How to Fill Your Plate for Better Blood Sugar Control

diabetic friendly healthy lifestyle
How to Fill Your Plate for Better Blood Sugar Control

The best way to enjoy life isn’t just to live it - it’s to thrive at it. For someone recently diagnosed with diabetes, or pre-diabetes, it can feel like a blow impossible to recover from. And yet, scientific findings paint a different picture - the food we eat has a direct impact on the trajectory of the disease. That’s good news and a message of hope, because we can control what we eat.

There is a significant body of scientific evidence demonstrating that a fiber-rich, plant-based diet can have many beneficial effects on the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes, including optimizing blood sugar and insulin levels, increasing insulin sensitivity, reducing HbA1c, cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure and weight, as well as decreasing the need for medications.(1,2) A fiber-rich, plant-based diet is also associated with decreasing the risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in those with type 2 diabetes.(1,3)

The Full Plate Living 75% Plate Approach is a high-fiber way of eating that focuses on filling at least 75% of your plate at every meal with whole, unprocessed fiber foods: fruits, vegetables, beans and cooked whole grains.

In this article, we’ll cover:

Take your time reading this article. Maybe read it twice - it’s a lot to take in the first time around!

If you want a program to walk you through positive steps you can start taking, go through our Better Blood Sugar Program – Doable Steps You Can Take Today course in the free Full Plate Living Membership.

But first, we want to address the big elephant in the room: What about all those carbohydrates?!?

We understand the concern. Eating the Full Plate Living way with so many whole, unprocessed fiber foods is by definition a high-carbohydrate way of eating because plant foods are rich in carbohydrates. This could be considered a problem for achieving optimum blood sugar control because carbohydrates raise blood sugars. However, not all carbohydrates are created equal in terms of their immediate effects on blood sugars and their long-term effects on risk of disease.

There is a tool that can help you make the wisest choices when choosing carbohydrates. Let’s delve deeper into how the Glycemic Index works.

The glycemic index (GI) assigns a numeric score to foods based on how they raise blood sugar levels compared to pure glucose. The scale is from 0 to 100 for glucose.

The lower the GI number of a food, the slower the blood sugar rises after eating that food. In general, the less processed and more fiber-rich a food, the lower the GI score. On the other hand, the low fiber, more processed foods have a higher GI score.

The good news: research shows that low GI diets, composed largely of unprocessed fiber foods, are important for the prevention and management of pre-diabetes and diabetes.(5-11,46)

It’s one of the reasons we love fiber foods at Full Plate Living!

Glycemic Index Ranges

Low glycemic index foods (GI of 55 or less)

  • Most fruits and vegetables, beans, steel-cut oats, barley, low-fat dairy foods, and nuts.

Moderate glycemic index foods (GI of 56 to 69)

  • White and sweet potatoes, corn, white rice, couscous, a few breakfast cereals such as Cream of Wheat and Mini Wheats.

High glycemic index foods (GI of 70 or higher)

  • White bread, most crackers, bagels, cakes, doughnuts, croissants, most breakfast cereals.

To see a more comprehensive list of GI foods, click here.

The following recommendations, incorporating the GI concept, are provided in order to help you maximize the benefits of the 75% Plate Approach if you have pre-diabetes or diabetes. These recommendations will help you fill both the 75% and 25% parts of your plate.

PLEASE NOTE: Work closely with your doctor when increasing your intake of unprocessed, fiber foods, as any medications you are taking may require adjustment.

Optimal 75% Plate Fiber Foods


Beans are your blood sugars’ best friend. They have low GI scores (15-42), are rich in fiber, resistant starch and protein, and help lower postprandial blood sugars at the meal you eat them and the next meal as well. This is called the second meal effect.


Work up to 1-1½ cups cooked beans most days of the week, divided between meals. Start with your favorite beans, but know that all beans are beneficial, including lentils, peas and tempeh, so don't hesitate to try different varieties.

Bean pastas are a novel way to enjoy beans and can be part of your daily bean intake. They can provide the same benefits as whole, cooked beans as long as the ingredient list on the box says one of two things: the name of the bean(s) OR the name of the bean flour; nothing else.

Add Beans Slowly

If you’re not a regular bean-eater, it’s important to start slowly in order to let your digestive tract get used to handling the increased amounts of fiber. Start by adding just 1/4 cup of cooked beans to one meal a day for 2-3 weeks. Then you should be able to increase the daily amount without additional gas and discomfort.


