berries to enjoy with low-fat yogurt, hummus, and guacamole.
Keep unhealthy foods out of sight. Treat unhealthy foods (cookies, candy, chips, sugar-coated cereals, and soft drinks) like that stack of papers piling up in the corner of your office: out of sight, out of mind. Foods that are nutrient-scarce and calorie-dense only set you up for weight gain. “When these items are stocked in your kitchen, you’ll probably eat them more often,” says Cipullo.