Diabetes and Nutrition

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Diabetes and Nutrition

Why does it matter what I eat?

What you eat is closely connected to the amount of sugar in your blood. The right food choices will help you control your blood sugar level.

Do I have to follow a special diet?

There isn’t one specific “diabetes diet.” Your doctor will probably suggest that you work with a registered dietitian to design a meal plan. A meal plan is a guide that tells you what kinds of food to eat at meals and for snacks. The plan also tells you how much food to have. For most people who have diabetes (and those without, too), a healthy diet consists of 40% to 60% of calories from carbohydrates, 20% from protein and 30% or less from fat. It should be low in cholesterol, low in salt and low in added sugar.

Can I eat any sugar?

Yes. In recent years, doctors have learned that eating some sugar doesn’t usually cause problems for most people who have diabetes–as long as it is part of a balanced diet. Just be careful about how much sugar you eat and try not to add sugar to foods.

What kinds of foods can I eat?

In general, at each meal you may have 2 to 5 choices (or up to 60 grams) of carbohydrates, 1 choice of protein and a certain amount of fat. Talk to your doctor or dietitian for specific advice.

Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are found in fruits, vegetables, beans, dairy foods and starchy foods such as breads. Try to have fresh fruits rather than canned fruits, fruit juices or dried fruit. You may eat fresh vegetables and frozen or canned vegetables. Condiments such as nonfat mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard are also carbohydrates.

Protein. Protein is found in meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, beans and some vegetables. Try to eat poultry and fish more often than red meat. Don’t eat poultry skin, and trim extra fat from all meat. Choose nonfat or reduced-fat options when you eat dairy, such as cheeses and yogurts.

Fat. Butter, margarine, lard and oils add fat to food. Fat is also in many dairy and meat products. Try to avoid fried foods, mayonnaise-based dishes (unless they are made with fat-free mayo), egg yolks, bacon and high-fat dairy products. Your doctor or dietitian will tell you how many grams of fat you may eat each day. When eating fat-free versions of foods (such as mayonnaise and butter), check the label to see how many grams of carbohydrates they contain. Keep in mind that these products often have added sugar.

What is the exchange list?

The exchange list is a tool to help you plan healthy meals and snacks. To add variety to your diet, you can substitute certain foods for other foods in the same group. Some examples are listed here.


This handout was developed by the American Academy of Family Physicians in cooperation with the American Diabetes Association.

Sample Exchange List

Food groupYou can have…..Or exchange it for…
Fruit (each serving contains about 15 grams carbohydrates)1 small or medium piece of fresh fruit1/2 cup fruit juice,or canned or chopped fruit
Vegetable (each serving contains about 5 grams carbohydrates)1 cup raw vegetables1/2 cup cooked vegetables or vegetable juice
Starch (each serving contains about 15 grams carbohydrates)1 slice or ounce bread1/2 cup pasta, cereal, starchy vegetable
Sugar, honey, molasses1 teaspoon4 grams carbohydrates
Milk (does not include cream, yogurt or cheese)1 cup milk12 grams carbohydrates and 8 grams protein
Meat1 ounce meat, fish, poultry, cheese or yogurt1/2 cup dried beans
Fat (includes nuts, seeds and small amounts of bacon and peanut butter)1 teaspoon oil, butter or margarine5 grams fat