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Be sure to put these in your meal rotation. 

Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD
October 27, 2017

Making healthy food choices to control blood sugar is key for those with type 2 diabetes, but what if there were foods that not only kept diabetes under control, but also improved your diabetes and overall health - kind of how calcium can improve bone health? Researchers have identified some key functional foods that appear to improve the disease condition and possibly reduce risk.

Blueberries

Eating the tiny blue fruit is a nutrient-dense way to get some of your daily carbs, and research also suggests that eating blueberries regularly - as well as other berries - improves insulin sensitivity. This means cells are more receptive to the body's own insulin. Researchers also credit the anti-inflammatory effect of phytochemicals in berries as possibly reducing some of the cardiovascular risks seen with type 2 diabetes.

Oranges

Oranges, grapefruits, clementines - research suggests that consumption of citrus fruit has a positive, long-term effects on blood sugar, as well as cholesterol levels, thanks to the anti-inflammatory compound hesperidin and a healthy dose of soluble fiber. Additional research from Harvard School of Public Health suggests that eating the whole fruit, rather than the juice, was associated with a lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Chickpeas

Chickpeas, as well as beans and lentils, are well-known foods with a low glycemic index, making them good choices for diabetes, but new research suggests that eating legumes may actually have a therapeutic effect. In a 2012 study published in Archives of Internal Medicine, individuals with type 2 diabetes consumed one cup of legumes daily as part of their carbohydrate intake for three months. When compared with other study participants, the daily legume eaters showed greater decreases in hemoglobin A1c values and decreases in blood pressure.

Dark Chocolate

Can a sweet treat really improve glucose control? Some research studies found that a small amount of high-quality, dark chocolate eaten daily decreases fasting insulin levels and blood pressure. Effects seen are attributed to compounds called polyphenols. Always discuss changes and additions to your diet with a medical professional first, but swapping a little bit of low-sugar, high-quality dark chocolate in place of other less healthy carbs could make your taste buds and glucose levels happier.

Plant-Based Meals

Vegetarians have a significantly lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, but many have assumed it's because they also tend to have lower BMIs. But a 2012 study in the Journal of Preventive Medicine found that a high nutrient density (HND) diet - essentially centering daily intake around fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes while skipping the meat - has a big impact on those with diabetes. In fact, after following a HND diet for seven month, study participants had significant decreases in HgbA1c, blood pressure, and triglycerides, significant increases in HDL levels, and 62 percent had blood glucose levels within normal range.

Olive Oil

Replacing saturated and trans fats with healthier unsaturated fats is a key recommendation for all individuals, but the type of fats consumed may play an even greater role in the health of those with type 2 diabetes. That's because diabetes is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Controlling weight, being active, and monitoring glucose levels through diet can help, but it's important that heart-healthy fats and oils are the primary fats contributors to the diet. Consumption of extra virgin olive oil is associated not only with a decreased risk of diabetes, but some research suggests it may also improve glucose usage by cells thanks to its anti-inflammatory effects. Make olive oil your daily "go-to" when cooking and using oils in salad dressing, and also look for ways to incorporate nuts, seeds, avocado, and cold-water fish each week.

Green Vegetables

Higher Intakes of leafy greens and non-starchy, green vegetables in type 2 diabetics ages 65 and older was associated with decreased levels of HgbA1c and significant reductions in cardiovascular risk factors. It's still being studied as to whether these effects are due to the nutrient-density of vegetables - specifically vitamins A, C, and E, and magnesium whose intakes have been associated with better glycemic control - or the substitution of these vegetables in place of less nutrient dense foods. Best results were seen when at least 200g of vegetables were consumed each day (about 3 to 3 ½ cups), with at least 70g from green veggies (about ¾ to 1 cup).

Nuts and Peanut Butter

Eating 5 servings per week of nuts (1 serving= 1 oz of nuts or 1 Tbsp of nut butter) was associated with a significant reduction in heart disease and stroke risk in women with type 2 diabetes in the long-running Nurses Health Study, while a 2011 study published in the journal Diabetes Care found that those with diabetes had improved blood sugar control and blood lipids when they ate 2 ounces of nuts daily in place of carbohydrates. Consider swapping out some refined carbohydrate calories for walnuts, almonds, or peanut butter - just be sure to watch the portion size and salt!

Probiotics

Over the past few years, several studies have examined the effects that "good" bacteria may have on glucose regulation, with some focusing on yogurt intake and others focusing probiotic intake. Initial findings on all studies suggests that eating foods high in probiotics, such as yogurt, significantly improves fasting glucose levels and/or HgbA1c when consumed regularly and longer than eight weeks.

Cinnamon

The savory-sweet spice cinnamon appears to increase insulin sensitivity, thereby helping to reduce blood sugar. The exact mechanism for how the sweet spice does this, as well as a recommended intake, is still being investigated, but most research points towards cinnamon's ability to aid in blood glucose control on a daily and long-term basis, and doesn't appear to have any potential side effects other than adding a little flavor. Try sprinkling a little on foods you're already eating, like oatmeal, yogurt, and nut butters.