Filling up with vegetables is a great way to keep your blood sugar levels in check. What’s more, a diet high in veggies is associated with weight loss and a reduced risk of gaining weight or becoming obese, which, research has noted, is an independent risk factor for type 2 diabetes. In fact, according to a 2022 study in the journal Frontiers in Public Health, 80 to 90 percent of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese.
Prioritizing blood sugar and weight management are important for people with diabetes at all times. Adopting or improving your whole foods–based, low-carb diet is one way to do just that, notes the American Diabetes Association. And veggies should certainly be part of the menu, registered dietitians agree.
Starchy vs. Nonstarchy Veggies: What’s the Difference?
When it comes to eating veggies to improve diabetes management, some veggies are better than others.
Starchy vegetables such as corn, potatoes, and yams are high in carbohydrates, which can have a direct effect on your blood sugar.
That doesn’t mean this type of veggie is unhealthy or off-limits. Indeed, eating starchy vegetables in moderate portions can be better than consuming other carb-laden fare. “If you compare many starchy vegetables — such as butternut and acorn squash, peas, and sweet potatoes — to refined carbohydrates like [white] rice, pasta, and breads, you’ll find that the starchy vegetables often contain more fiber, potassium, and other essential vitamins than their grain counterparts,” says Nicole Rubenstein, RD, owner of Racer’s Edge Nutrition in Denver.
Still, eating low-carb vegetables such as those listed below is a smart way to fill up without spiking your blood sugar levels while still getting the vitamins, minerals, and fiber your body needs to thrive.
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How Many Carbs Can People With Diabetes Eat?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that, on average, people with diabetes receive about 45 percent of their calories from carbohydrates, with the rest coming from lean protein from foods such as fish, chicken, and tofu, as well as heart-healthy fats from plant sources like beans and fish. “I often advise my patients with diabetes to follow the plate method [from the CDC]: ¼ plate lean protein, ¼ plate starchy vegetables or whole grains, and ½ plate nonstarchy vegetables,” says Rubenstein. Make sure you’re working with a 9-inch dinner plate, not a platter.
That half a plate won’t just contain plenty of vitamins and minerals but also lots of fiber to help with blood sugar control, Rubenstein explains. “Soluble fiber, in particular, can help to lower postmeal blood sugar levels. Some vegetables, along with legumes (beans) and other plant foods, are loaded with soluble fiber.” Brussels sprouts and asparagus are among the low-carb vegetables that fall in this category. “In addition, including more fiber in your diet helps to increase fullness. Start your meal by eating a large portion of vegetables. This may help you keep your portions of other high-calorie and high-carbohydrate foods smaller, benefitting your blood sugar and your waistline,” Rubsenstein says.
Don’t Avoid Veggies Due to Gastrointestinal Issues — Talk to Your Doctor
If you find that eating vegetables is hard on your stomach, don’t give up, says Rubenstein. “Some people struggle with digesting raw vegetables, like salads. Others report excessive gas with cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. Some medical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and colitis, can make it hard to digest vegetables as well.” If you fall into any of these categories, work with your healthcare team to figure out which vegetables you are able to tolerate. Get creative, and find new ways to prepare these vegetables so you feel like you have variety with the few vegetables you are able to tolerate.
“If you’re unsure which ones cause you digestive difficulties, work with a registered dietitian to help you meal-plan and better understand your food intolerances,” she adds.
Also, don’t discount the importance of gradually increasing intake of fiber (of which veggies have lots) and drinking plenty of water along the way. The Mayo Clinic points out that not taking these steps can similarly lead to digestive problems.
RELATED: What Are the Healthiest Ways to Prepare Veggies if You Have Diabetes?
How Nutrients in Vegetables Can Affect Diabetes and Its Complications
A balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrients is a great defense against the complications that can arise from having type 2 diabetes, including cardiovascular disease, says Jordana Turkel, RD, CDCES, from Park Avenue Endocrinology and Nutrition in New York City. When it comes to vegetables, Turkel describes the approach as “eating colorfully.”
“My rule of thumb to patients is to make sure when you are making a salad that you have three different-colored vegetables,” Turkel says. “At minimum, that will ensure that you are getting at least a different variety of vitamins and minerals.”
She also notes that foods high in antioxidants may prevent or delay the progression of diabetes complications, such as cardiovascular disease and peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage), as the Mayo Clinic also notes. Antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, as well as beta-carotene and lycopene, are thought to help guard against the oxidative stress caused by unstable molecules that damage cells and body tissue such as blood vessels, research has shown. Prolonged periods of high blood sugar can promote oxidative stress, according to a review of research.
Antioxidants can help prevent or delay the damage if they are consumed in food as part of a balanced diet, as opposed to in supplements, research shows. For example, one study looked at overall antioxidant intake among 32,000 women over age 49 and found that those whose diets contained the most antioxidants had the lowest risk of heart attack 7 to 10 years later.
Meanwhile, foods that are rich in vitamin B12 can be especially beneficial for people who are taking the diabetes medication metformin (Metformin Eqv-Fortamet), says Rubenstein. “People who have diabetes that have been on metformin for a long time are at higher risk for a B12 deficiency,” she notes.
With all that said, load your plate with the following diabetes-friendly, low-carb veggies: