What are the best Type 2 Diabetes Diets? Whether you know it or not, this is an extremely loaded question. The question is influenced by politics, science, personal experience and situation, opinion and many other variables.
In one form or another, this question is also most popular one that people email me about on this site:
I just got diagnosed with diabetes, what should I eat?
My blood sugar is out of control, what diet is best?
I have to lose 20 pounds, what is the best diabetes diet to help me?
Initially, I found it interesting that people would ask me these questions, given that I have dozens of pages on the site discussing what to eat. However, it struck me that there is so much information available and that opinions can vary widely about the best course of action.
Many Type 2 diabetes diet choices are argued to be improperly influenced by money, politics, personal gain, etc. I will discuss some of these influences so that you can make an informed decision. I also want to introduce you to the concept that there is not necessarily one right answer.
Ok, no more chit chat. Let’s get started.
- Consult your Doctor: First and foremost, I am not a health care provider. Any major diet change should be discussed with your doctor. My opinions are my own and come from studying and writing about diabetes diet choices and influences for the past four years.
- Individual Circumstances: Each person is different. For example, you may be 100 pounds overweight and have very poorly controlled diabetes. Another person may have a decent weight, but needs a more consistent diet to help them control their diabetes. There is no “one size fits all” answer here. Individual circumstances have to be factored in.
- Blending of Theories: Many of the type 2 diabetes diets blend different eating theories. For example, some diets are very low (almost no) carbohydrates. Others are low carbohydrate, but allow some low glycemic carbohydrates. Still others allow even more carbohydrates, depending upon what else you are eating. For the novice (that’s you!), this can be very confusing. For now, just try to remember that there is some flexibility about how these different diets work and approach eating.
- Your Palate and Disposition: As you will see below, there are multiple diets that are good. Ultimately, if you hate certain types of food or you do not like cooking complex recipes, then don’t pick a diet just because someone says it is the best. You need to pick the diet and the meals that YOU feel comfortable making and eating. Otherwise, you will never stick with it long term.
I have included some select basic definitions in this section to help you as you read about the different Type 2 Diabetes Diets.
Carbohydrate: A carbohydrate is one of the three main sources of energy in your food (the others being protein and fat). Follow the link for a full discussion of carbohydrates.
Net Carbohydrate: Some diets use the term “Net” carbohydrates. Interestingly, there is no standard definition for this term. Generally, it means the number of carbohydrates in a food when you take the TOTAL carbohydrates and SUBTRACT the DIETARY FIBER carbohydrates. The premise is that dietary fiber is good for you, so you should only worry about the NET carbohydrates you eat.
Low Carbohydrate (aka – low carb): Everyone knows the term, but there is no standard definition. A company can simply make it up! Typically, a low carb Atkins diet is between 20-100 net carb grams a day, depending upon the person and the stage of the diet they are in. By comparison, the USDA recommends 300g of carbs a day for a 2,000 calorie diet. FYI – The USDA does not make a distinction for net carbs. The ADA is usually somewhere between 100g and 300g.
Glycemic Index: The glycemic index measures the effect of different carbohydrates on your blood sugar. A HIGH glycemic carb (like high fructose corn syrup) will raise your blood sugar a lot in comparison to a LOW glycemic carb (like black beans). Many diets stress low glycemic index carbohydrates although they do not typically tell you this or make it particularly obvious. Here is a very brief article I wrote on the Glycemic Index.
Before choosing a type 2 diabetes diet, you have to understand the lay of the land. Within the diabetes community, there are multiple groups and individuals that have radically different ideas about what the best diet is. On top of this, you also have some finger pointing about whether a particular group is unduly influenced or biased based on where their funding or revenue comes from.
For example, some claim that the American Diabetes Association overly emphasizes a carbohydrate rich diet because they get a lot of their funding from drug and food companies. The assessment being that they want you to be reliant on the various diabetes medications to control your diabetes and less so on eating the best possible diet for you.
Some of the same criticisms have been leveled at the Juvenile Diabetes Association and possibly the Joslin Diabetes Center. Some of the criticism isn’t just about the diet choices but also about what research gets funded. For example, some claim that certain natural remedies do not get proper research funding, because the drug companies cannot patent protect a natural remedy. As a result, natural remedies get almost no research funding in comparison to other pharmacological solutions.
So, what is true and what is not true? I will be the first to tell you I do not know the definitive answer. Each side has some good and bad points. Personally, I tend to think larger organizations tend to move slower, thus newer and more innovative diets are not readily viewed positively. Moreover, I have read some interesting pieces about how certain research is funded (or not funded). It is shocking. Suffice it to say, this is an ongoing debate.
On the flip side, many of the more commercialized Type 2 Diabetes Diets are criticized for just wanting to sell you something and the research supporting them is spotty at best.
Ultimately, does any of this matter? Don’t you just want to know what to eat?!!!
I will look at the main Type 2 diabetes diets next and further explore their positives and their deficiencies. But, just realize that these biases, suspicions and double-dealing theories exist. Do your research and make the best decision for you.
My TOP Diet Choice
I believe the best diet you can eat is a whole food diet. Why? This diet is heavily backed with numerous research studies discussing its health benefits. It is excellent for controlling blood sugar levels, lowering and reversing cardiovascular disease and many other complications prevalent in diabetics.
I would strongly encourage you to learn more about this diet and give it a try. I have lost a lot of weight following it and feel great!
