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Your guide to food shopping for diabetes

There’s no such thing as a ‘diabetic’ diet. A healthy, balanced diet will help you – and your family – to eat well, feel good and enjoy food. Next time you’re shopping for food, use these tips to choose healthier items – as well as the occasional treat – and get good value for your money.

Healthy lunches

Tempting ‘meal deals’ can be a quick and easy option during a busy lunchtime. But, they’re not the only choice.

  • Use food labels to choose healthier sandwiches, and cut down on your intake of salt and fat by choosing fruit and bottled water over crisps and fizzy drinks.
  • Plan your lunches for the week ahead and stock up on fruit, salads, wholegrain bread, hummus, fish, eggs lean meats and yogurts at the weekend.
  • Make extra pasta or soup for dinner and take it for lunch the next day, along with a salad.
  • Carry fruit, a small amount of unsalted nuts or a low-sugar snack bar in your bag to nibble on when hunger strikes.
  • Start a once-a-week healthy lunch club with colleagues, where you each bring in a healthy home-made lunch to share.
  • Try to avoid shopping for lunch (or any food!) when you’re really hungry – you might buy more than you need.

Fruit & veg

We all know that fruit and vegetables are generally low in fat and calories, and we should all try to eat at least five portions a day.

  • Canned, dried and frozen produce all count. These can be cheaper than fresh foods and will help you to organise your meals and make sure you always have healthy options on hand.
  • Eating fruit and vegetables that are in season is a great way to make sure you’re getting a wide range of nutrients and flavours throughout the year.
  • Fresh produce can also be cheaper, fresher and more likely to be local when in season. Look out for what’s on special offer and stock up on it. So, when there’s plenty of butternut squash in the autumn, you could make soup that you can freeze.
  • Remember that potatoes are a starchy carbohydrate and don’t count as one of your five a day.


Milk, cheese and yogurt all contain calcium, which is essential to keep your teeth and bones in tip-top condition. They are a good source of protein, too, but some can be high in fat, and cheese can be high in salt.

  • Buy strong-flavoured cheese, such as mature cheddar, Parmesan or feta, so that you can use less, but still enjoy great taste. Remember, one portion is the size of a small matchbox.
  • Keep an eye on low-fat fruit yogurts – they can be loaded with added sugar. Try plain yogurt with fresh fruit, some chopped nuts or on top of muesli.

Cottage cheese makes a great ingredient in lots of recipes – add it to mashed potato in place of butter, or pop some into a blender to make a low-fat alternative to sour cream dips. Switch from full-fat milk to semi-skimmed or skimmed.

Meat, fish, eggs & pulses

These foods are high in protein, which makes you feel fuller for longer.

  • Try to include some protein in meals, so that you feel satisfied and less likely to snack.
  • Choose extra lean meat and try vegetarian alternatives, such as lentils, chickpeas, Quorn, soya or tofu.
  • A whole chicken costs about the same as chicken breasts, but you get more meals for your money. Roast with vegetables, slice into sandwiches and make soup with the leftovers.
  • Fish is a good option and the essential fatty acid, omega-3, found in oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and sardines, is a ‘good’ fat which helps keep your heart healthy.
  • Dried or canned beans, pulses and lentils are cheaper options and great for filling out meat dishes, such as bolognese, and can help you cut down how much meat and fat you eat.

Storecupboard champions

Stock up on these ingredients and you’ll always have the basics for a quick and tasty healthy meal. These storecupboard champions are versatile, won’t go off quickly and pack a punch when it comes to flavour.

  • Onions – will keep fresh for a long time in a cool, dry place and form the basis of many quick, simple meals, such as omelettes, stews, curries, soups, sauces.
  • Tinned tomatoes – combine them with onion for a basic sauce to eat with pasta or rice.
  • Beans, lentils, chickpeas – canned or dried, they are high-fibre and do not have a big impact on blood glucose.
  • Wholewheat pasta, brown or basmati rice and noodles – quick, handy and tasty.
  • Olive, sunflower or rapeseed oil – use a teaspoon to measure,  or buy a cooking oil spray.
  • Dried herbs and spices, and black pepper – flavour your food without adding salt.
  • Tinned tuna in spring water – use in salads, sandwiches, wraps and pasta sauces.

Starchy foods

Carbohydrates are needed for energy, but as the body breaks them down into glucose, it’s important to monitor how much you eat, especially if you have diabetes.

  • Choosing wholegrain options makes sense. They are high in fibre, keep you feeling fuller for longer than refined carbohydrates and take longer for the body to break down so blood glucose levels do not ‘spike’ then drop rapidly. Better options include:
  • wholegrain, granary, pumpernickel or rye bread
  • wholewheat or brown pasta and noodles
  • basmati or wild rice
  • porridge oats or muesli – many breakfast cereals are packed with added sugar, so read the labels.
  • quinoa, bulgur wheat, couscous or yam.

Foods high in fat and sugar

We know that these aren’t great for your waistline and blood glucose, but as an occasional treat, or at a one-off celebration, you can still eat them in moderation. Here are a few tips to help you enjoy this food group as part of a healthy, balanced diet.​​​​​​​

  • Choose sugar-free, low-fat, diet or light versions.
  • Buy smaller packs so you don’t eat too much too often.
  • Cut down slowly – make small, positive changes to your diet every week.
  • Use less fat when cooking by measuring the amount of oil you use. That’ll make the oil last longer, too.
  • Buy canned fruit in juice, not syrup.
  • Use sweeteners in place of sugar.
  • Fruit is a delicious dessert for everyone – try fresh berries, poached pears or baked apples. Eat with yogurt or low-fat crème fraiche, rather than cream or custard.
  • Try baking at home – you can often use less sugar and fat than the recipe suggests.


Don’t drink your calories! All sugary, fizzy drinks and alcohol are high in calories (about 140 calories in a can of cola) so it’s very easy to consume too much.

Fruit juices and smoothies contain vitamins, but still contain a lot of calories and natural sugars, so only drink one small glass a day. Try:

  • water or sugar-free fruit squash
  • diet/zero versions of soft drinks
  • alternating alcoholic drinks with water or sugar-free non-alcoholic options.

Whether you have diabetes or not, the recommended limits for alcohol are 2–3 units per day for women and 3–4 units per day for men. You might want to drink less than this if you’re trying to lose weight.

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