Proper food nutrition allows individuals with diabetes to better manage their blood glucose levels and avoid diabetic episodes and other complications. But having to grocery shop for the right foods and cook meals following diabetic guidelines can be a frustrating aspect of having this condition. And, that doesn’t even include the task of choosing the right snacks to stock and eat. The best general recommendation: try to focus primarily on low-carb, nutrient-dense snacks that contain healthy fats, protein and fiber — the optimal choice for snacks for diabetics that can aid you in managing your weight as well as your blood glucose levels.
Snacks for diabetics: guidelines
While there is no official diabetic diet, there are general guidelines that can help you choose the best foods to eat to keep your blood sugar levels optimally managed while also helping to keep your weight at a healthy level. These same guidelines apply to your choice of good snacks, which should accompany three healthy meals per day and a healthy lifestyle (regular exercise, enough sleep, no smoking). Snacks in between meals should account for no more than 5-10% of your daily recommended caloric intake, and portion control is extremely important. The strong correlation between obesity and type 2 diabetes can impact and exacerbate your health conditions and your management of them. Research suggests that sustained weight loss can be beneficial in treating type 2 diabetes and, therefore, snacks should be nutritious, but also low-calorie to avoid weight gain. Consider the best selections in these three macronutrient categories: (1) carbohydrates; (2) protein; and (3) fats.
Most carbs (except fiber) break down into sugar molecules — i.e., glucose — and then enter your bloodstream and increase your blood glucose levels. This is problematic and can even be dangerous for individuals with diabetes whose bodies either don’t make enough insulin or cannot use the body’s insulin to control blood sugar levels. Repeated spikes in blood glucose can contribute to microvascular complications, including:
- Diabetic nephropathy (deterioration of kidney health and function)
- Neuropathy (nerve damage)
- Retinopathy (damage to the back of the eyes)
These complications are often silent, but deadly — and in combination with insulin resistance, they contribute to the pathogenesis of diabetes and diabetes-related complications and comorbidities such as kidney failure, nerve damage, cardiovascular disease, eye disease, foot damage, hearing impairment and skin disorders. (The scary part is that these underlying complications often begin to cause damage years before we can detect any significant malfunction.)
Thus, individuals with diabetes are encouraged to limit the number of carbs they consume — understanding that carbs are still the body’s primary source of energy — and to consume high-quality carbs (such as vegetables, whole fruits, whole grains) as opposed to refined or processed carbs, which provide little to no nutritional value.
High-quality carbs include those with a good amount of fiber, a key component to look for in snacks for diabetics, as fiber does not increase blood sugar levels. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that your body cannot digest, which means it stays intact through most of the digestive system as opposed to breaking down into glucose and impacting blood sugar levels. One of many studies has found that consuming greater amounts of soluble fiber, in particular, helped participants better control blood sugar levels. Learn more: How Protein, Fat, Carbs and Fiber Affect Blood Sugar.
A second (and related) attribute of a high-quality carb is its low-glycemic status. In What Is the Glycemic Index?, we explained that the glycemic index (GI), a tool used to help manage blood sugar (glucose) levels, assigns each carbohydrate food a number (based on several factors, including nutrient composition, cooking methods, and manufacturing process) so you can select foods that are less likely to cause spikes in your blood glucose levels. Generally speaking, the lower the GI number, the metabolically healthier the food item. Examples of low-GI foods include: fruits such as apples, strawberries, peaches, pears, kiwi, oranges, cranberries, tomatoes, blueberries; vegetables such as broccoli, celery, zucchini, carrots, asparagus, artichokes, mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, bok choy; beans and legumes such as black-eyed peas, butter beans, chickpeas, green beans, snow peas, lentils, kidney beans; grains such as barley, whole wheat, oats, wild rice, bulgar, brown rice, quinoa, wheat bread; and certain dairy foods such as yogurt, milk, cheese, non-dairy milks.
GI is related to, but different from, another important nutrition barometer — glycemic load (GL) — that tells you how quickly a food causes glucose to enter the bloodstream and how much glucose you’ll get per serving. Ideally, both GI and GL should be analyzed together. See our report, Glycemic Index vs. Glycemic Load, to learn more about how GI and GL can be analyzed concurrently for optimal nutritional guidance.
In addition to the fiber component of high-quality carbs, protein (as well as healthy fats) can help slow the body’s rate of carbohydrate digestion, which ultimately means a slower rise in blood sugar levels. Protein also can help you feel full for longer, positively impacting your hunger pangs and leading to a reduction in the amount of food you eat, as well as how often you’ll eat, throughout the day.
Like protein, dietary fats slow down the digestion of carbohydrates when consumed along with carbs, resulting in a more moderate rise in blood sugar levels. However, try to avoid unhealthy fats (saturated fats) because these fats increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. Healthy fats (unsaturated and some polyunsaturated fats), such as those found in nuts, avocados and fish, help lower the bad kind of cholesterol in your blood (LCL) and increase the good (HDL) cholesterol.
