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Last updated August 14, 2019. 5 minute read

Diabetes and pre-diabetes diet: food as treatment

There is no way to reverse diabetes. However, it may be possible to control your diabetes well enough with lifestyle modifications that you no longer need to use medications to manage your diabetes. One of the most efficient ways to do that: Clean up your diet and keep your weight in a healthy range.

Self Written by Michael Martin
Reviewed by Dr. Mike Bohl, MD, MPH

If you’ve been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes or prediabetes, you might be feeling confused or uncertain. But you shouldn’t feel helpless. By making some simple lifestyle changes, you can manage the condition by taking control of your blood glucose levels – possibly even to the point where you no longer need medications. This can help you avoid diabetes’ more serious effects, which include cardiovascular disease, erectile dysfunction, issues with vision, and even circulation problems that can lead to amputation. 


  • Improving diabetes to the point where medication is no longer needed is sometimes called diabetes remission and can be done by improving glucose control.
  • Along with physical activity, making dietary changes can help lower blood sugar and increase insulin sensitivity. 
  • A prediabetes or diabetes diet emphasizes foods that are high in fiber, low fat, and have a low glycemic load. 
  • Discuss how healthy eating can impact your blood sugar with your healthcare provider.

What is diabetes?

First off, it’s important to remember that these recommendations apply only to type 2 diabetes, which is different from type 1. In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas has difficulty producing insulin, which the body uses to process glucose for energy, keeping blood sugar within a healthy range. People with type 1 diabetes must manage their condition with insulin injections before eating. Before the 1920s and the introduction of injectable insulin, type 1 diabetes was always fatal. 

In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas produces insulin—at least initially—but the cells are resistant to it. Typically, insulin resistance comes on in response to diet and lifestyle choices and is strongly associated with being overweight and sedentary. People with type 2 diabetes are often prescribed medications like metformin to help keep their blood sugar in check.


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What is prediabetes?

Prediabetes is the body’s equivalent of a flashing red light at a railroad crossing: Something you want to dodge is coming down the track. According to the CDC, prediabetes is when your blood sugar level is elevated but not quite high enough to be type 2 diabetes (CDC, 2019). Nearly 84 million Americans are in that boat, and 90 percent of us don’t know we are. Pay attention to this warning sign, and you may be able to reverse the condition with diet and exercise by better managing your glucose levels.

Putting diabetes into remission

There is no way to reverse diabetes. However, it may be possible to control your diabetes well enough with lifestyle modifications that you no longer need to use medications to manage your diabetes. This is commonly referred to as pushing your diabetes into remission.

One of the most efficient ways to do that: Clean up your diet and keep your weight in a healthy range. Obesity is the No. 1 risk factor for type 2 diabetes. But you have the power to change it. Studies have found that losing as little as 10 percent of your total body weight can be enough to prevent type 2 diabetes (Berger, 2003). 

Here are some ways to do that.

Step away from the sugary beverages

The average American drinks more than 200 of their daily calories. Have a couple of cans of soda, and you’re nearing 300. Processed juices are another secret dietary underminer. Drinking sugary beverages has been associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, tooth decay, and kidney problems — the list goes on. So skip the soda and drink water (you can infuse it with fruit), herbal teas, iced coffee or seltzers.

Avoid processed meat

People who eat processed red meat have a much higher risk of diabetes. Having just one serving a day (e.g., two slices of bacon, two slices of deli meat, or one hot dog) has been associated with more than a 20 percent higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes (Datz, 2014). Cut processed meat down or out of your diet — you’ll lower your risk of colon cancer too (Santarelli, 2008). 

Eat more plants

An October 2018 review of studies published in the journal BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care looked at more than 400 middle-aged adults with Type 2 diabetes (Toumpanakis, 2018). It found that those who followed a plant-based diet had significant improvements in blood sugar control, weight loss, and cholesterol levels, compared with people who didn’t follow plant-based diets. Some were even able to reduce or eliminate their diabetes medication. “If you’d like to try the diet at home, focus on lots of vegetables, legumes (a must for protein and fiber), fruits, seeds, whole grains, and nuts,” advises Harvard Medical School (Harvard, 2019). “But don’t stop taking any medications without talking to your doctor first.”

Even if you don’t go full veg, aim to get 5 to 7 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Fruits and vegetables should make up half your plate at every meal.

Factor in a food’s glycemic index and glycemic load

Avoid white bread, processed baked goods, and sugary cereals. Those simple carbs can cause your blood sugar to spike and then crash, leading to another carb-loading session. That’s because they have a high glycemic index. 

Glycemic index (GI) is a system that ranks foods on a scale from 1 to 100 based on their effect on blood sugar levels. Low GI scores are less than 55. Medium GI scores are 55-69 and high GI scores are 70-100.

Knowing a food’s GI is a valuable tool in the management of diabetes or prediabetes (Riccardi, 2008). Even more valuable is glycemic load (GL). GL is the output of a formula that factors in the portion size of a food in addition to the glycemic index of that food. 

Glycemic Load = GI/100 multiplied by the net grams of planned carbohydrate (net carbohydrate is the total grams of carbohydrate minus the dietary fiber). 

Further, complex carbs like whole grains take longer for the body to process and keep you feeling fuller for longer. Just be sure to check the Nutrition Facts label: Some products marked “whole wheat” or “whole grain” are high in added sugar.

And on that note, check Nutrition Facts labels

The number of products that contain added sugar might shock you — from pasta sauces to soups. Choose the ones with little or none.

Get more fiber

Like whole grains, fiber fills you up. Soluble fiber also slows the absorption of blood sugar. Research has shown that people who eat a fiber-rich diet have a lower chance of developing type 2 diabetes (Riccardi, 2008). And a 37-year review of studies found that people with type 2 diabetes who add fiber to their diet saw statistically significant reductions in their blood sugar levels (Mcrae, 2018). So load up on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. 

Skip eating out for home cooking

You know fast food joints are high in the supply you should avoid; namely, calories, saturated fat, and simple carbs. But even healthy-seeming restaurants stealthily add butter, cream, and oil to their dishes to enhance flavor and keep you coming back. Prepare more of your food at home; that way, you know exactly what’s going into what you’re eating. Emphasize unprocessed foods that have a low-fat, and have a lower GL and if you’re pressed for time, there are a variety of home-delivery meal plans and guides to meal prepping that can help.