Diabetes and Nutrition

What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a chronic metabolic disease that affects the body’s ability to regulate its blood glucose (sugar) levels. The World Health Organisation reports that roughly 422 million people worldwide have diabetes.1 Diabetes causes the body to either produce insufficient levels of insulin, or restrict its ability to utilise insulin properly. Insulin is the hormone responsible for breaking down sugar in the body, which helps ensure our blood sugar levels remain at a healthy level. As a result of these complications, those with diabetes will likely require medication and treatment to help regulate their blood sugar levels.

Types of Diabetes

Whilst there are many sub-categories of diabetes, there are three main types of the condition: type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes.

Type 1 Diabetes: Type 1 diabetes normally develops when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks itself, and in the process, destroys insulin producing cells in the pancreas. Consequently, the pancreas’s ability to produce insulin becomes either completely or severely restricted, meaning the blood sugar levels cannot be regulated. Those with type 1 diabetes, therefore, require insulin injections or medication to help them control their blood sugar levels.

Type 2 Diabetes: Normally, when insulin levels are higher, our liver, fat cells, and muscles are stimulated to absorb blood glucose, helping regulate blood sugar levels. However, long-term overexposure to insulin can permanently damage the receptors that detect insulin, resulting in ‘insulin resistance’. In this instance, cells are not stimulated to absorb blood sugar, meaning it cannot be regulated.

Gestational Diabetes: Gestational diabetes is a condition that occurs when the pancreas is unable to meet the additional insulin demand associated with pregnancy. Whilst the condition will likely only last the duration of the pregnancy, the mother and child are at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.2   

Common Symptoms

If you regularly experience some of the following conditions, ensure to book an appointment with your local GP so they can assess your health:

  • Increased urination, particularly at night
  • Increased hunger
  • Increased thirst
  • Weight loss
  • Blurry vision
  • Takes longer for cuts and sores to heal

Causes and Risk Factors

A range of lifestyle and genetic factors can influence an individual’s risk of developing diabetes. Below are some of the factors that are considered to be most influential when assessing the most likely causes of diabetes.

Poor diet: It has been shown that those who consume high levels of saturated fat, sugary products, and cholesterol are at the highest risk of developing type 2 diabetes.3

Inactive lifestyle: According to the combined data of 10 different investigations, leading an inactive lifestyle, meaning at-least six hours of sedentary behaviour per day, can raise our risk of diabetes by 112%.4

Overweight: Those who are classed as obese, meaning they have a BMI (body mass index) of over thirty, are between 80-85% more likely to develop diabetes than those who are a healthy weight.5

Age: Research indicates that our risk of developing diabetes increases as we age, and that those over the age of 45 are at the highest risk.6

Related to someone with type 2 diabetes: Diabetes UK7 reports that, due to shared genetics, those who have a parent, brother, or sister with diabetes are up to six times more likely to develop the condition themselves.7


The treatment programme prescribed to an individual with diabetes will depend greatly on the type of diabetes they have been diagnosed with. Below are some of the most common treatments prescribed.

Insulin: Those with diabetes, particularly those with type 1, may need to administer insulin into their bloodstream in order to ensure their blood insulin levels are sufficient enough to control their blood sugar levels. Below are the three most common methods of insulin administration:

  • Injections
  • Inhaler
  • Insulin pumps

Blood sugar monitor: The frequency of which a person with diabetes needs to check their blood sugar levels varies depending on their condition. Those with type 1 diabetes may need to check their blood sugar levels as much as four times a day, whereas those with type 2 diabetes may only need to check once a day. To test blood sugar levels, those with diabetes can either utilise a finger prick test or an electronic blood glucose monitor.

Lifestyle changes: Leading a healthier lifestyle has been shown to be effective in combating all types of diabetes, but type 2 in particular. According to research, making the following lifestyle changes can help manage your condition:8

  • 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week
  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet
  • Practice relaxation and stress management techniques
  • Weight loss (if overweight)
  • At least 8 hours of sleep a night

Pancreas transplant: While quite rare due to the complexity and risks involved with the surgery, those with type 1 diabetes may be offered a pancreas transplant. This procedure involves placing a donor pancreas into the patient’s body. If successful, this procedure can effectively cure diabetes as the patient would regain the ability to produce a sufficient amount of insulin.

