Importance of nutrition in managing diabetes

Diabetes is a condition where there is too much glucose in the blood.

There are three main types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 diabetes, where your body doesn’t produce any insulin.
  • Type 2 diabetes, where your body doesn’t produce enough insulin or is unable to use it properly. 85–90% of people with diabetes have type 2.
  • Gestational diabetes, where diabetes develops during pregnancy.

There is also pre-diabetes, a condition where blood glucose levels are high but not high enough for a type 2 diabetes diagnosis. However, pre-diabetes can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This risk can be managed by making changes to your lifestyle, including having a nutritious diet.

Nutrition is crucial in the management of diabetes. This is due to the part it plays in keeping blood glucose levels within the recommended range and maintaining a healthy weight.

If you are living with pre-diabetes, it’s essential to keep up a healthy diet that consists of a wide variety of foods. However, eating healthy food in excess might result in weight gain and elevated blood glucose levels, so it’s important to keep an eye on portion sizes. Staying hydrated is essential vital as water helps the kidneys remove extra glucose through urine. 

Key components of a healthy diet for diabetes management

Managing diabetes effectively requires a well-planned, balanced diet. Here are the key components of such a diet:

  1. Carbohydrates: carbohydrates have the most significant impact on blood glucose levels. Opt for complex carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits and vegetables, which are digested slowly and cause a slower rise in blood glucose levels.
  2. Protein: lean proteins such as chicken, fish, eggs and plant-based proteins like beans and lentils should be included in the diet. They do not directly affect blood glucose levels and help in maintaining muscle mass.
  3. Fibre: high-fibre foods like whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables slow down the digestion and absorption of nutrients, leading to a more gradual rise in blood glucose.
  4. Healthy fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats help reduce levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and increase ‘good’ HDL cholesterol. Avocados, nuts and seeds, olives, fish and flaxseeds are excellent sources.
  5. Regular meals: regular meals at consistent times can help maintain steady blood glucose levels.
  6. Hydration: water is the drink for people with diabetes as it does not raise blood glucose levels.

Nutrition for pre-diabetes, type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes

The Australian Dietary Guidelines and the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating provide up-to-date advice about the amounts and types of foods that make up a healthy diet.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines provide a framework for healthy eating. These are:

  1. To achieve and maintain a healthy weight, be physically active and choose adequate amounts of nutritious food and drinks to meet your energy needs.
  2. Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from the five food groups every day. And drink plenty of water.
  3. Limit intake of foods containing saturated and trans fats, added salt, added sugars and alcohol.
  4. Encourage, support and promote breastfeeding.
  5. Care for your food; prepare and store it safely.

The five food groups mentioned in the second guideline are:

  1. Vegetables and legumes/beans, aiming for a wide variety. 
  2. Fruit, aiming for a wide variety. 
  3. Grain and cereal foods, aiming for mostly wholegrains, low-GI and/or high-fibre varieties. 
  4. Lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts, seeds, legumes and beans. 
  5. Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives, aiming for mostly reduced fat and fortified alternatives.

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating shows the proportions of the five food groups we should eat every day. 

People who are living with pre-diabetes or diabetes can eat a wide range of foods from these groups that are high in fibre and low in the glycaemic index (GI). The glycaemic index is a measure of how quickly the carbohydrates in a food are absorbed into the bloodstream. Foods with a high GI are quickly digested and absorbed, causing a rapid rise in blood glucose levels. Foods with a low GI are digested and absorbed more slowly, resulting in a more gradual rise in blood glucose levels. 

As well as slowing down the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream, foods that are high in fibre also provide other health benefits such as helping to lower cholesterol levels, promoting good gut health and causing feelings of fullness, which can assist weight management.

According to the Australian Government’s Healthdirect website, foods that are both low GI and high in fibre include:

  • oats (rolled, steel-cut or oat bran)
  • grains (for example, pasta, rice, noodles, quinoa, barley)
  • legumes (for example, lentils, split peas and chickpeas)
  • most types of fruits.