Guidelines for diabetics with other health conditions
Individuals with diabetes are at risk of several comorbid health conditions. One in three American adults with diabetes also has chronic kidney disease (CKD). Two in three people with diabetes simultaneously have high blood pressure. High cholesterol is another common comorbid health condition in individuals with diabetes. As such, food guidelines for those with multiple health conditions will vary. For example, individuals with kidney disease as well as diabetes may want to avoid foods high in potassium, phosphorus, and especially protein, which overworks the kidneys and may exacerbate their kidney disease. Therefore, it is important that you consult with a physician or a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with experience treating your multiple health conditions for proper food guidelines before carrying out any dietary changes.
Ten healthy snacks for diabetics
What are good snacks if you have diabetes but sometimes experience low blood sugar? What are good snacks to mitigate blood sugar spikes? What about snacks for the morning and for the nighttime? Some snacks are more appropriate than others depending on the time of day, your blood sugar levels and other certain specific situations. Here are ten healthy snacks for each occasion.
- Hard-boiled eggs
One large hard-boiled egg contains 0.6 grams of carbohydrates and 6.3 grams of protein. An egg is low-carb and high-protein, which makes it an ideal snack in the morning when you’re looking for something to get you through to lunch. Studies have found that diabetics can safely consume up to seven eggs per week if accompanied by a healthy lifestyle.
- Celery sticks with peanut butter
Peanut butter is a high-protein food paste rich in healthy fats. Two tablespoons of peanut butter contain 7.2 grams of protein and 12 grams of unsaturated fatty acids. It also happens to be a great source of essential vitamins and minerals including magnesium, folic acid and vitamin E. However, many jars of peanut butter are processed with some less-than-healthy ingredients, so look for a brand that is high in protein and low in sodium, saturated fats and added sugars. Paired with celery sticks, which are low-glycemic, this combo makes for a good snack at night and can hold you through until breakfast.
- Kale chips
If your blood sugar is high and you are craving a snack, the best ones to reach for are those that are low-glycemic and less likely to spike your blood sugar levels. Kale is a low-glycemic vegetable that also happens to contain a phytochemical called sulforaphane, which has associated beneficial effects for regulating type 2 diabetes.
To make kale chips, toss some chopped-up kale with olive oil, salt (in moderation) and pepper (and any other spice or herb of choice) and bake it in the oven at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for twenty minutes. Let the kale crisps cool for ten minutes and enjoy. Alternatively, you can bake chopped-up broccoli florets, which are also high in sulforaphane.
- Whole grain avocado toast
White bread is on the list of top foods to avoid because it is a highly processed food that contains simple carbohydrates that can spike your blood sugar levels. Instead, reach for whole-grain bread that still contains all the vital nutrients and fiber that grains provide, avoiding those brands that include too many added sugars or saturated fats. Whole grain products can also help keep you full for longer. Top the toast with sliced avocado, which research has found to have hypoglycemic properties (i.e., tends to help lower your blood sugar). Avocados are also rich in healthy fats and low in carbohydrates, making them a perfect snack for better blood sugar management.
Usually a combination of rolled oats, honey, nuts and other grains, granola is a healthy snack to reach for when blood sugar is low. It is a calorie-dense food source rich in potassium, and its fiber and healthy fats content slow down digestion and keep you full for longer. However, since granola is carb-rich, albeit whole grains, and calorically dense, eat it in moderation (portion control) so that it has less of an impact on blood sugar levels. Watch out, too, because many of the granola brands you’ll find at your local grocery store contain large amounts of added sugar and unhealthy fats, and typically use a form of refined wheat, which has been processed to remove healthy nutrients including fiber. See: Is Granola Healthy? to learn how to choose the healthiest granola options.
- A small fruit
A quick and easy healthy snack for when blood sugar is low is a small fruit. Like vegetables, most fruits are on the low end of the glycemic index and contain healthy nutrients including fiber and essential vitamins and minerals. Fruits to reach for when you have low blood sugar include apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, strawberries, pears, and peaches.
- Banana peanut butter sandwich
A banana, peanut butter, and whole-grain bread make for a great travel snack. Peanut butter provides protein and healthy fats, bananas are a rich source of soluble fiber and potassium, and whole-grain bread contains complex carbs that slow down digestion and mitigate a blood sugar rise.
- Roasted chickpeas
Chickpeas are packed with protein, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin E and vitamin C. They make for a great snack because they are low-glycemic legumes that are nutrient-dense. The fiber and protein in chickpeas take longer for your body to digest, which means you stay full for longer while having less risk of a sharp rise in blood sugar levels. Roasted chickpeas are easy to make. Toss them in a bowl with olive oil and your favorite herbs and spices. Then, lay them out on a baking sheet and bake at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the chickpeas are dried out and crunchy.
