Changing your diet can help delay the transition from prediabetes (a condition of higher-than-normal blood sugar levels) to type 2 diabetes. Prioritizing nutrient-rich, high-quality foods alongside healthy lifestyle habits can help support optimal blood sugar (glucose) control.1
This article discusses the relationship between food and blood sugar levels, what foods are best to incorporate into your diet if you’ve been diagnosed with prediabetes, and tips to help prevent a formal diabetes diagnosis.
What Is Prediabetes?
Prediabetes is a health condition in which your blood sugar levels are slightly higher than normal, indicating that you may be on your way to developing type 2 diabetes. Prediabetes is very common. It affects an estimated 96 million adults in the United States.
When left untreated, prediabetes can turn into type 2 diabetes. But by focusing on improving the quality of your diet, along with making other lifestyle changes, you can help prevent prediabetes from becoming type 2 diabetes.
Keys to a Prediabetes Diet
A prediabetes diet isn’t a fad diet; it’s a pattern of eating that emphasizes nutrient-rich, high-quality foods and minimizes ultra-processed foods that don’t offer much nutrition. A good first step to making sustainable changes to the way you eat is to reflect on your current diet pattern and identify a few areas of improvement.
A good diet for prediabetes management and type 2 diabetes prevention emphasizes predominantly whole foods. Whole foods are those that are not processed or packaged and don’t contain added sugar, sodium, or other ingredients.
Fiber helps regulate appetite, blood sugar control, and chronic disease prevention, so it helps to choose fiber-rich carbohydrate sources, such as beans, lentils, peas, and whole grains.
Protein is an essential nutrient and helps with satiety (feeling satisfied and full). Choose protein sources low in saturated and trans fats, such as fish, poultry, plain Greek yogurt, and beans. Avoid foods with saturated or trans fats that can increase your risk for heart disease.
Additionally, choose healthy fats for the greatest benefits. This means focusing primarily on unsaturated vs. saturated and trans fats, a high intake of which is associated with an increased risk for heart disease, obesity, and insulin resistance,4 which is when your body’s cells don’t respond well to the hormone insulin that controls the amount of glucose in your blood. Avoid foods with partially hydrogenated oils, margarine, fried foods, and baked goods.
Recommended foods with high fiber, protein, and healthy fats include:
Fruits and vegetables
Legumes (e.g., beans, peas, and lentils)
Nuts and seeds
Lean proteins (e.g., chicken and fish)
Reducing Sugar Intake
Minimizing added sugar is crucial to keep your blood sugar levels within a normal range. Added sugar is refined sugar added to many packaged and processed foods. It differs from the natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables.
Eating a lot of foods with added sugar can cause your blood sugar levels to rise and fall dramatically, especially because they are generally low in fiber and other beneficial nutrients that help keep blood sugar steady.
This doesn’t mean you must eliminate all sources of added sugar in your diet if you don’t want to. However, your blood sugar will be better regulated when you choose naturally sweetened foods, like fruit, over foods that contain added sugar.
Daily Added Sugar Guidelines
According to the American Heart Association daily guidelines, daily added sugar should not exceed:5
- 6 teaspoons (25 grams) equal to 100 calories for women
- 9 teaspoons (36 grams) equal to 150 calories for men
Glycemic Index and Carbs
Carbohydrates (carbs) are often wrongly perceived as a nutrient to avoid; carbs are your brain and body’s energy source, so including some is important.
However, there are varying degrees of quality when it comes to carbs. Choose carbohydrate sources that support your blood sugar, are higher in fiber, and are lower on the glycemic index (GI) scale (a tool designed to determine how certain foods will likely raise your blood sugar levels).
Foods that have been assigned a high GI generally raise your blood sugar faster and more dramatically and have fewer nutrients. Foods with a lower GI are better for blood sugar management and are typically higher in fiber.
Understanding the Glycemic Index Scale
- Low GI: 55 or less
- Medium GI: 56–69
- High GI: 70–100
Low GI foods include 100% whole wheat bread and pasta, beans, nuts, seeds, lentils, sweet potatoes, and steel-cut oats. In a prediabetes diet, medium GI foods, such as corn, brown rice, and whole wheat bread, may be consumed in moderation.
High GI foods significantly impact your blood sugar levels due to their lack of fiber and should be consumed minimally on a prediabetes diet. These include sugary beverages, white rice and bread, fruit juice, and white potatoes.
While enjoying foods from each category is OK, emphasizing low GI foods will be most beneficial to your blood sugar management and overall health.
Limiting Alcohol Use
Alcohol should be consumed only in moderation, if at all, on a prediabetes diet. This is because alcohol is dehydrating and some types include large amounts of added sugar, which can work against obtaining optimal blood sugar management.
If you occasionally consume alcohol, opt for drinks without added sugar, juices, or liqueurs.
Also, while consuming alcohol, remember to stay hydrated with regular water.
Foods to Avoid
It’s a good idea to minimize foods with added sugar or a high glycemic index to support healthy blood sugar management. These foods are low in fiber, will raise your blood sugar, and won’t keep you satiated for very long.
Some examples of foods to avoid on a prediabetes diet include:
White rice and bread products
Ice cream, cakes, and cookies
Refined and ultra-processed packaged snack foods
Sugar-sweetened sodas and sports drinks
If you currently eat many items on this list, start to make a change by identifying a few areas where you can make healthier choices.
Exercise With Diet
A sedentary lifestyle and a lack of physical exercise are associated with insulin resistance.6 However, regular exercise and a healthy diet may help prevent prediabetes from becoming type 2 diabetes.7
When you move your body, your muscles use glucose for energy, which helps decrease insulin resistance, while improving insulin sensitivity and the uptake of glucose.
If you’re new to exercise, start slowly and find activities you enjoy. This may include strength training, running, walking, swimming, tennis, and yoga. Aim for moderate- and high-intensity workouts as you build strength and stamina. It’s recommended to exercise at least 150 minutes per week, regardless of intensity level or type of exercise.8
Many people have prediabetes, a condition marked by higher than normal blood sugar levels. While prediabetes can turn into type 2 diabetes if left untreated, a healthy diet and regular exercise habits can help manage it. Reducing your intake of ultra-processed and refined foods and eating more whole-based plant foods high in fiber can help.
A Word From Verywell
Prediabetes is a very common condition that, if left unaddressed, can turn into type 2 diabetes. Fortunately, you can improve your blood sugar management by adopting a healthier diet and incorporating regular exercise. It may feel overwhelming to think about making lifestyle changes, but speaking to your healthcare provider and determining a diet and exercise regimen that works for you can help avoid prediabetes from becoming type 2 diabetes.