Higher intakes of vegetables, especially dark leafy greens, yellow veggies and cruciferous veggies, may help lower risk of type 2 diabetes.(14-16) Vegetables are generally low-sugar, low-fat fiber foods that provide an outstandingly rich array of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and health-promoting phytochemicals.


Since veggies are so important, we recommend eating at least 1 cup cooked or 2 cups raw leafy greens AND at least 2 cups of additional veggies of choice every day.

Since there are many different kinds of vegetables, the following provides guidance for some of the most commonly consumed veggies.

Low GI Veggies

  • Dark leafy greens like Romaine or dark green lettuces, spinach, kale, collards, mustard, turnip and beet greens, Swiss chard and bok choy can be enjoyed raw or cooked.
  • Avocado is technically a fruit, but since most consider it a vegetable. It has a very low GI value. Enjoy ½ avocado per day.
  • Sweet corn has a GI value of 55, the upper limit for a low GI food. Because it has more sugar and starch and less fiber than many veggies, it would be prudent for optimum postprandial blood sugars to limit corn to ½ cup a day.
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Tomatoes
  • Onions
  • Celery
  • Cucumbers
  • Zucchini
  • Carrots
  • Parsnips
  • Spaghetti squash
  • Butternut squash
  • Yellow summer squash
  • Green beans (yes, they are a veggie)

Moderate to High GI Veggies

  • White potatoes have a range of GI values: baked potatoes 111; boiled potatoes 78; red-skinned cooked potatoes 53. Potatoes are a lower fiber, high starch food, similar to many grains. If you want to enjoy potatoes, a small serving of red potatoes added to vegetable bean soups and stews or eaten with beans will help keep blood sugars down. Avoid mashed potatoes altogether because not only are they high glycemic, but they usually have added saturated fat from milk and butter.
  • Sweet potatoes have GI values from 63 - 94. Baking sweet potatoes in the skin turns them into candy resulting in a high GI value of 94. Peeled and roasted 82. Steamed 63. To enjoy the many nutritional benefits found in eating sweet potatoes, for optimum blood sugars, have ½ cup steamed OR add sweet potatoes to bean-based chilis and soups.
  • Acorn squash, pumpkin, turnips and beets have GI values from 70 to 91. Because these foods provide important nutrients, antioxidants and phytochemicals, for optimum blood sugars, limit to ½ cup cooked per day, and pair them with ½ cup cooked beans at a meal, or add them to bean soups.

Cooking Healthy Vegetables

Flavor your veggies with herbs, spices, lemon or lime juice and/or very small amounts of vegetable oil, like olive oil, for example. It’s very important not to smother veggies in saturated fat, like butter, margarine, cheese and sour cream, because higher levels of saturated fat in your blood two hours after eating are associated with risk of diabetes.(17)

Cooked Whole Grains

Whole grains are a very nutritious source of energy in the form of starch. They are packed with health-promoting nutrients: fiber, protein, several B vitamins, vitamin E, healthy unsaturated fat, including omega-3, antioxidants and phytochemicals, as well as the minerals iron, zinc, copper, manganese, magnesium and selenium.


Research suggests a high whole grain intake of 3 - 5 servings of whole grains a day is associated with decreased risk of diabetes. So, aim to enjoy 4 servings of whole grains per day.

  • 3 servings of 75% plate cooked whole grains – quinoa, barley, farro, oats, etc. A single serving size for a 75% cooked whole grain is ½ cup.(24)
  • 1 serving of a 25% plate whole grain food – whole wheat bread, whole grain pasta, popcorn, etc. See the Whole Grain section under How to Optimize Your 25% Plate Choices below for more details.

It’s best to limit moderate to high GI whole grains.

Low GI Cooked Whole Grains

  • Quinoa
  • Pearl barley
  • Wheat and rye berries
  • Wheat bulgur
  • Black rice
  • Whole oat groats
  • Steel-cut oats
  • Wild rice has several advantages over brown rice: less starch, more fiber and 40% more protein. Use it like you would brown rice.
  • Old-fashioned oats have a GI value of 55, right at the upper limit of a low GI food. Don’t over stir while cooking. Cook in water or a low-fat, unsweetened milk of choice to lower the GI value.
  • Overnight oats(25): limit to ½ cup regular rolled oats, do not soak in juice or sweetened milk, add fruit according to the guidelines below in the Fruits Section.

