What Foods Should a Prediabetic Eat? A Nutritionist Cuts Through the Confusion.
You’ve been diagnosed with prediabetes. It’s not good news. And your head is probably spinning. A prediabetes diagnosis means that your blood sugar is abnormally high and you likely have developed insulin resistance. So your body is having trouble taking the sugar (glucose) out of your blood and moving into your cells where it can be used to produce energy.
So after you eat a meal, your blood sugar spikes and your body has a hard time getting it to go back down. This can lead to a blood sugar pattern of extreme highs and lows, rather than the gently rolling pattern that occurs when blood sugar is well-managed by the body. And prediabetes is often a precursor to type 2 diabetes.
You know there must be something you can do. You don’t want to end up with diabetes and all its complications and meds. Maybe your doctor gave you some advice. Or maybe you got the all-too-common “let’s just wait and see what happens…”
The truth is prediabetes is reversible. And you can do it with food.
I work with prediabetic clients in my practice every day. And I’ve seen countless success stories of people who have gotten that scary diagnosis, but then took action and turned things around. And you can too!
So let’s break it down. Eating to reverse your prediabetes doesn’t have to be complicated — or boring.
If you got home from the doctor and googled what to eat with prediabetes, you may have run into the “carbs are evil” point of view. Spoiler alert: I disagree.
First let’s talk about how your body uses carbs. When you eat a food high in carbs — dessert, bread, pasta, fruit, etc. — your body breaks the carbohydrates down into a simple sugar called glucose. Then it sends the glucose through your blood to be absorbed by your cells where it produces the energy your body needs to function.
When your body detects the uptick of glucose in your bloodstream, it releases insulin — which will shuttle the glucose into your cells.
But when you have prediabetes, this process doesn’t work as smoothly as you’d like. The cells resist letting the glucose in. So as a result, your blood glucose remains high and your body must produce more insulin to try to force the glucose into the cells.
So, yes, if you avoid carbohydrates altogether, it will help reduce your blood sugar. But, I don’t recommend this approach. Carbs aren’t bad. They’re just harder for your body to process. For most of my clients, I don’t recommend they give up carbs completely. But I do recommend they reduce their carbs and choose wisely.
Carb-management tips for prediabetes:
💡 Think of carbs as an accompaniment — not the star of the plate.
You don’t need to give up carbs to reverse your prediabetes, but you do need to limit them. A good place to start is by taking them off center stage. So if you really need pasta, use it as a side dish next to a great cut of meat.
💡 Stick to carbs that have a low glycemic load
The glycemic load takes into account the amount of carbohydrate in a portion of food together with how quickly it raises blood glucose levels. I prefer it over glycemic index because glycemic load gives a more real-life picture of a food's impact on your blood glucose levels. If you stick to carbohydrates lower on the glycemic load scale, your blood sugar will be less affected.
💡 Avoid sugary foods.
This probably won’t surprise you, but foods like cake, cookies, and ice cream are not good for your blood sugar. Yes, it’s a drag to give these up. But if you’re willing to make this sacrifice in favor of your health, it can pay off in your quality of life in the long run. Foods that are high in processed sugar are quickly converted to blood glucose and cause a quick — and often unmanageable — blood sugar spike in someone with prediabetes.
💡 Avoid processed foods.
The more processed a food is, the quicker it will turn into glucose in your body. And this quick turn-around makes it harder for your body to keep your blood sugar stable.
💡 Stick to whole-food carbs as much as possible.
Get your carbohydrates from foods like non-starchy vegetables, low glycemic load fruits, and whole grains whenever possible. These foods are less likely to cause spikes in your blood sugar.
💡 Combine your carbs with a protein and/or healthy fat.
Adding a protein or fat to your carbohydrates helps slow down the digestive process and gives your body time to properly deal with the glucose that results from eating carbs.
💡 Take the Carb Sensitivity Quiz.
I created this resource to help you get a clearer picture of how your body reacts to carbohydrates. And it’s even free!
If you’re working to balance your blood sugar, protein is your friend.
✔ Has little effect on your blood sugar so you can eat it without worrying about your glucose spiking up to unhealthy levels.
✔ Helps build muscle. And more muscle mass is good for blood sugar management. The more muscle tissue you have, the more room your body has to deposit glucose and get it out of your blood.
✔ Takes a while to digest so it keeps you fuller longer.
When I create personalized food plans for my clients, I typically recommend that they have protein at each meal and snack. If you want to make sure you’re getting enough, you can count grams of protein for a few days to get a sense of what an adequate protein intake for your body looks like.
Not sure how many grams you need? Divide your body weight by 2 and then eat that many grams of protein per day. So if you weigh 150 pounds, you’ll want to shoot for about 75 grams of daily protein.
I encourage my clients to eat whole food, unprocessed sources of protein like:
Full-fat diary (if you tolerate it well)
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, it’s a little tougher to get in your protein, but it’s certainly doable.
Try these meat-free protein choices:
Hemp and Chia seeds
Nuts and nut butters
Fill In With Fat to Control Hunger
I have good news for you: fat isn’t bad! That doesn’t mean I want you to plop down in front of the tv with a stick of butter and a spoon. But adding moderate amounts of fat to your diet can be beneficial.
In the world of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat), fat has the smallest impact on your blood sugar. And it helps keep you full.
Adding fat to your meal or snack helps your body process the food more slowly. This is good news on a couple of fronts. First off, this means that your blood sugar is less likely to spike even if you’re eating some carbs. And second, you will stay fuller longer.
I recommend adding a little bit of fat to each meal or snack.
👍 Add ¼ an avocado to your salad or whole grain toast.
👍 Pour a couple teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil on your salad.
👍 Melt a little butter butter over your vegetables.
👍 Don’t be afraid to use some healthy fats when you cook: extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, or ghee.
Just make sure to avoid inflammatory fats like vegetable oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, and anything with trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils). These types of oils encourage inflammation in the body and don’t do you any favors.
You don’t have to do this alone.
Getting a prediabetes diagnosis can be scary — and it can make you feel isolated. So don’t be afraid to ask for support. Talk to your family about your health goals and enlist their help. If you’re responsible for the meal planning in your home, start making changes that will be good for everybody. This doesn’t mean that you need to eat bland food. Eating with a lower-carb, whole food approach can be delicious and nutritious for everyone!
And find a good practitioner who understands your goals and can help you get there. This article is filled with some great first steps and general guidelines for getting your prediabetes under control. But every body is different. We each have specific nutritional needs that we only discover through testing and working with a qualified practitioner.
If you’re ready for a personalized approach that can help you overcome your prediabetes, I’m here to help. Click below to set up a free appointment so we can talk about your goals and how we can work together to get you feeling your best!