Living Healthy with Diabetes

Adopting a healthy lifestyle can help prevent or delay the onset of diabetes and is critical to managing the disease. It's also imperative to normalizing your critical health numbers, including weight, blood sugar, blood pressure, and blood cholesterol.

People living with type 2 diabetes should realize that being overweight or obese makes it difficult to manage the disease. It also increases the risk for high blood cholesterol and high blood pressure, which are common risk factors for cardiovascular disease — the leading cause of death among people with diabetes. Two of the best weapons in weight management are:

Proper nutrition

Making healthy food choices, including controlling portion sizes and reading food labels, is an essential step in maintaining a proper body weight and preventing or managing diabetes.

Individuals with prediabetes or diabetes have additional food considerations, especially limiting simple carbohydrates. Simple carbs are found in foods like table sugar, cake, soda, candy, and jellies, and consuming them causes an increase in blood glucose.

With so many food options, it can be difficult realize which ones are healthy. If you have prediabetes or diabetes, this chart will help you determine the best choices.

Include Limit
Fiber-rich Whole Grains
(for example: oatmeal, barley, brown rice, whole grain pasta, whole wheat, and corn)
Sweets and added sugars
(for example: table sugars sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, dextrose, corn syrups, high- fructose corn syrup, concentrated fruit juice, honey, soda, fruit drinks, candy, cake, and jellies)
Non-fried fish at least twice per week, especially those high in omega-3 fatty acids
(such as: salmon, lake trout, mackerel, and herring)
Fatty and processed meats
(such as: fatty beef and pork, salami and hot dogs)
Chicken or turkey
(without the skin)
(consume less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day and an ideal limit of less than 1,500 mg per day for most adults.)
Lean meats
(round, sirloin, chuck, and loin)
(consume less than 300 mg per day)
Fruits and Vegetables
(deeply colored such as spinach, carrots, peaches and berries)
Partially hydrogenated or trans fats
(contained in hard margarine, shortening, cakes, cookies, crackers, pastries, pies, muffins, doughnuts, and French fries)
Vegetable oils and margarines
(soft/tub or liquid)
Saturated fats
(contained in dairy products such as butter, whole milk, 2% milk and cheese, fatty meats and poultry, coconut oil and palm oil, hydrogenated oils, and foods made with these ingredients).
Fat-free, 1-percent fat, and low-fat dairy products Alcohol
(females should limit to one drink/day; males limit to two drinks/day)
Unsalted nuts, seeds, and legumes  

Keep a Food and Blood Glucose Log

By writing down what you eat, when you eat it, and how it affects your glucose levels, you can keep better track of how foods affect your body. Check your blood sugar one hour to one-and-a-half hours after eating to see how your body reacts to various foods.

Healthy Eating and a Busy Lifestyle

Today, many Americans are on the go and don't spend a whole lot of time at home. Even when your own kitchen isn't convenient, eating right should still be a priority.

"After being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, I took some time off to reflect and realized that due to my busy work schedule, I would put in 14-16-hour days with erratic meal schedules," said Barbara, who was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2006. "When I did eat at work, I didn't make good food choices. I decided that no matter how much I loved to eat unhealthy foods, it wasn't worth dying for, and it was time to make a change."

With a little forethought, you can properly nourish your body wherever life takes you. Remember these tips for eating on the go:

  • Bring a healthy lunch and snacks to eat throughout the day. This will help you stick to healthy food options and be less tempted by unhealthy ones that are perhaps more convenient.
  • Reduce your caffeine intake and stay hydrated. Keep a bottle of water handy to drink throughout the day.

Eat Healthy on a Budget

Read our Top 10 Tips for making healthy choices without breaking the bank.

Discover Diabetes-Friendly Recipes

"Being from North Carolina, a lot of my favorite home-cooked dishes are, unfortunately, unhealthy," said Janet. "Luckily, after being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, I learned that a few small changes to my favorite recipes allow me to continue eating my favorite Southern recipes."

The American Heart Association has assembled an online collection of tasty, diabetes-friendly recipes to satisfy your cravings, whether sweet, savory, or somewhere in between.

Nutrition Center

Visit the American Heart Association's online Nutrition Center to find out how small changes in your diet can put you and your family on the road to healthier hearts and longer lives. Get more diet and shopping tips.

Regular physical activity

If you have not been diagnosed with prediabetes or diabetes, note that being physically active for at least 30 minutes a day and losing 7 percent of your body weight (about 5 pounds for a 200-lb. person) can lower your risk of developing diabetes by about half. And your risk continues to decrease as you lose even more weight. If you have already been diagnosed, physical activity and weight management can still have tremendous benefits in controlling the disease and minimizing the negative health consequences.

To promote and maintain health, all healthy adults need at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous activity. For example, you can meet the recommendation by walking briskly for 30 min twice during the week and then jogging for 20 min on two other days. Moderate-intensity aerobic activity is generally equivalent to a brisk walk and noticeably raises your heart rate.

"After being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, I knew it was time to get serious about my health," said Harry, who also struggled with obesity. "I started by making small changes, such as walking for 10 minutes each day, in order to stay active and lose weight. Each week I increased my walking by one minute. A year later, I was walking 60 minutes a day, seven days a week, and lost 139 pounds."

You, too, can enjoy the benefits of physical activity. Work with your health care team to customize a plan for you to get moving and get resources about getting active from the American Heart Association.

Other important facets of a healthy lifestyle are:

Quitting smoking

Recent studies show cigarette smoking is the leading avoidable cause of death in the United States. It's also the most important modifiable cause of premature death.

What People with Diabetes Should Know About Smoking

"Most people don't understand that having diabetes means they are two to four times more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke. Add in smoking, and that risk is multiplied," said Richard Nesto, M.D., chairman of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at Lahey Clinic Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and a spokesperson for the American Heart Association. "The earlier you can quit smoking once you've been diagnosed with diabetes, the better your chances are of preventing coronary artery disease and other deadly complications."

Even for people without diabetes, smoking has some serious health implications. If you smoke, you:

  • Smoking robs you of some of your good cholesterol.
  • Smoking temporarily raises your blood pressure.
  • Smoking increases the blood’s clotting likelihood.
  • Smoking makes it more difficult to exercise.

If you have diabetes, smoking is even worse because you are:

  • More likely to get nerve damage and kidney disease
  • Three times more likely than nonsmokers to die of cardiovascular disease
  • More likely to raise your blood sugar level, making it harder to control your diabetes

Get Help to Quit Smoking

If you want to quit smoking, there is help. Learn how to deal with those urges and get resources for kicking the habit.

Managing stress

Stress affects people in different ways. It can:

  • Impact a person's emotional wellbeing
  • Cause a variety of aches and pains from headaches to stomach aches
  • Diminish energy level
  • Interrupt sleep
  • Trigger a variety of unhealthy responses from overeating to drinking excessive alcohol or smoking, and from procrastination to burning the candle at both ends

While people cannot totally alleviate stress from their lives, there are ways to deal with it in a healthy manner. Find out more about stress management.