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6 Superfoods for Diabetes

Learn how these superstars can help you keep the disease in check, and discover tasty ways to work them into your diet

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When you're eating to keep diabetes in check, you're also eating to avoid other health problems. Most notably: cardiovascular disease. Almost 7 in 10 people with diabetes over age 65 will die from some form of heart disease. About 1 in 6 will die of stroke. That's why diabetes-friendly diets tend to be heart-healthy, too.

"Diabetes is more than a blood sugar problem,” explains nutritionist Jill Weisenberger, author of The Beginner's Guide to What to Eat with Type 2 Diabetes. “Having diabetes at least doubles the risk of having a heart attack, and it increases the risk of several types of cancer. That's why we don't have the luxury of taking a single-eye view of blood sugar only.”

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The American Diabetes Association (ADA) doesn't endorse any one specific diet. What it does endorse are eating plans that emphasize well-portioned amounts of nutrient-dense foods that will help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight; keep your blood glucose, blood pressure and cholesterol in your target ranges; and delay or prevent diabetes complications. The following six superfoods check off all those boxes.

Superfood No. 1: Legumes/beans

It's easy to see how pinto, navy, kidney and black beans earned their superfood bona fides. They're packed with vitamins and minerals like iron, magnesium and potassium. Plus, they're high in fiber. And studies show that diets rich in legumes in general are associated with healthier blood sugar levels in both the short term and the long term, Weisenberger says: “There are likely many reasons for this because these foods are loaded with health boosters such as resistant starch and polyphenol phytonutrients.” In your gut, good bacteria “make a meal out of the resistant starch and fermentable fibers and, in the process, produce compounds beneficial to insulin sensitivity."

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In a review of studies published in 2021 in the European Journal of Nutrition, regularly eating pulses — such as chickpeas, beans and lentils — was linked to improved blood glucose levels across the board, but especially among people with type 2 diabetes, by more than 20 percent.

Not big on beans, chickpeas, lentils and the like? Get creative. Blend up to a half cup of white beans with one cup marinara sauce and a splash of balsamic vinegar for a creamy, better-for-you “vodka” sauce in Italian dishes, suggests Jackie Newgent, a registered dietitian nutritionist, chef and author of The Clean & Simple Diabetes Cookbook. Other ideas: Smash together up to one-quarter cup chickpeas with one avocado and a squirt of lemon juice and use as a topper for tacos or whole-grain toast. Or roughly chop up pinto or kidney beans and use them as an equal swap in place of up to one-third of the ground meat in a burger patty or meatballs.

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Superfood No. 2: Dark green leafy veggies

Plenty of research shows that eating dark leafy greens — we're talking spinach, kale, broccoli, collard greens — can lower your risk for type 2 diabetes. Turns out, they also play a role in managing the condition. For starters, these greens are low in calories. And because they're also low in carbohydrates, people with diabetes can eat lots of them without worrying about skyrocketing blood sugar levels or gaining weight.

To make sure you get a day’s worth, Newgent suggests including them at every meal. For breakfast, toss spinach or kale into scrambled eggs or plant-based eggs, or stir them into savory oatmeal. At  lunchtime, stuff greens into a wrapped sandwich, or stir several handfuls of baby spinach into a bowl of soup or chili. For dinner, serve an entrée like grilled fish on a bed of steamed leafy greens. Or blend greens into hummus with a splash of lemon juice and serve as an appetizer dip.

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Superfood No. 3: Nuts

People with diabetes are at much higher risk for cardiovascular disease. But diet can make a difference. Case in point: A study of more than 16,000 adults with diabetes, published in Circulation Research, suggests that people with type 2 who ate at least five 1-ounce servings of peanuts or tree nuts — like walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts — per week were 17 percent less likely to develop cardiovascular disease than those who ate one or fewer servings per month. What's more, nuts are low in carbohydrates and are a good source of fat and protein, so they help you stay full while keeping blood sugar low, says Dahlia Gomez, a dietitian and spokesperson for the Association of Diabetes Care and Education Specialists. “This makes them an ideal snack for people living with diabetes.”

But keep in mind: Nuts are high in calories. Limit your daily intake to 1 to 1.5 ounces (about 1/4 cup).

Think of diabetes superfoods as the overachievers on your grocery list; fending off blood sugar spikes and other related health issues, too.

Superfood No. 4: Fatty fish

So why does the ADA recommend eating fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines twice a week? “The omega-3 fatty acids in fish, specifically EPA and DHA, are associated with less heart disease and dementia,” says Weisenberger, echoing the results of a new study published in 2022, in Nutrients, suggesting that people with higher blood levels of omega-3s are 49 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those with lower levels.

Omega-3s are also linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, which is the number one cause of death in people living with diabetes, according to the ADA.

To meet the association’s recommended amount, “consider using fish in its many forms — fresh, frozen or canned,” suggests Melinda Maryniuk, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Boston.

Superfood No. 5: Berries

What makes berries so super for people with diabetes? Scientists aren't entirely sure. “They're loaded with nutrients and phytonutrients,” says Weisenberger. And “it appears that some of the phytonutrients may cause decreased glucose absorption in the intestines and better insulin sensitivity” (that is, how responsive the body's cells are to insulin, the hormone that regulates glucose in the blood).

A review of studies published in 2019 in the journal Food & Function suggests that regularly consuming berries — especially blueberries, cranberries, strawberries and raspberries — may help people with diabetes better manage their condition, mainly by improving post-meal blood sugar spikes. Researchers found that to be the case with all types of berries — fresh, frozen, even dried.

An easy way to get your berry fix: Create several alternating layers of berries and Greek-style yogurt (also a diabetes superfood) in a milkshake glass, suggests Newgent, then sprinkle with toasted almonds or roasted pistachios. For the more adventurous, grill or pan-grill skewers of strawberries, drizzle with balsamic vinegar or a balsamic reduction, sprinkle with toasted sliced almonds and fresh basil, and serve atop ricotta or plant-based ricotta.

Superfood No. 6: Oats

Can a daily dose of beta glucan (a soluble fiber found in oats) be good for blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes? That was the question researchers set out to answer when they asked 37 people with type 2 to consume 5 grams of beta glucan every day for 12 weeks. At the end of that period, they found that regular consumption of the fiber not only resulted in improved blood sugar control but also had a positive impact on appetite-regulating hormones like ghrelin and leptin, according to a study published in 2021 in the Journal of Functional Foods. A larger review of studies recently published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition had similar findings.

What’s so special about beta glucan? It “improves insulin action and lowers blood glucose levels,” Weisenberger explains. “It also sweeps cholesterol from your digestive tract before it reaches your bloodstream.”

To reap the rewards, “studies suggest we need about 3 grams of beta glucan daily to see long-term, measurable results. That’s about 1.5 cups of oats daily — more than most people want,” she adds, and more than what goes into making a bowl of oatmeal every morning. To make up the difference, use oats as a substitute in your favorite recipes.

“Add old-fashioned oats in place of one-third of the flour in a baked-goods recipe,” Newgent recommends. Or try preparing oats as a healthy risotto — what Newgent calls “ris-oat-to” — with veggie broth, mushrooms and herbs. You can also “create a thicker, heartier soup by swirling in oats,” she adds. 

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