American Diabetes Association
Let’s take a look at the grand daddy of Type 2 diabetes diets, the American Diabetes Association. Personally, I think the ADA diet is the most confusing diet on the market today. The organization has literally dozens of books about eating and many of them discuss different dieting methods. Let’s look at just a few examples:
- Diabetic Meal Planning Made Easy
- The Complete Guide to Carb Counting
- Choose Your Foods: Exchange Lists
Okay, so am I focused just on the meal planning, exchange lists or carb counting? Maybe, I should focus on all three in combination? Who knows? I am not even sure the ADA knows.
Why do I say the ADA may be confused? Let’s take a look at their book, Choose Your Foods: Exchange Lists. The title talks about Exchange lists, but then in the description it says that “no more ‘exchanging'” is required. Really? Are we exchanging? Choosing? What the heck does this all mean? Here is an article I did on what the Exchange Method used to be (still is?).
Now, hold on, they also have the Create My Plate Method, which modifies the new USDA My Plate guidelines to diabetics. Great, now we have four different diet concepts to follow! I do like the Create My Plate method, which I have detailed after the link.
Nonetheless, is it any wonder that anybody knows what to eat when relying on the ADA? I have been extensively researching and writing about diabetes diets for over 4 years and I am confused about what exactly the ADA expects the average person to do with all of this “stuff.”
They are the Plate Method, Carb Counting, Exchange Method (although this one seems to be falling out of favor) and the glycemic index. All of these methods seek to have you create a meal plan that you can follow. If you want a gluten free or vegetarian meal planning help, they also have resources for this as well.
My advice if you choose an ADA diet is to pick ONE book (and method) and stick with it. Just pretend the other 40 (exaggeration…kind of) diet books don’t exist! If I had to choose one, I would choose the My Plate Method, as it is the easiest to follow.
Most Popular Choices
Arguably, this is one of the most scientifically proven type 2 diabetes diets currently available. In 2007, a Spanish study was released that followed 13,000 people who ate a Mediterranean diet over an eight-year period. The diets effect was to lower one’s risk of developing diabetes by 83 percent! The diet also had considerable benefits for controlling blood sugar and blood pressure levels and lowering your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
The Mediterranean diet is lower in carbohydrates than a traditional western or American diet. Instead, mono-saturated fat, such as olive oil, is 25% to 30% of the daily calories. Vegetables, fresh fruit, whole grains and fish are the primary foods. Red meat is limited and small amount of red wine is also advocated.
For most people, following this diet will require you to “re-learn” your eating habits and developing/following new recipes. If you are interested in this diet, I have written a more thorough review of the Mediterranean Diet here.
South Beach Diet for Diabetes
Everyone has heard of the South Beach Diet at this point. This diet actually is largely based on the eating principles of the Mediterranean diet. Dr. Agatston, a cardiologist from Miami, created the diet as part of his eating regime for his heart disease patients, many of whom also had diabetes.
There are three stages to the diet, the first two accelerate weight loss and help you transition to a new way of eating. The third stage is the maintenance stage and roughly follows the Mediterranean diet principles of limited whole grain carbs, mono-saturated fat, protein and lots of vegetables.
I have followed this diet in the past. On Phase 1, which avoids almost all carbohydrates, I did lose weight. In hindsight, I do not like diets that require you to go through different “phases”. In the South Beach instance, there are three different phases. This means you have to learn three different ways of eating. If you choose this diet, you may just want to start with the final phase. I have written an entire South Beach Diet Review here.
Atkins Diet for Diabetes
The Atkins Diet has achieved both fame and infamy, all at the same time. When it was first introduced it was ultra low in carbs and high in fat and protein. Initially, the diet didn’t distinguish between the different types of fat and it was largely criticized as being too heavily in saturated fat. The image of eating a steak covered in real butter was very controversial.
Over the years, the diet has come to more closely resemble the South Beach Diet and Mediterranean diet. It still has some differences, but it has dropped a lot of the more controversial initial characteristics.
Today, the Atkins group has a lot of support tools if you join their community to help you with getting on and sticking with the diet. You can check out my more thorough my Atkins Diet Review here.
Dr. Richard Bernstein’s Diabetic Diet
Dr. Bernstein is one of the foremost proponents of an ultra low carb diet for diabetics. He has been a diabetic for over 60 years and is living proof that his diet works. Basically, his diet severely limits carbs to as low as 30 grams a day. In this sense, he is even more “low carb” than the South Beach and Atkins diets.
Remember, this diet is for DIABETICS, not the general population. So, if you do not have diabetes and you want to lower your carb intake, think about the South Beach or Atkins diet. I have done a more thorough review of Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Diet, here.
NutriSystem D is different than the above diets because it is a meal delivery system. This means that you pay for your meals and they mail them to you. You still have to purchase some fresh vegetables, etc., but they send you a convenient shopping list. This diet is based on designing meals using the glycemic index.
Interestingly enough, they company commissioned a university study that demonstrated how following its diet you will lose weight and control your blood glucose levels.
Many people criticize this diet because it is expensive. And, it is. However, if you need a jump start and/or have a very difficult time cooking and following a meal plan, then this is an excellent choice. I have more thoroughly reviewed the NutriSystem D plan, here.
Other Type 2 Diabetes Diet Choices
There are many, many other Type 2 diabetes diets. Even I have not reviewed them all, some I have, including the following:
Axxya Meal Plan (best meal plan tool I have found). This tool is great if your doctor has given you a specific calorie amount you have to stick with, like 1800 calories, or 1,600 calories.
Whatever type 2 diabetes diets you choose, make sure it is right for you. Do you like the foods? Are there recipes you feel comfortable preparing? The positive side is that you have many choices. Ultimately, if you choose the diet that is right for you, you will stick with it and feel better.