Moderate to High GI Cooked Whole Grains

Remember, it’s best to limit moderate to high GI whole grains if you struggle with blood sugar control.

  • Instant and quick oats
  • Brown rice
  • Whole grain cornmeal
  • Polenta

How to Choose Grains Wisely

Because grains are concentrated sources of starch, two characteristics are important for optimum blood sugars:

  1. The grains must be whole grains, with all their fiber, nutrients and phytochemicals. A high whole grain intake is associated with decreased risk of diabetes, while diets high in refined grains, like white rice and white flour products, are associated with increased risk.(7-9,18-22) Whole grains tend to have lower GI values compared to refined grains.
  2. The particle size of whole grains matters for optimum postprandial blood sugars.(23) As a grain is more processed, the particle size gets smaller, digesting faster and releasing glucose into the bloodstream more rapidly, which can result in spiking postprandial blood sugars. So choose the less processed, larger particle size forms of whole grains for better blood sugar control. These tend to have lower GI values.

The image below clearly illustrates the relationship between processing and particle size for oats, for example. All of the different forms of oats are whole grain, but the particle size gets smaller as the oats are more processed from whole oat groats to oat flour.


Higher intake of fruits, especially berries, is associated with a decreased risk of diabetes.(14-16) Fruits are an excellent source of numerous vitamins, minerals and fiber, provide a wide range of antioxidants and are an integral part of a healthy diet associated with reducing the risk of many common chronic diseases.


Enjoy 2 - 3 servings of fruit a day from the low GI category following the portion size guidelines below.

Choose unsweetened fresh or frozen fruit and limit the moderate to high GI fruits for optimum blood sugars.

Low GI Fruits

  • Fresh berries, grapes and sour cherries are the best way to better blood sugars. Enjoy a serving size of 1 cup.
  • Fruits with pits include peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots. One serving is one piece of fruit the size of a baseball.
  • Fruits with cores such as apples and pears also need to be the size of a baseball.
  • Citrus fruits offer the best blood sugar control when choosing small oranges, tangerines, tangelos, two mandarins or half a grapefruit.
  • Bananas and mangos are more concentrated sources of sugar and starch so limit a daily serving to one small banana or ½ cup mango.

Moderate to High GI Fruits

If you do choose to have a moderate to high GI fruit, limit yourself to ½ cup a day.

  • Sweet cherries
  • Cantaloupe
  • Watermelon
  • Pineapple
  • Papaya

How to Optimize Your 25% Plate Food Choices

To optimize blood sugar control, we recommend choosing the healthiest 25% plate options as often as possible, and ensuring they remain on just 25% of your plate.

The foods discussed below are 25% plate foods because they don’t meet the two essential characteristics of 75% plate foods: naturally contain fiber AND rich in water.

Nuts, Seeds, Nut & Seed Butters

Nuts and seeds are especially rich sources of minerals and healthy, unsaturated fat, with well-known cholesterol-lowering, heart- and brain-healthy benefits. They also provide protein, vitamin E and five different B vitamins.

Nuts, seeds and their respective butters are all low glycemic because they are low-carb, high-fat foods.

Recommended Serving Size

A higher intake of nuts, one ounce five days a week or more, is associated with a decreased risk of diabetes. Nuts eaten at a meal result in decreased postprandial blood sugar and insulin levels.(26)

Whole Grains

As mentioned above, choose one 25% plate whole grain serving a day as part of your 4 daily whole grain servings.

Recommended Serving Size

When choosing 25% plate whole grain products, stick to these servings:(24)

  • ½ cup cooked or 1 ounce uncooked 100% whole grain pasta: whole wheat, brown rice or other whole grain. Though pasta has a low GI value of 48, it is a concentrated source of starch which can result in higher blood sugars when too much is eaten at one time.
    • Eat cooked whole grain pastas in a 1:3 ratio with vegetables - ½  cup cooked whole grain pasta to 1 1/2 cups of veggies.
    • Eat ½ cup beans with the pasta meal to optimize postprandial blood sugars.
  • 1 slice 100% whole grain bread. Try sprouted whole grain breads because the larger particle sizes help with postprandial blood sugars. We recommend Food For Life Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Whole Grain Breads due to the added blood sugar lowering benefits of two sprouted beans.(27)
  • 1 small 100% whole grain muffin or roll
  • 1 cup 100% whole grain ready-to-eat cereal
  • 3 cups air popped popcorn (not bagged). Popcorn has GI values of 55 - 89, depending on the toppings used. Eating more than 3 cups is associated with increased diabetes risk.(22)


