Whether you’re a meal planner and grocery list maker or figure-it-out-as-you-go shopper, you’ll see the grocery store through different eyes when you have type 2 diabetes. 

“It was a difficult process,” says Christina Herrera de Banchs, an educator in Dallas. “No one really tells you what to look out for, especially foods high in sugar. Even natural fruits are high in sugar. Doctors just tell us to eat better.” 

“Better” means something different to everyone. Which foods will benefit your blood sugar? Which ones should you avoid? 

Insulin resistance keeps your body from processing carbs easily, which means keeping your blood sugar in check to offset damage and disease. But there’s no special diabetes diet – no magic list of foods you can and can’t have. Managing your diabetes is about balance, and it starts on your plate.

Picture a 9-inch plate. Now divide it in half. Fill one half will non-starchy veggies. 

Seek out carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, spinach, bok choy, and any other vegetable you can think of. Avoid the starchy ones, like potatoes, corn, plantains, and peas. We’ll find them a spot in a minute. 

Divide the remaining half into two equal sections. One section is for your protein, like fish, chicken, turkey, tofu, lentils, and edamame. The other is for your carb. 

“Ideally it’s a higher-fiber carb like fruit, beans, and starchy veggies like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn,” says Danielle Fineberg, a registered dietitian. “Carbs go through your system quickly; fiber slows it down a bit.”

Fats are necessary, but they don’t have their own section. Think of them as a garnish that adds flavor or texture, like a serving of avocado atop a salsa-baked chicken breast; nuts or seeds on low- or no-sugar yogurt; or olive oil mixed with lemon and dill on a salmon salad. 

With the plate in mind, make a meal plan. 

Keep it simple to start, but vary it so you’re not eating the same thing all the time. Pick two breakfasts, lunches, and dinners and rotate. 

“Plan your meals around the protein and veggies, rather than basing it on carbs,” Fineberg says. “Instead of thinking of it as pasta for dinner, think of pasta as the side dish to chicken and veggies.”

Ditto that for grain or rice bowls, which can rack up your carb count quickly. 

“Latin foods get a bad rap because beans, potatoes, and tortillas are carb-rich foods,” Fineberg says. “If you’re somewhere and rice and beans are part of the experience, do half portions of those. Instead of white flour tortillas, use corn because they have a lot more fiber.” 

Feeling overwhelmed? Use the American Diabetes Association’s food hub for meal planning templates or find an app that makes sense to you. 

“Using an app, I was able to keep track of my foods and grams of sugar,” Herrera de Banchs says. “Once I became comfortable using the app, which helped me memorize numbers, it actually made my grocery shopping and eating out less frustrating. Having an app that can look up every restaurant and food item and provide all the nutritional food labels gave me control over what I could order and buy.” 

And don’t forget the snacks: Opt for nuts, cheese, deli meats, veggies and hummus, apples and peanut butter, or bananas and yogurt with low or no added sugar.

Once you’ve got your meal plan down, plot out the ingredients. You can divide it up into categories  produce, protein, vegetables, fiber-filled carbs and fat  list foods by aisle, or whatever makes the most sense to you. 

“My husband and I discuss what we would like to eat: Friendly meals that taste great and provide the fuel we need,” Herrera de Banchs says. “Chicken and fish usually top the menu. Basic fruits like apples, grapes, strawberries, and veggies like spinach, green onions, and asparagus. Some dairy cheese, milk and eggs. Snacks like almonds, walnuts, and pretzels. Pretty basic: Nothing too fancy. We tend to be creatures of habit because in the end, it’s our numbers that we want to keep improving on.” 

If you don’t have access to fresh produce, or even if you do, frozen fruits and veggies are your friends. 

“When you pick a fruit or veggie from its root, it starts losing nutrition quickly,” Fineberg says. “Frozen fruits and veggies are frozen at their peak vitamin and mineral content, so it doesn’t matter when you eat them.”

Until you get into a groove, plan to grocery shop when it’s not crowded to keep frustration levels low. Try to time it so you’re not hungry while you’re there. 

In most cases, the produce and refrigerated sections are around the edges of the store. These are the best places to focus your attention and money. Most of the processed and packaged foods are in the center aisles. You don’t have to avoid them, (Remember, it’s about balance!) but choose your carbs wisely. 

“Keeping up with the labels was overwhelming at first. I had to turn on an app to help me count out not just grams of sugars but carbs as well,” Herrera de Banchs says. “You begin to realize that what’s labeled as fat-free may not be a healthy choice for a diabetic. Companies tend to substitute fat for sugars, which can hurt someone doing their best to keep their A1c leveled.”

Focus on the carbs and added sugars. Total carbs matter because they help you determine your serving size and how much you can have. 

Give each ingredient list a good look, too. You want it to be simple and short, and for sugar to be low on the list. Watch out for multiple sugar listings in the ingredient section. Some processed foods include more than two or three kinds. 

After you read a few labels and make a couple weeks’ worth of meal plans, grocery lists, and trips to the store, it’ll start to feel like second nature. Diabetes changes the way you approach food, but it doesn’t have to suck the joy out of it. 

“I look at food as fuel, but my husband would prefer not to. He comes from a family that is full of flavor!” Herrera de Banchs says. “He’s had to understand that in order for us to live longer and continue to be active as we approach our 50s, we need to look at food differently. No one likes a salad every day for lunch, but if it helps keep your sugars leveled, then have the salad!” 

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