what foods to avoid if you have prediabetes

What are the Worst Foods for Prediabetes? [14 Foods to Avoid]

It’s no secret that our diet can affect our risk for prediabetes and type-2 diabetes. I’ve previously written about how to reverse prediabetes through lifestyle changes, and I’ve also talked about the DASH diet as a way to both lower blood pressure and improve blood sugar control.

But, the DASH diet is not the only diet that is effective for prediabetes, or diabetes. And, sometimes it’s helpful to talk about specific foods, rather than the overarching guidelines. So, if you’re wondering what foods to avoid if you are prediabetic, this article is for you. 

In the following article I’m going to discuss:

  • Some of the worst foods for prediabetes
  • Why these foods should be limited 
  • Provide some alternative ideas for each food

Sound good? Let’s get started. 

Should these be Eaten in Moderation, or Not at All? (A Disclaimer)

Before we get started I want to make one thing clear. 

In this article I’ll be discussing what foods to avoid for prediabetes. Oftentimes, we humans think in binary terms of “good” vs “bad”, and unfortunately, our body does not parse food in such a simplistic way. Also, we humans tend to crave what we cannot have.

For this reason, I don’t like to demonize foods, or label them as bad, and that is not my intention in this article. Some people would tell you to eliminate many of these foods from your diet completely. And, that can work for some people. But, for a lot of people, this binary and restrictive approach can cause a rebound effect where you restrict certain foods, only to binge on them later.

There are a lot of foods listed below. And, it’s crazy to expect everybody to eliminate all of these foods, all of the time. Instead, the goal of this article is to help you develop more awareness, so you can make more informed choices to help balance your blood sugar.

Foods to Avoid And Limit: Sugars, Starch, Saturated Fat

When it comes to prediabetes and diabetes, there are three different food groups that research suggests increase risk of diabetes the most:

  1. Simple sugars
  2. Starch
  3. Saturated Fat
donuts include sugar starch and fat
Donuts include sugar, starch, and fat.

Starch and simple sugars are the carbohydrate groups that people need to be the most aware of. The body breaks both of these down into glucose, although at different rates. In general, foods that have more fiber are preferred, because they slow down the absorption rate of the sugar. 

For example, fruit has fructose, which is a simple sugar. But, unlike candy or soda pop, fruit also contains fiber, which slows down the absorption rate.

Lastly, there’s saturated fat. There’s been a lot of controversy about saturated fat in the past several years. Some people say it’s not as bad as the sugar industry once blamed it to be. But, the fact remains that there is a higher risk of diabetes associated with increased saturated fat intake. For this reason, it’s still something that you should be aware of and limit. If you eat much red meat or processed meat, this is one of the best areas to start by cutting back.

Research has shown that both a low carbohydrate diet, as well as a low fat diet, can be effective for preventing diabetes. What’s most important is the quality of the fat and carbohydrates you do eat.

14 of the Worst Foods for Prediabetes 

1 – Sugary Beverages

Sugary beverages are some of the worst foods for prediabetes because they contain a lot of simple sugar, which your body quickly breaks down into glucose. This sudden and large spike in blood sugar can over time cause insulin resistance, leading to a higher risk for diabetes. Additionally, these beverages are usually void of any nutrients or fiber that could slow down the absorption of that sugar. For a reference point, the American Heart Association Recommends limiting added sugar to 24 grams per day.

Examples include:

  • Coca-cola (a 12 oz can contains 31 grams of sugar)
  • Orange Juice (a 12 oz cup contains 28 grams of sugar)
  • Monster energy drinks (12 oz contains 38 grams)
  • Sweetened Iced Tea (12 oz contains 21 grams)
  • Gatorade (12 oz contains 21 grams)

What to Drink Instead:

  • Water
  • Unsweetened iced tea
  • Club soda with a slice of lemon or lime
  • Coffee (hold the sweetener)
  • Hibiscus tea

2 – Candy

candy, an obvious food to avoid with prediabetes
Sweet, sweet candy – an obvious food to avoid with prediabetes.

Similar to sugary beverages, candy is one of the worst foods for prediabetes because it contains a lot of simple sugars, without any fiber to slow down the absorption rate.