Hands down, the healthiest fish with the most omega-3 fat and the least amount of saturated fat are coldwater fish like salmon, tilapia, cod, perch, mackerel, tuna, sardines, bass and trout. Too much saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol, and elevated LDL is the direct cause of heart disease, which is the most common cause of death for someone with diabetes.(16,28-30,34) Recent evidence suggests eating more fish is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease in diabetics, so this why we like it as a 25% option.(31)

Recommended Serving Size

The American Heart Association recommends a 3.5 ounce serving of cooked fish, about the size of a checkbook, no more than two times a week because of the presence of mercury, PCBs, dioxins and other toxins.

The healthiest ways to prepare fish include baking, roasting, steaming, stewing and grilling. Avoid fried or breaded fish, as well as processed forms such as nuggets and tenders.


Poultry does not appear to be associated with increased risk of diabetes.(32-35) However, recent research suggests poultry can increase LDL cholesterol like red meat. (36) 

Recommended Serving Size

Limit a daily serving to 3 ounces (the size of a deck of cards) a few times a week.

Follow these guidelines for the most healthful way to eat poultry:

  • Prepare by baking, roasting, steaming, stewing or grilling.
  • To substantially reduce the amount of saturated fat, which increases LDL cholesterol and risk of heart disease, choose skinless poultry and white meat over dark meat.
  • Skip fried or breaded poultry, as well as processed forms such as nuggets, tenders and lunch meats.

Dairy and Dairy Substitutes

The type of fat you eat can affect the risk and progression of diabetes.

Choose low-fat and fat-free dairy or choose non-dairy substitute products made from healthy, unsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils, since they are associated with decreased risk of diabetes.(37,38) Skip regular, full-fat dairy products since they are a source of both saturated and trans fats.

Recommended Serving Size

When you choose these products, don’t exceed 2 daily servings as indicated on the package.

Follow these guidelines for the healthiest way to enjoy low-fat and fat-free dairy options:

  • Buy pasteurized versions of low-fat and fat-free dairy whenever possible.
  • Buy unsweetened and unflavored versions of non-dairy alternatives (soy, almond, cashew, oat, hazelnut, hemp) to avoid added sugars, which can spike blood sugars.
  • Check out this link for a discussion of several non-dairy cheeses.
  • Choose a healthier butter like Earth Balance Organic Whipped Buttery Spread instead of regular butter, which is high in saturated and trans fats.

Items to be cautious with:

  • Skip all products with coconut milk, coconut cream, coconut butter, coconut oil, hydrogenated oils, palm kernel oil, palm oil, palm fruit oil. These saturated and trans fats increase LDL cholesterol and risk of heart disease and diabetes.
  • Skip all rice milks and rice-based products because they are high glycemic and can spike blood sugars.

Tofu and Commercial Meat Substitutes

Tofu is a processed form of soybeans that results in the loss of almost all the fiber. However, it is a rich source of plant protein with almost no saturated fat, no dietary cholesterol, and numerous minerals. It has the added benefits of being low glycemic and associated with decreased risk of diabetes.(47)

Commercial meat substitutes have differing amounts of fiber depending on their ingredients. They are mock meats that represent and attempt to imitate the look and taste of meats like chicken, sausage, bacon, burger patties, hot dogs, deli slices, etc. Their nutritional benefits depend on their various ingredients, which usually include processed forms of beans, whole grains and vegetables.

Recommended Serving Size

Here are the recommended serving sizes for when you choose these 25% plate options:

  • One 3.5-ounce serving of tofu
  • A single serving of meat substitutes as indicated on the box or package

Follow these guidelines for the healthiest way to enjoy these plant-based protein foods:

  • Avoid all fried versions and choose low-sodium options whenever possible.
  • Choose meat substitutes with short ingredient lists that contain items you recognize and do not contain any hydrogenated oils, coconut oil, coconut butter, coconut milk, palm oil, palm fruit oil or palm kernel oil. All of these trans and saturated fats raise LDL cholesterol, increasing risk of heart disease and diabetes. Make sure there is no more than 2 grams of saturated fat in a serving.

