No food item is strictly forbidden for people with type 2 diabetes. Healthful eating for people with diabetes is all about controlling portion size and preparing a careful balance of nutrients.
The best vegetables for type 2 diabetes are low on the glycemic index (GI) scale, rich in fiber, or high in nitrates that reduce blood pressure.
In this article, we look at the best vegetables for people with type 2 diabetes. We also explain why vegetables are so important for people who are monitoring blood sugar, and we offer a range of tasty meal ideas.
Best vegetables for type 2 diabetes
Eating a wide variety of foods, including a mix of certain vegetables, can help people with diabetes stay healthy while enjoying a range of meals.
The GI ranking of a food shows how quickly the body absorbs glucose from that food. The body absorbs blood sugar much faster from high-GI foods than low-GI foods.
People with diabetes should eat vegetables with a low GI score to avoid blood sugar spikes.
Not all vegetables are safe for people with diabetes, and some have a high GI. Boiled potatoes, for example, have a GI of 78.
The GI scores for some popular vegetables are:
- Frozen green peas score 39 on the GI index.
- Carrots score 41 when boiled and 16 when raw.
- Broccoli scores 10.
- Tomatoes score 15.
Low-GI vegetables are also safe for people with diabetes, such as:
It is important to note that the GI gives a relative value to each food item and does not refer to the specific sugar content. Glycemic load (GL) refers to how much glucose will enter the body in one serving of a food.
Nitrates are chemicals that naturally occur in specific vegetables. Some manufacturers use them as preservatives in foods.
Eating natural, nitrate-rich foods can reduce blood pressure and improve overall circulatory health. People should choose vegetables with naturally high nitrate content, rather than those with nitrate that manufacturers have added during processing.
Nitrate-rich vegetables include:
Protein-rich foods help people feel fuller for longer, reducing the urge to snack between meals.
Daily protein recommendations depend on a person’s size, sex, activity level, and other factors. People can speak to a doctor for the best insight on what their ideal daily protein intake should be.
Pregnant or lactating women, highly active people, and those with large bodies need more protein than others.
Vegetables higher than some others in protein include:
Fiber should come from real, natural food, not supplements, making vegetables essential in a glucose-controlled diet. Fiber can help reduce constipation, reduce levels of “bad” cholesterol, and help with weight control.
The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics say that the correct amount of fiber per day is 25 grams (g) for women and 38 g for men.
This recommendation varies, depending on body size, overall health, and similar factors.
Vegetables and fruits with high fiber content include:
- Brussels sprouts
- split peas
Why choose vegetables?
Vegetables provide safe carbohydrates for people with diabetes.
Good carbohydrates provide both nutrients and energy, making them a safe, efficient, and nutritious food choice for people with diabetes.
Low-to-moderate-GI vegetables, such as carrots, improve blood glucose control and reduce the risk of weight gain.
Nitrate-rich foods, such as beets, are among the best vegetables for people with type 2 diabetes who also have a higher than usual risk of cardiovascular disease. This fact remains true despite their high carbohydrate content.
The key to effective food management is to boost vegetable intake and reduce carbohydrate consumption elsewhere in the diet by cutting down on foods such as bread or sugary snacks.
A person with diabetes should include sufficient amounts of fiber and protein in the diet. Many dark, leafy greens are rich in fiber, protein, and other vital nutrients.
Fiber can help control blood glucose levels. Vegetables, fruits, nuts, and legumes have excellent fiber content.
Vegetables also support improved levels of healthy cholesterol and lower blood pressure. As with protein, fiber can make people feel fuller for longer.
Eating vegan or vegetarian with diabetes
Eating a vegan or vegetarian diet can prove challenging for people with diabetes. Animal products generally have the most protein, but vegans completely avoid dairy and other animal products.
Some of the most protein-rich vegan options include:
A vegan or vegetarian person who has diabetes can eat a balanced diet. Whole grains, nuts, seeds, and lentils offer plenty of protein often with low calories.
Healthful diabetes meals
Cooking nutritious meals with vegetables will help manage the symptoms of diabetes.
Any meal that blends several of the above ingredients will offer excellent nutrition. To keep meals healthful and flavorsome, people with diabetes should avoid using too much added salt or relying on prepackaged ingredients that are high in sodium.
Careful calorie counting will also support glucose control. Excess calories can turn an otherwise healthful meal into a risk factor for excessive weight gain and worsened insulin sensitivity.
Some simple meal options include:
- avocado, cherry tomato, and chickpea salad
- hard-boiled eggs and roasted beets with black pepper and turmeric
- low-sodium cottage cheese spread on toasted sweet potato slices. Add black or cayenne pepper to boost the flavor
- tofu burger patty with spinach and avocado
- spinach salad with chia seeds, tomatoes, bell peppers, and a light sprinkling of goat’s cheese
- quinoa and fruit added to unsweetened Greek yogurt with cinnamon
- quinoa with pepper or vinaigrette season, or on its own
- almond butter on sprouted-grain bread with a topping of avocado and crushed red pepper flakes
Balancing less healthful foods with more nutritious ones is a way to remain healthy while also satisfying a sweet tooth. For instance, eating a cookie or two per week is usually fine when balanced by a high-fiber, plant-rich diet.
People with diabetes should focus on a balanced, overall approach to nutrition. There is a risk that forbidding certain foods can make them feel even more appealing. This can lead to poorer control over food choices and raised blood sugar over time.
Vegetables are bursting with nutrition, but they are just one part of managing a lifestyle with diabetes.
People should eat a wide variety of foods from all food groups and plan to stop eating 2–3 hours before bedtime, in most cases, as 12 or more hours of nighttime fasting helps glucose control.
A doctor or dietitian can provide an individualized diabetes meal plan to ensure that a person with the condition receives a wide enough range of nutrients in healthful proportions.
Are fruits as good as vegetables for people with diabetes?
Fruits are higher in digestible carbohydrates than most vegetables. While fruit is rich in water, fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, there are likely more, non-starchy vegetables that can be more easily or more liberally incorporated in the diet of someone with diabetes with less consequences to blood sugar. That said, whole fruit is always the preferred choice over other forms of sweets, as it will impact blood sugar less. For those looking to prevent diabetes, research has consistently shown that fruit intake reduces diabetes risk.
Natalie Butler, RD, LD
Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.