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What should people with diabetes eat?

If there’s one question we get over and over on South Africans with Diabetes it’s this: What should people with diabetes eat? Here’s a simple answer.

what should people with diabetes eat?

Too many choices

We know that deciding what to eat when you have diabetes (Type 1 or Type 2) can be hard. There are so many options! Low carb? Banting? Vegetarian? Special diabetes-friendly foods? The truth is that we are all different, so what works for one person might not work for another. Some of us can eat fruit, others can’t. Some of us thrive on Banting, others don’t. But that’s not very helpful, is it?

What should people with diabetes eat?

So we’ve narrowed it down to food advice that we believe is helpful for everyone with diabetes (and, to be honest, everyone without!)

Sweet Life’s diabetes and food advice is simple:
Eat whole foods. Lots of green vegetables.
Cut down on carbs. Remove refined carbs.
Enjoy your food!

Eat whole foods

Food that is good for your body and your diabetes shouldn’t come in a package or with a long list of ingredients you don’t understand. It should be as close to natural as possible – as unprocessed as possible. If we look at the plate model, that means a quarter of a plate of protein (chicken, fish, eggs, meat, legumes), a quarter of wholegrain, low GI carbohydrates (if you eat carbs) and half a plate of green, leafy vegetables.

portion control for diabetes

When choosing your protein, for example, it’s healthier to eat a chicken breast than chicken nuggets (those are processed). It’s healthier to eat sweet potato as your carb than oven-baked chips (although those are healthier than slap chips!) This isn’t an exact science, but if you can consistently choose the healthier option, your blood sugar will thank you.

Lots of green vegetables

Vegetables are amazing things, and should fill half your plate at lunch and dinner. Green vegetables means don’t fill half your plate with butternut or potatoes or starchy vegetables that will spike your blood sugar. Any non-starchy vegetables are great (no matter what colour they are!)

Low carbohydrate (non-starchy) vegetables are things like green beans, cauliflower, spinach, lettuce, kale, cucumber, brussels sprouts, tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli, asparagus and mushrooms.

Cut down on carbs

We don’t believe in a strict no-carb diet, but it’s clear that carbs are what spike blood sugar, so you have to find the balance that is right for you. If your family is eating spaghetti bolognaise for dinner, eat more vegetables and less (or no) pasta. Try a bunless burger with lots of sides instead of a burger on a bun. If you can cut the carbs out of a meal without ruining the meal, do it.

It’s not necessary to ‘replace’ the carbs with special low-carb alternatives (these are often expensive). Just try to fill your plate with more vegetables and protein, so there’s less space for carbs!

healthy plate of food for people with diabetes

Remove refined carbs

This is life advice, even more than diabetes advice. Refined carbs – white bread, white rice, doughnuts, cookies, cakes, vetkoek, chips, pizza, sweets and so on – are junk food. You know this! They don’t make you feel well. As far as possible, remove them from your daily diet.

Refined carbs include:

  • White bread
  • White rice
  • Madumbe
  • Pap
  • Pasta
  • Pizza
  • Pies
  • Chips and slap chips
  • Cakes
  • Cookies and biscuits
  • Baked treats (doughnuts, muffins, vetkoek)
  • Cooldrinks (fizzy drinks, energy drinks, juice of all kinds)
  • Sweets
  • Chocolates
  • Ice-cream
  • Most breakfast cereals, including cornflakes

It’s a good idea to stop eating all of these foods, except on special occasions. It’s hard, we know! But nothing on this list is healthy food for diabetes.

If it’s a special occasion and you want a piece of cake, why not bake it at home? Then you know exactly what goes into it, you can control the amount of sugar (top tip: you can cut 1/3 of the sugar from baked goods without it making any difference) and you can choose the portion size.

what should people with diabetes eat? how to enjoy your food

Enjoy your food!

We really believe in this one. Diabetes is a chronic condition, which means it’s forever. You can’t be on a diet forever, so you have to find ways to make eating healthy delicious – and enjoyable. Figure out what that means for you, and work it into your daily diet.

Of course, enjoying your food means making exceptions now and again, too. We’re not robots! The most important thing is to keep portions in mind when you’re making exceptions, so you don’t have a crazy blood sugar spike.

Take a look at our Healthy Food Guide that outlines which foods to eat and in which portions

What do you think people with diabetes should eat?

What about you, what do you think? We all have such different experiences living with diabetes – we’d love to know what you think about this! Please comment below or on Facebook or Instagram, and let’s learn from each other…

What to read next?

Free Healthy Food Guide – how to eat healthy with diabetes or to lose weight: This Healthy Food Guide shows you exactly which foods to choose (and which to avoid), as well as sharing which portions to eat.

Eat healthy for diabetes: The one article you need to read about diabetes and diet.

A simple way to eat low carb: Many people feel that low carb (LCHF) is the only way to eat, while others feel that it’s too expensive or that there hasn’t been enough research done.

What to read next
Join South Africans with Diabetes on Facebook

Join our diabetes community


  1. […] This isn’t a suggested eating list. Our approach to eating well with diabetes is to cut out refined carbs and reduce carbs as much as possible. But we understand that everyone […]

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Sweet Life is a registered NPO/PBO (220-984) with a single goal: to improve diabetes in South Africa. We are funded by sponsorships and donations from aligned companies and organisations who believe in our work. We only share information that we believe benefits our community. While some of this information is linked to specific brands, it is not an official endorsement of that brand. We believe in empowering people with diabetes to make the best decisions they can, to live a healthy, happy life with diabetes.