Egg Whites

Egg whites provide a protein-rich 25% plate alternative that is low in calories, fat and cholesterol. That’s great news, since even one egg a day has been associated with increased risk of diabetes(16) and heart disease (39, 40).

Recommended Serving Size

Eat a serving of 2 egg whites per day. If you’re choosing a ready-to-use product, opt for the low-sodium version.

Problem Foods for Diabetics

The following foods cause the biggest blood sugar and insulin problems, so pay close attention to how many times they sneak into your daily meals or snacks.


Unsweetened water, black coffee and teas are the best beverages to enjoy for blood sugar control. Drink enough water throughout the day to keep your urine pale yellow to ensure you are staying hydrated.

The more sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages you drink, the more you increase your risk of diabetes.(16,41)

Heavy alcohol consumption and binge drinking are also associated with increased risk of diabetes. (42,43) Never consume alcohol on an empty stomach, and don’t exceed moderate intake, defined as one drink or less for women and two drinks or less for men within 24 hours. One drink = 12 ounces of beer OR 5 ounces of wine OR 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.

White Processed Grain Products

Because white, processed grain products raise blood sugar levels, we recommend consuming most or all 100% whole grain products instead. This will have a positive impact on your blood sugar levels.

Avoid refined grains and refined grain baked goods because they are high glycemic, spiking blood sugar and insulin levels, and have been consistently shown to be associated with increased risk of diabetes.(7-9,18-22)

These are items like white rice, cornmeal, grits, Cream of Wheat, Cream of Rice, Malt-O Meal, white bread products (rolls, buns, bagels, breads), baked goods (muffins, donuts, pastries) and most cold breakfast cereals (Corn Flakes, Special K, Rice Krispies, etc.).


Sugar is not the only ingredient in sweets that elevate blood sugars. The refined white flours also impact blood sugar levels, and the fats associated with sweets (butter, shortening, lard, etc) also contribute to insulin resistance, which over time makes blood sugars even harder to manage. Items like candies, cookies, pies, cakes, candy bars, protein bars, all belong in this category.

Learn to get your sweetness from fruit as much as possible. The sugar in fruit is diluted by all the water and fiber it contains. Additionally, fruit does not have any added sugar or refined grains in it, so it will not spike your blood sugar the same way. Canned fruit is an exception because most of it is peeled (removing quite a bit of the fiber) and canned in syrup, which adds a lot of added sugar. Likewise, dried fruit has a more concentrated level of sugar and may also contain added sugar. Your best bet is to stick to fresh and unsweetened frozen fruit.

When you do choose sweets:

  • To decrease your sugar cravings and the negative impact prepared desserts have on blood sugars, enjoy one small serving at the end of a fiber-rich meal. Aim to have no more than one a week or every other week.
  • If you’re going to enjoy canned fruit, choose fruit that has been canned in its own juice or water, and don’t exceed ½ cup a day.
  • Avoid dried fruits with added sugars and limit yourself to no more than 1 tablespoon a day.

If you haven’t watched the glycemic index workshop in the Better Blood Sugar Program – Doable Steps You Can Take Today, watch it now in the free Full Plate Living Membership to learn more.

Red and Processed Meats

Red meat is defined as beef, veal, lamb and pork. Processed meats include sausage, salami, ham, bacon, hot dogs, deli meats, beef jerky, corned beef and pepperoni.

Strong evidence suggests eating red and processed meats increases the risk of diabetes, even for those who eat only small amounts. The good news is the research suggests substituting healthier proteins foods like nuts, low-fat dairy, poultry, fish, beans or whole grains for red and processed meat results in decreasing diabetes risk, the greatest reductions in risk coming from ditching processed red meat.(16,44,45)

Enjoy 75% plate protein foods like beans and whole grains, and healthy 25% plate protein foods like nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy, egg whites, poultry, fish, tofu and meat alternatives, in place of red and processed meats. Avoid all processed meats and limit red meat to one 3-ounce serving (the size of a deck of cards) once or twice a month.

For Best Results, Focus on Fiber!

Science supports eating a diet rich in whole, unprocessed fiber foods for better blood sugar control, health and longevity. These foods provide the best kinds of fuel for our bodies, and yes, some of that is in the form of healthy carbohydrates! If you want to see the positive impact these foods have had on blood sugar levels, join in the free Full Plate Living Membership and see the success our members are sharing in the private Facebook Community.





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