A Healthy Diet for Diabetes

Why Do You Need a Healthy Diet?

A healthy diet is defined as a diet that helps maintain or improve an individual’s overall health. A healthy diet plays a vital role in simply helping us function, boosting our cognitive skills and maintaining the health of our bones and muscles. Research has also found that those who consume a healthy diet are less likely to develop a wide range of chronic conditions, including coronary heart disease and cancer.9 The importance of a healthy diet remains the same for those diagnosed with diabetes. A healthy diet not only helps regulate blood glucose levels, but also reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular disease in the future, something in which people with diabetes are already at an increased risk off.10, 11

The Five Main Food Groups

  • Fruit and Vegetables
  • Starchy foods
  • Dairy/alternative products
  • Protein
  • Oils and spreads

Can you Eat Fruits and Vegetables?

While you may have heard that fruit contains high amounts of sugar, getting your five a day is just as important for people with diabetes as it is for those without. The sugar in fruit is not considered a ‘free sugar’, meaning that it was not artificially added. Because of this, the sugars within fruit are not the type of sugar we need to restrict. Below are some of the key health-related benefits that come with eating your five a day:

  • Maintains a healthy gut
  • Reduces risk of chronic disease
  • Reduced risk of illness
  • Maintains cardio-vascular health

Starchy Foods

Starchy foods are our main source of energy. Carbohydrates are broken down by the body into glucose. Examples of starchy foods include bread, potatoes, rice, cereals, and pasta. Selecting the right carbohydrate-based foods is really important, as some can cause a quick and sharp rise in our blood sugar levels, requiring a fast and high dosage of insulin. To help prevent this, try and choose brown or whole-grain products (e.g. brown bread and pasta) over white products. These products are referred to as complex carbohydrates, meaning they give off a steady flow of glucose over a prolonged period of time rather than a quick spike.

High Protein Foods

Protein is an essential part of a healthy diet, as it is what helps keep our muscles strong and healthy. Certain foods that are high in protein are also high in saturated fats, meaning that, while consuming them helps maintain muscle health, they are also increasing our risk of obesity and heart disease. When selecting foods high in protein, look to include grilled chicken, oily fish (e.g. mackerel and salmon, etc.), nuts, and beans instead of red meat products.

Dairy Foods

While dairy products are normally a brilliant source of protein and calcium, they can be high in fat and sugar. For this reason, it’s important to choose which dairy products we consume carefully. Below are some of the ways you could substitute your current dairy choices for healthier alternatives.

Milk: Choose skimmed milk over full-fat milk, or select an alternative like unsweetened soy milk.

Cheese: While it is advised to avoid cheese, those who wish to continue eating it in moderation can replace cheeses, such as cheddar and stilton, with slightly healthier alternatives like cream cheese, cottage cheese, and edam.

Yoghurt: Select low-fat and unsweetened yoghurts, these can be sweetened yourself using fruit or cinnamon.

Foods High in Fat, Salt and Sugar

Limiting your consumption of foods high in saturated fat, salt, and sugar is essential. They serve very little nutritional benefit and can increase our risk of a wide range of chronic health conditions. For people with diabetes specifically, consumption of a diet high in fats, salt, and sugar can cause spikes in blood glucose levels and blood pressure, both of which can worsen their health. To help make healthier food choices, try and choose foods that have ‘green labels’ on the traffic light system used on food packaging in the UK.

