What should you know about diabetes and nutrition?

This handout contains general nutrition guidelines to control diabetes. What you eat, when you eat, and how much you eat can be a big part of how you manage your diabetes. Eating healthy often means making changes in your current eating habits.

Your pancreas is an organ in your body that makes a hormone called insulin. Insulin is the helper, or the “key” that lets sugar, or glucose, into the cells of the body, where it is stored or used for energy.

Diabetes is a disease of the pancreas. With type 1 diabetes, the body does not make insulin. With type 2 diabetes, your body does not make enough insulin or use insulin properly, also called insulin resistance.

The food we eat or drink is broken down into a simple sugar called glucose. Glucose provides the energy your body needs for daily activities. Without insulin, glucose cannot get into the body’s cells for use as energy. When glucose cannot get into the cells, it stays in your blood. Too much glucose in the blood is called “high blood sugar” or diabetes. The A1C is a test that measures a person’s average blood glucose level within the past two to three months. The goal is to have a level below 7%.

What are some goals for healthy eating?

  • Eat meals and snacks at regular times every day. Do not skip meals.
  • Do eat carbohydrate food at each meal and snack, but keep portions small to control blood sugar.
  • Read food labels and know portion sizes to count carbohydrates.
  • Choose foods high in fiber such as whole grain breads, cereals, pasta, brown rice, fruits and vegetables. These foods are digested more slowly, which helps control blood sugar.
  • Eat two to three servings (portion size 2-3 ounces) of protein foods per day.
  • Eat a variety of foods to get all the nutrients you need.
  • Eat foods with less sugar and fat.
  • Drink sugar-free, calorie-free beverages.
  • Lose weight if you are overweight by cutting down on portion sizes.
  • Plan for 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic exercise at least five days a week, along with two to three sessions of weight resistance training. Always consult your doctor before starting an exercise routine.

What should you know about diabetes and carbohydrates?

Carbohydrate (breads and grains, fruit and milk) has the greatest impact on blood glucose levels since carbohydrate is broken down into glucose after you eat. Each serving has about 15 grams of carbohydrate.

Breads and Grains

Choose 1-3 servings each meal.

  • 1 slice of bread.
  • 1/4 bagel and 1/2 English muffin.
  • 1 plain rice cake4-6 crackers (such as matzo, bread-sticks, rye crisps, saltines).
  • 3 graham crackers.
  • 3/4 cup ready-to-eat cereal (unsweetened).
  • 1/3 cup pasta or rice.
  • 1/2 cup corn, peas or beans.
  • Small plain baked potato (3 ounces).
  • 1 small pancake.
  • 1 6-inch tortilla.

Fruits and Vegetables

Choose 2-3 servings/day.

  • 1 small piece of fresh fruit.
  • 1 cup fresh berries or melon.
  • 1/2 cup chopped, cooked, frozen or unsweetened canned fruit.

Each serving of non-starchy vegetable contains 5 grams of carbohydrate.

  • 1/2 cup cooked or canned vegetables; include 2-3 cups each day.
  • 1 cup raw vegetables.
  • 1/2 cup tomato or vegetable juice.


Choose 2-3 servings/day.

  • 1 cup skim, 1/2%, or 1% milk.
  • 1 cup no-added-sugar soy milk.
  • 6 ounces fat-free, sugar-free yogurt (or Greek).

Protein Foods

Include 4-6 ounces each day. These foods are low in carbohydrates.

One ounce is equal to:

  • 1 ounce lean meat, fish or poultry*.
  • 1 ounce low-fat cheese.
  • 1 egg or 1/4 cup of egg substitutes.
  • 1 tablespoon peanut butter.
  • 1/2 cup tofu (bean curd).
  • 1/4 cup low-fat cottage cheese.

* Baked, broiled, roasted or grilled (without skin).

Fats an Oils

Choose 3-5 servings each day. These foods are low in carbohydrates.

One serving is:

  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil (olive, canola or peanut oils).
  • 1 teaspoon tub margarine.
  • 1 tablespoon low-fat salad dressing, low-fat margarine.
  • 1 teaspoon mayonnaise.

Free Foods

  • Non-fat cooking spray.
  • Diet soda.
  • Calorie-free syrup.
  • Sugar-free gum.
  • Sugar-free Popsicle.
  • Lemon juice.
  • Water.
  • Sugar substitutes.
  • Hot pepper sauce.
  • Mustard.

What else will help you with good nutrition if you have diabetes?

The next step is to make an appointment with a registered dietitian, the nutrition expert. A registered dietitian will:

  • Assess your health factors to determine your individual nutritional status.
  • Review your diet history, targeting carbohydrate (glucose) sources.
  • Explain product selection, label reading, cooking methods, menu planning and dining out.
  • Develop a personalized treatment that will meet your needs.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/29/2019.


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