Examples Include:

  • Gummy bears
  • Sour Patch Kids
  • Skittles
  • Jelly beans

What to Eat Instead:

The ironic thing about candy is that it’s often made to replicate the flavors found in nature via fruit. If you have a sweet tooth, choose the original fruit source. It will automatically limit the amount you can eat because it also contains water and fiber.

For example, one slice of watermelon contains 17 grams of sugar. One watermelon sour patch kid candy contains 3.2 grams of sugar. But, that little piece of candy is much smaller, with no fiber or water. So, you’re likely to eat way more. For example, if you ate the entire pack you’d consume 203 grams of sugar! And, let’s be honest… You wouldn’t even feel full, so you could easily just keep eating. With natural fruit that contains water and fiber, you’ll feel full much, much sooner.

Also, there’s some good news for dark chocolate lovers. Dark chocolate has less sugar, and can also help reduce risk of diabetes according to some research. Look for 70% or more dark chocolate.

3 – Syrups, Jams and Sweeteners

syrups and jams often contain lots of added sugars

I might as well be saying “No fun”, right? After all, how the hell are you supposed to enjoy pancakes without syrup? Unfortunately, for pancake lovers, a breakfast of pancakes with syrup can be a carb bomb. Ever notice that you want to take a nap after a breakfast buffet? Or does your energy drop soon after eating them?

Think about it. Pancakes are made of refined flour, which is a starch. Then when you add a concentrated sugar like syrup, or jam, you’re going to skyrocket your blood sugar. Your body then responds with an insulin spike – the resulting feeling can be invariable energy and sleepiness.

What to Eat Instead:

Avoiding syrups and jams completely can be hard, so instead look for sugar-free alternatives or those with low sugar content. For pancakes, top it with fresh fruit or nut butter. The protein in the nut butter can help slow sugar absorption and contribute to feeling more full. Even better, use buckwheat to make your pancakes – this will increase the fiber and protein, making them more hearty, and reducing the stack size you can stomach.

4 – Refined Carbohydrates

Many of the packaged foods we eat, can be classified as ‘refined carbohydrates’. These are typically starches like potatoes, rice or grain where processing removes fiber, and the foods is partially broken down prior to us even eating them. As a result, they are more quickly absorbed, causing blood sugar to rise rapidly.

Refined carbohydrates also tend to be less satiating, which may cause you to be hungry soon after eating, thus causing you to eat more. Just like the pancake example, I used above.

Other examples Include:

  • White bread & buns
  • White rice
  • Pasta
  • Cereal

What to Eat Instead:

Refined grains, like white bread or white rice, are high on the glycemic index and can quickly spike blood sugar levels. Whole wheat products have more fiber and therefore slow down the absorption of glucose compared to their refined grain counterparts. 

Choose these whole grains which are less processed and have more fiber:

  • Brown rice
  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Barley  
  • Whole wheat bread & buns

By making some of these simple swaps, you can reduce your risk of diabetes and still enjoy your favorite dishes. These substitutes might also help you reduce your portion sizes because increased fiber means increased satiety.

5 – Baked Goods, Sweet Pastries and Cakes

limit baked goods with prediabetes
Baked goods often contain sugar, starch and fat – all problematic for prediabetes.

Baked goods tend to be a double whammy. They’re usually made from refined grains, and then they often have simple sugars, frosting, and chocolate chips added to them as well. This combination creates a perfect storm for rapid elevation in blood sugar levels.

Examples Include:

  • Donuts
  • Cookies
  • Muffins
  • Cake

What to Eat Instead:

If you’re craving something sweet, try a combination of protein and fiber. For example:

  • yogurt with fruit and nuts
  • an oatmeal bowl with banana and nuts
  • cottage cheese with peaches
  • apple with peanut butter

These options provide enough protein, fiber and fat to slow down digestion and blunt the blood sugar response.

6 – Sweetened Cereals

many cereals are a poor choice for prediabetes
Many breakfast cereals are a poor choice for prediabetes.

Cereal can be a tricky one. Depending on the type you choose, it can be both super healthy and delicious or a total sugar-bomb. But the same principles apply that we’ve already covered above. Aim to increase fiber, while reducing added sugars.

Examples of offending cereals:

  • Instant oatmeal (with sweetener)
  • Frosted Flakes
  • Lucky Charms
  • Cap’n Crunch
  • Cocoa Puffs

What to Eat Instead:

As a rule of thumb, choose cereals that list whole grains as the first ingredient and have less than 6-8 g of sugar per serving. You can also look for cereals with added protein and fiber as well, such as Kashi GoLean Crunch or Special K Protein Plus.