Foods to avoid include:

  • sugary drinks such as fruit juice, soft drinks and sports drinks
  • biscuits, cakes and pastries (savoury and sweet)
  • processed snacks such as chips and crackers
  • high GI white bread, high GI white rice and high GI white pasta
  • foods containing high levels of saturated and trans fats such as frozen pizza and commercially fried food.

Meal planning for diabetes

A meal plan can help you with food choices, timing and portion sizes to ensure you get the nutrients you need while maintaining blood glucose levels within a healthy range.

It can be helpful to visit an accredited dietitian for dietary advice. You can find an accredited dietitian here.

Pros and cons of different popular diets for diabetes management

Diabetes management often involves dietary changes. Here are some popular diets and their pros and cons:

  1. Mediterranean diet: rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats. It can improve blood glucose control and cardiovascular health. However, people who adopt the Mediterranean diet should take care to avoid consuming too many calorie-dense foods.
  2. Low-carb diet: this diet aims to control blood glucose levels by limiting carbohydrates. It can lead to weight loss and improved blood glucose control. However, it may be nutritionally incomplete and lead to a higher intake of unhealthy fats.
  3. DASH diet: this diet promotes fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains. It can also improve blood glucose control and promote weight loss. However, it requires careful meal planning.
  4. Vegan/vegetarian diet: plant-based diets can improve blood glucose control and promote weight loss. However, they also require careful planning to ensure nutritional completeness, particularly for protein and certain vitamins and minerals.
  5. Intermittent fasting: this involves cycling between periods of eating and fasting. It can lead to weight loss and improved blood glucose control. However, it may not be suitable for everyone, particularly those with certain health conditions or those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

While these diets can help with diabetes management, it’s important to choose one that is appropriate for your health goals and will be sustainable for you. 

Additional ways to manage/prevent diabetes: physical activity and lifestyle

Being active is also important in the prevention or management of diabetes. As well as enabling your body to use insulin more effectively, it helps you manage your weight, feel fitter, sleep better and manage stress levels, all of which are essential components of a healthy lifestyle.

Aim to do at least 30 minutes of ‘moderate intensity’ physical activity most days. This could be fast walking, swimming or bike riding. You can also choose to do three short bursts of 10–15 minutes of activity. 

Here are some simple tips on how to incorporate physical activity into your daily life. For example, you could:

  • take the stairs instead of the lift
  • go for a walk during your lunch break
  • walk or bike to your destination instead of driving
  • break up sitting time by standing more. For example, you can walk while speaking on the phone or stand up during the ad breaks if you’re watching television.

Don’t forget to speak to your doctor before starting any new type of physical activity. 


Eating healthily is crucial to the management of pre-diabetes and diabetes.

Life! is a free healthy lifestyle program that helps you improve your eating habits, increase your physical activity and manage stress. The program is for people who are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. If you are already living with diabetes, you are not eligible for the program, however there are other programs that can help you.

Life! is run by experienced health professionals, including dietitians and exercise physiologists, who guide and support you to make healthy lifestyle changes. 

The program includes 7 sessions delivered over a 12-month period. You can choose from a group course or our telephone health coaching service. Learn more about the Life! program

You can check your eligibility for the Life! program by taking a quick online test here.


Diabetes – Pre-diabetes – Better Health Channel
What are the Australian Dietary Guidelines? – Dietitians Australia
Prediabetes Diet: Tips on Fiber, Carbs, Meat, Alcohol, and More – Healthline 

Diabetes Diet, Eating, & Physical Activity – NIDDK

Glycaemic index (GI) – healthdirect
High-fibre foods and diet – healthdirect
The relationship between exercise, nutrition and type 2 diabetes – PubMed 

Dietary and nutritional approaches for prevention and management of type 2 diabetes – The BMJ 

Eat Well – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

Effect of diet on type 2 diabetes mellitus: A review – PubMed Central 

Global and Regional Diabetes Prevalence Estimates for 2019 and Projections for 2030 and 2045: Results From the International Diabetes Federation Diabetes Atlas, 9th Edition – ScienceDirect 

Type 2 Diabetes Diet: A Complete Guide – 

What Is the Prediabetes Diet? – BBC Good Food