Oils and Spreads

Using a certain cooking oil when cooking dinner or putting some form of spread on our toast is something many of us have become very accustomed to. However, some oils and spreads are high in unhealthy saturated fats, which can increase our risk of obesity and high blood pressure. Here are some of the oils and spreads diabetics should look to avoid:

  • Full fat butter
  • Coconut oils
  • Soybean oil
  • Corn oil

To lead a healthier lifestyle, try replacing the above oils and spreads with some healthier alternatives, such as:

  • Olive oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Nut butter (e.g. peanut butter)
  • Canola oil


Diabetes is a serious medical condition that can cause various health complications and even turn fatal if left untreated. If you regularly experience the aforementioned symptoms, ensure to book an appointment with your local GP as soon as possible. For those who have already been diagnosed with diabetes, making healthy lifestyle changes can go a long way in helping manage your condition. Try to implement some of the above dietary advice into your lifestyle to help lead a healthier lifestyle.


  1. Diabetes. https://www.who.int/health-topics/diabetes
  2. Damm, Peter. ‘Future Risk of Diabetes in Mother and Child after Gestational Diabetes Mellitus’. International Journal of Gynaecology and Obstetrics: The Official Organ of the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics, vol. 104 Suppl 1, Mar. 2009, pp. S25-26. PubMed, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijgo.2008.11.025
  3. Neuenschwander, Manuela, et al. ‘Role of Diet in Type 2 Diabetes Incidence: Umbrella Review of Meta-Analyses of Prospective Observational Studies’. The BMJ, vol. 366, July 2019, p. l2368. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l2368
  4. Hamilton, Marc T., et al. ‘Sedentary Behavior as a Mediator of Type 2 Diabetes’. Medicine and Sport Science, vol. 60, 2014, pp. 11–26. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1159/000357332
  5. January 15, Editor on, et al. ‘The UK Is the Fattest Country in Europe. The Number of Obese Adults Is Forecast to Rise by 73% over the next 20 Years from to 26 Million People, Resulting in More than a Million Extra Cases of Type 2 Diabetes, Heart Disease and Cancer.’ Diabetes, 15 Jan. 2019, https://www.diabetes.co.uk/diabetes-and-obesity.html
  6. Mordarska, Katarzyna, and Małgorzata Godziejewska-Zawada. ‘Diabetes in the Elderly’. Przegla̜d Menopauzalny = Menopause Review, vol. 16, no. 2, June 2017, pp. 38–43. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.5114/pm.2017.68589
  7. ‘Diabetes Risk Factors’. Diabetes UK, https://www.diabetes.org.uk/preventing-type-2-diabetes/diabetes-risk-factors
  8. Reddy, P. Hemachandra. ‘Can Diabetes Be Controlled by Lifestyle Activities?’ Current Research in Diabetes & Obesity Journal, vol. 1, no. 4, Mar. 2017, p. 555568. PubMed Central, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5792082/
  9. Willett, Walter C., et al. ‘Prevention of Chronic Disease by Means of Diet and Lifestyle Changes’. Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries, edited by Dean T. Jamison et al., 2nd ed., World Bank, 2006. PubMed, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK11795/
  10. Jeong, Yeseung, et al. ‘A Review of Recent Evidence from Meal-Based Diet Interventions and Clinical Biomarkers for Improvement of Glucose Regulation’. Preventive Nutrition and Food Science, vol. 25, no. 1, Mar. 2020, pp. 9–24. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.3746/pnf.2020.25.1.9
  11. CDC. ‘Diabetes and Your Heart’. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7 May 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/library/features/diabetes-and-heart.html

George Evans

MSc, Sport Science, University of Lincoln

George is a freelance writer with three years of writing experience and first class honours in Sport Science (BSc).

my.klarity.health presents all health information in line with our terms and conditions. It is essential to understand that the medical information available on our platform is not intended to substitute the relationship between a patient and their physician or doctor, as well as any medical guidance they offer. Always consult with a healthcare professional before making any decisions based on the information found on our website.
Klarity is a citizen-centric health data management platform that enables citizens to securely access, control and share their own health data. Klarity Health Library aims to provide clear and evidence-based health and wellness related informative articles. 
Klarity / Managed Self Ltd
Alum House
5 Alum Chine Road
Westbourne Bournemouth BH4 8DT
VAT Number: 362 5758 74
Company Number: 10696687

Phone Number:

 +44 20 3239 9818