Personally, I like to make overnight oatmeal. It’s a pretty simple way to make your own cereal, that has a balance of nutrients and tastes good. Here’s a variation of the recipe I use for overnight oatmeal.

7 – Dried Fruit 

dried fruit should be limited for prediabetes
Sugar is more concentrated in dried fruit. Limit these and choose ones without added sugars.

Dried fruit often has a lot of added sugar. Even if you get the kind without added sugar, the sugar is more concentrated in dried fruit than fresh fruit. They’ll still contain fiber, which is good, but they have less water content than fresh fruit, which is one of the factors that can increase satiety (aka fullness).

Examples of dried fruit include:

  • Raisins
  • Dates
  • Dried apricots
  • Figs
  • Cranberries

If you do eat any of these, make sure you’re choosing ones without added sugar or sweeteners.

What to Eat Instead:

Choose fresh or frozen fruits instead of dried ones. They are naturally lower in sugar, and higher in water content which means you won’t be able to consume as much sugar in a single sitting. You can also look for fruits with a lower glycemic index, such as apples, strawberries, oranges, and cherries.

No matter what you choose, adding a source of protein or fat to the mix will help slow digestion and prevent a sudden surge in blood sugar.  Pairing an apple with almond butter, or strawberries with Greek yogurt are both great options.

8 – Flavored Yogurts

yogurt often contains added sugars
Yogurt can be a good snack. But beware of yogurts with added sugars.

Yogurt naturally contains lactose, which is a form of sugar. However, even more concerning is the added sugars that are sometimes added in addition to fruit purees in many yogurts. In these cases, the sugars can really add up to completely negate the health benefits of eating yogurt.

Examples include:

  • Frozen Yogurt
  • Pudding or Custard Style Yogurts
  • Fruit-Flavored Yogurts

What to Eat Instead:

Plain Greek yogurt is a great option for adding protein to your breakfast or snack, without added sugars. You can flavor it with fresh fruit, nuts, and a drizzle of honey for sweetness. I’ve already used the example of overnight oatmeal, but this is a good way to incorporate yogurt into your diet in a way that tastes good without all of the added sugar. The linked recipe also adds pepita seeds for some extra protein.

9 – Frozen Desserts

ice cream and prediabetes
Frozen desserts often contain excess sugar which is bad for blood sugar control.

Frozen desserts can be a sneaky source of added sugars. Many contain high fructose corn syrup, the most common added sugar type. It’s not necessarily any worse than normal sugar, aside from the fact it’s cheap, so manufacturers add it to foods in massive amounts. Even without high fructose corn syrup, the following frozen deserts can provide a massive sugar load.

Examples include:

  • Ice Cream
  • Frozen Yogurt
  • Sherbet
  • Fruit bars and popsicles

What to Eat Instead:

When choosing frozen desserts, look for ones with fewer than 10g of added sugar per serving.

You can also make your own healthier versions with frozen bananas and nut butter, or Greek yogurt and honey, that way you have control of the sugar content, instead of the food manufacturer.

10 – French Fries

avoid french fries with prediabetes
French fries are a double whammy for prediabetes, including both starch and unhealthy fats.

French fries are another double whammy. They’re usually made from refined white potatoes and then fried in unhealthy oils. This makes them a major source of unhealthy fats and trans fats. Also, seldom are french fries consumed by themselves. They typically take up about half of a plate, which sometimes includes a piece of red meat pinned between two fiber-void slices of starch. And, on the side, we often wash them down with a sugary soda, juice, or alcohol. See how things can really add up?

Examples Include:

  • French fries
  • Hash browns
  • Fried potatoes
  • Tater Tots

What to Eat Instead:

Skip the fries and potato chips, and choose boiled, baked, or roasted potatoes. Even better, get creative with your side dishes and try to add a source of insoluble fiber, like:

  • Roasted Brussels sprouts or broccoli
  • Slaw with cabbage and carrots
  • A large green salad

11 – Sweetened Condiments and Salad Dressings

ketchup and condiments often contain excess added sugars
Ketchup and other condiments often contain excess sugars that we overlook.

