Understanding The Nutrients That Most Affect Diabetes

Nutrition and weight management are seen as critical aspects in the management of existing diabetes and the prevention of conditions such as metabolic syndrome or prediabetes progressing into type 2 diabetes. In addition, medical research has clearly linked various nutrients or nutritional categories that are harmful or beneficial to blood glucose regulation, increasing insulin sensitivity in the body and in weight management. Early weight and effective weight loss and weight management is essential in limiting the new cases of prediabetes and type 2 diabetes as well as in minimizing or eliminating the associated health risks that come with obesity.

Unfortunately there is also a lot of misinformation and quackery has been promoted around the use of nutrition in controlling and reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes and prediabetes. No one food or food group is linked to the development of diabetes, and this includes the use of sugar or the consumption of foods containing sugar. In addition, simply adding a food type or group or removing a food type or group will not, on its own, provide diabetes management through effective blood glucose regulation.

What the research does show is that medical nutritional therapy or the practice of healthy eating practices to promote weight loss, weight maintenance, balanced blood pressure levels and blood glucose levels is very effective in helping patients with all types of diabetes and prediabetes. Nutritional therapy is now seen as a complimentary method to eliminate the need for insulin in type 2 diabetics and, for some people, a way to minimize the amount of insulin therapy for those with type 1 diabetes. Working with a nutritionist or dietitian as part of the diabetes treatment team is becoming more commonplace, as is primary physician education, on the role of nutrition in diabetic treatment. 1

There are several different categories of nutrients that are important for diabetics to consider when selecting a healthy diet and lifestyle choice. Understanding the roles of these specific nutrients in the diet as well as their potential impact on health is essential for both short and long term diabetes control.


Carbohydrates are the basic fuel for the human body and, when digested, they provide glucose for almost immediate use by the cells in the body. They are found in virtually all types of foods including dairy products, grains, fruits, vegetables, sweets and starchy foods. Some foods are naturally higher in carbohydrates than others and these include the processed foods such as white breads, desserts and foods containing refined sugars. However, naturally occurring foods, such as some fruits and vegetables, can also be very high in carbohydrates.

In recent studies low-GI or glycemic index diets that monitored and controlled carbohydrate intake showed positive results for patients with type 2 diabetes that were not on medication. However researchers do point out that total energy intake cannot be simply calculated by determining carbohydrate values because proteins and fats can also be utilized by the body to create glucose. 2


Proteins are commonly associated with the consumption of meat and dairy products but are also found in eggs, seafood, nuts and some types of beans and lentils. The role of protein in diabetes is controversial since high protein diets can be helpful in limiting the intake of carbohydrates and helping with blood glucose regulation. However, high levels of protein in the diet also lead to increased risk of kidney disease and renal complications. Higher levels of fat that are associated with protein sources are also a factor in determining the correct level of proteins in the diet compared to the other nutritional elements.


Fats play an important role in the diet. Removing specific types of fats such as trans and saturated fats and substituting healthier monounsaturated fats is seen as essential in weight management, cardiovascular health and blood glucose control. Diets such as the Mediterranean Diet which replaces all saturated fats, those from animal sources, with the monounsaturated fat of olive oil show positive results. Adding olive oil to the diet is seen as a critical element to the reduction in the rate of diabetes noted in people that follow this lifestyle and eating program. 3


The American Diabetes Association has clearly put to rest the misunderstanding of the role of sugar in a diabetic’s diet. The ADA reports that sugar does not cause type 1 diabetes nor is it even a major contributing factor in the development of type 2 diabetes.4  However, large amounts of sugar in the diet will add to the total carbohydrate intake which has a major role in obesity and increasing the risk factors for prediabetes, gestational diabetes and type 2 diabetes.

Low to moderate amounts of sugar, particularly from healthy sources such as fruits and low fat diary, is completely acceptable. It is also good to know that the occasional small serving of a dessert, in combination with carbohydrate management, is also seen  as a healthy option to a balanced diet.


Fiber in the diet is comprised of two types, soluble and insoluble. Insoluble fiber passes through the digestive system largely intact and is not altered by the digestive process. It is important for regular elimination of solid waste materials from the body. Soluble fiber breaks down through digestion to form a thick gel. This gel ferments and traps carbohydrates, water and starches that limits their ability to be transported across the intestinal wall into the blood system.

Eating a high fiber diet, which includes high soluble fiber, is important in blood glucose regulation as well as healthy digestion. In addition a high fiber diet is connected to lowering the levels of LDL and VLDL, low density lipoproteins and very low density lipoproteins, which are considered to be the most harmful forms of “bad” cholesterol.

Sodium also needs to be limited to help control blood pressure and to limit the risk of developing kidney disease and cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke.


1 American Diabetes Association. (2004). Nutrition Principles and Recommendations in Diabetes. Diabetes Care , S36-S47.

2 Martinez-Gonzales, M. A., Fuente-Arrillaga, C., Nunez-Cordoba, J.M., et al. (2008). Adherence to Mediterranean diet and risk of developing diabetes: prospective cohort study. British Medical Journal , 1336-1348.

3 Liu, S., & Chou, E. L. (2010). tary glycemic load and type 2 diabetes: modeling the glucose-raising potential of carbohydrates for prevention. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition , 675-677.

4 Sugar and Desserts. (n.d.). Retrieved from American Diabetes Association: http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/what-can-i-eat/sweeteners-and-desserts.html

This article was originally published July 12, 2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/10/2015.