The connection between food and diabetes

December 15, 2023 Swedish Nutrition Team


In this article:

  • Food choices can raise — or lower — your risk for Type 2 diabetes.

  • While all foods affect your blood sugar, some foods can help keep your blood sugar lower longer.

  • A Swedish expert shares his tips for which foods to eat and which ones to avoid to prevent or manage Type 2 diabetes.

The connection between food and diabetes

You’ve probably heard someone joke about getting diabetes from all the sugar in a big piece of cake. But while food and diabetes are connected, their relationship is much more complex than just eating too much sugar.

The truth is that individual foods don’t cause Type 2 diabetes, but lots of unhealthy food choices over time can add up and increase your risk for the disease.

“Risk of Type 2 diabetes increases with weight gain, especially with visceral fat in the midsection," says Samer Hafi, M.D., endocrinologist at Swedish. “Chronic excess caloric intake can increase risk of Type 2 diabetes.”

But just like food choices can raise your risk of Type 2 diabetes, they can lower it, too. And your food choices after a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis can also help you manage your disease. Dr. Hafi shares his tips for using the relationship between food and diabetes to improve your health.

Foods to avoid if you have Type 2 diabetes

All foods affect your blood sugar (also called blood glucose). They may raise it a lot or just a little. If you have Type 2 diabetes, your blood sugar is too high. Over time, high blood sugar can damage your nerves, eyes and kidneys. That’s why it’s important to limit foods that raise your blood sugar.

“I usually advise my patients to avoid liquid sugar, such as juice and regular soda, as well as food high in sugar like candy, cookies and cakes,” says Dr. Hafi.

That doesn’t mean shunning a piece of birthday cake at a party. But it does mean that you should consider a smaller piece while avoiding additional sugary foods that day.

It may also be beneficial to avoid ultra-processed foods that have added fat, salt and sugar. These foods tend to contain few nutrients and a lot of calories. These include:

  • Breakfast cereals.
  • Chips.
  • Crackers.
  • Frozen dinners and snacks.
  • Packaged cookies and baked goods. 

“I usually advise my patients to eat whole foods and avoid ultra-processed food in general,” says Dr. Hafi. “I also advise them to eat home-cooked meals if possible and minimize eating out.”

It’s important to remember not all processed food is bad. For instance, Greek yogurt is processed to be safe to eat and to become yogurt from milk, but it’s a healthy food that’s high in protein. Frozen vegetables are still good for you, even if they are frozen.

To figure out which foods are ultra-processed, take a look at the nutrition label on the back. If it has high amounts of added sugar or salt (over 5% of your daily value as marked on the label), it’s likely ultra-processed.

Foods that can help prevent or manage Type 2 diabetes

Some foods can actually help your blood sugar stay more level, which lowers your risk for developing diabetes or diabetes complications.

“Protein, fat, fiber and complex carbohydrates tend to have minimal effect (if any in many cases) on blood sugar levels after meals,” says Dr. Hafi.

These foods include:

  • Lean proteins including chicken, fish, turkey and low-fat beef.
  • Low-fat dairy products like Greek yogurt.
  • Healthy fats such as olive oil, avocadoes and nuts.
  • High-fiber foods, such as fruits and vegetables.

By making these foods the majority of your diet, you can better control your blood sugar and help you lower your risk for Type 2 diabetes.

For some of us, advice about advising what foods to eat and which ones to avoid may feel too overwhelming. If that’s the case, Dr. Hafi recommends consulting with a registered dietitian. A dietitian can work with you to help you create a healthy eating plan that fits your needs and food preferences, so you can still enjoy your favorite foods as part of an overall healthy diet.

Learn more and find a provider

If you have questions about managing Type 2 diabetes, contact a Swedish endocrinologist.

Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a physician, caregiver or advanced care practitioner, you can use our provider directory.

Related resources

Understand your risk of diabetes

Raising awareness to prevent Type 2 diabetes

Three ways sleep affects your blood sugar levels

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

The Swedish nutrition team seeks to bring you expert advice and tips on how to fill your plate with the right nutrients to fuel your body in the healthiest way possible.

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