We just talked about french fries. And, how good would french fries be without ketchup? But, one of the main ingredients in ketchup is high fructose corn syrup and 1 tbsp of ketchup contains about 4 grams of sugar. So, a fast food meal quickly becomes a massive dose of simple carbs when you factor in the bun made of processed grains, the starchy potato fried in oil, the sugary soda pop, and the high fructose catchup.

Many other condiments and salad dressings also contain added sugar. Examples include:

  • Ketchup
  • BBQ Sauce
  • Honey Mustard
  • Creamy Salad Dressings

What to Eat Instead:

First of all, you can start by reading the label. There are low-sugar condiments and catchups, you just have to look for them. Look for unsweetened varieties, such as Italian salad dressing or tomato-based BBQ sauces, with no sugars added.

Also, look at the serving size. If the serving size is 1 tbsp, and you’re using 4 tbsp, you can start by simply reducing your portion size.

Making your own dressings is also a great way to reduce added sugars. Simply mix olive oil, vinegar, and spices for a delicious, sugar-free dressing.

12 – Red Meat and Processed Meat

processed meats are among the worst foods for prediabetes
Processed meats are often high in saturated fat and salt.

Red and processed meats are high in saturated fat. And even if the science on saturated fat is still evolving, studies have shown that people who eat red meat on a frequent basis have a higher risk of diabetes. So, it’s best to limit your intake of fatty meats and choose lean meats and heart-friendly types of fish, like salmon, instead.

Examples of low-quality meats to avoid include:

  • Bacon
  • Hot Dogs
  • Sausage
  • Beef Jerky

What to Eat Instead:

Try swapping out red and processed meats for leaner options like skinless chicken, turkey, or fish. You can also get creative with plant-based proteins, such as lentils, beans, and tofu.

Fish has been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes, so try to include 1-2 servings per week. Salmon, in particular, is high in Omega-3 fatty acids which can help reduce inflammation. Sardines are another good choice which can be included in salad dressings or eaten with crackers as a snack.

13 – Trans Fats

trans fats are one of the worst foods for prediabetes

Trans fats are found in many processed and fried foods, so it’s important to check the labels. The World Health Organization has called for trans fats to be phased out by 2023, so they are certainly less common than they once were, but still good to be aware of. Trans fats increase your risk of diabetes by increasing bad cholesterol (LDL) while decreasing good cholesterol (HDL).

Examples of foods with trans fats include:

  • Fried foods
  • Processed Snack Foods (crackers, chips)
  • Baked Goods (cookies, donuts, cakes)
  • Margarine and Shortening

What to Eat Instead:

Choose foods made with healthier oils, such as olive, avocado, or canola oil. When oils are used at high temperatures for frying they can also turn into trans fats. It’s one of the reasons fried foods tend to be less healthy than baking, roasting, or grilling.

14 – Fast Food

fast food and prediabetes
Many of the common foods at fast food restaurants are bad for prediabetes.

If you’ve reviewed all of the foods above, and are finally arriving here, it should be no surprise why fast food is so harmful.

When you eat fast food, it typically includes a variety of the different groups above. Let’s just use the example of a standard meal option at any given burger joint.

It will likely contain:

  • Red meat, which is high in saturated fat
  • Refined carbohydrate in the form of a hamburger bun
  • French fries which are a starch, fried in oil
  • Sugar-sweetened beverage in a giant-sized cup

Occasionally, it’s okay to eat this way. But, not every day. The problem however in our society is that most people are overworked, lacking the time to cook, and the prevalence of fast food options have filled that void, saving us time, but not our health.

What to Eat Instead:

If you’re on the run and find yourself needing to eat some fast food, there are some healthier strategies you can take:

  • Choose a smaller-sized meal
  • Skip the sugary beverage, and opt for sparkling water instead
  • Choose grilled chicken or fish options instead of red meat
  • Go for a side salad instead of fries

Final Thoughts on Eating for Prediabetes

If you have prediabetes, it’s important to focus on eating an overall healthy diet. That means avoiding unhealthy fats and refined carbs like those listed above, as well as processed and fried foods.

Instead, focus on nutrient-dense whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Incorporate physical activity into your routine, practice stress management techniques, and get enough sleep to help regulate your blood sugar levels.

By making these changes, you can reduce your risk of prediabetes and other related chronic illnesses. Plus, you also just might start to feel better, increase your energy, and reduce your mood swings.

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