- Chia seed pudding
Two tablespoons of chia seeds — the recommended serving size for adults — contain four grams of protein, 11 grams of fiber, and seven grams of unsaturated fats. They are rich in all the nutrients that slow down digestion and keep your blood sugar levels from spiking. Chia seed pudding is a fantastic snack for individuals who crave a softer and more easily consumable snack. It takes two simple ingredients, chia seeds and milk, and just a short time to make.
- Yogurt with berries
Top your healthy yogurt option with your favorite berries and you’ve got a truly healthy snack to savor. A rich source of probiotics and calcium, yogurt is also high in protein and so can slow down your digestion and mitigate blood sugar surges. Yogurt is one of the healthiest ways to incorporate a dairy food into your diet without the higher levels of saturated fats (associated with cardiovascular risks) that certain other dairy products (cheese, whole milk) can contain. An added benefit: the probiotics content of yogurt may help promote a healthy gut microbiome, although the research to date is mixed on the benefits of probiotics for those that do not suffer from gastrointestinal disorders or infections. Learn more in Yogurt for Diabetics: Real vs. Unproven Benefits.
However, much like the case with peanut butter or granola, many yogurt brands will incorporate added sugars in the form of high fructose corn syrup, cane juice and other artificial sweeteners. So when shopping for the healthiest yogurt, make sure to carefully read the nutritional labels and check out the ingredients list before adding it to your cart.
Foods and snacks to avoid if you have diabetes
Food nutrition is especially important for individuals with diabetes as they endeavor to keep their weight in a healthy range while better managing their glycemic and cardiovascular health. The wrong kinds of food can, over time, increase the risk of developing subsequent health conditions — including kidney disease, heart disease and loss of eyesight.
Foods and types of snacks to avoid with diabetes include:
- Fried foods
- Fast food
- Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), especially those like colas with high-fructose corn syrup or sucrose
- Processed and ultra-processed foods (e.g., lunch meats, potato chips, cookies and candy)
- White rice
- White bread
- Breakfast cereals with added sugar
Instead, stick to whole, minimally processed, low-carb foods and snacks. For additional ideas, refer to this diabetes diet and eating guide provided by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. And the next time you go grocery shopping for snacks, make sure you carefully read the nutritional labels on the back.
Are certain diets good for diabetics?
There are many different types of diets that can help you to achieve your health goals. Two diets, in particular, have food guidelines that overlap with some of the essential guidelines for snacks for diabetics. You may wonder, “Are keto snacks OK for diabetics?” “Are Atkins diet snacks good for diabetics, then?” For the most part, keto snacks and Atkins snacks may be suitable for diabetics because both of these diets follow low-carb guidelines. However, having a snack is different from adopting a new diet. Those considering adopting these diets long-term should first consult with their own medical providers, especially since these diets have features that may make them less suitable for those with diabetes.
A keto diet involves reducing the daily intake of carbs and increasing the consumption of protein and fat to supply the body with energy. Keto diets may become dangerous for diabetics if their daily carb intake falls too low, which decreases insulin production and activates the body’s process of sourcing energy from fatty acids. Consistently resorting to fatty acids for body fuel and the inevitable development of high levels of ketones in the blood can lead to diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA).
The Atkins diet is also characterized by a low-carb diet, along with a high proportion of fats and protein. This diet is indiscriminate in the types of fats consumed, which allows for processed meats that contain lots of unhealthy fats. Fats, the hallmark of the Atkins diet, fuel the body with energy, but through the same ketosis process described above. This diet poses a similar risk for diabetics who are considering adopting it for a prolonged period.
Diabetics must control their carb consumption, but not completely eliminate it. Thus, keto snacks and Atkins diet snacks may be suitable for diabetics as long as the overall focus is on carb control — and not total avoidance — of healthy, nutrient-dense, high-fiber carbs, healthy fats and high-quality protein. In fact, the American Diabetes Association, in their 2022 Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes summary, stresses that while “reducing overall carbohydrate intake for individuals with diabetes has demonstrated the most evidence for improving glycemia,” they go on to say that “a variety of eating patterns can be considered” as long as they “emphasize nonstarchy vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, as well as dairy products, with minimal added sugars.” In point of fact, the only diet they name in the document is the Mediterranean diet, which they laud as “an eating pattern rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats [that] may be considered to improve glucose metabolism and lower cardiovascular disease risk.”
A common myth is that individuals with diabetes must stay away from sugar at all costs. To be clear, you do not need to cut yourself off completely from life’s sweet and delicious desserts, so long as you eat these sweets in moderation and budget your daily carbohydrate intake. Lean towards snacks and foods high in protein, fiber, and healthy fats. These foods take longer for your body to digest, which results in a slower rise in blood sugar levels. For the best snacks for diabetics, opt for snacks with lower glycemic index (GI) values and lower glycemic loads (GL) to avoid blood sugar spikes and diabetic complications. If you have comorbid conditions such as kidney disease, high blood pressure or high cholesterol along with diabetes, food and diet guidelines will vary. To ensure you do not exacerbate any one health condition through the foods you eat, consult with your doctor or an RDN trained in treating your specific health conditions before proceeding with any dietary changes.