- The best snacks for diabetics are high in protein, fiber, or healthy fats — and lower in carbohydrates.
- If you have diabetes, you should try to avoid starchy or sugary snacks, which can cause your blood sugar levels to rise.
- Read on to learn about the best and worst snacks for diabetics.
- This article was medically reviewed by Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition and wellness expert with a private practice based in New York City.
To regulate blood sugar levels and stay healthy, people with diabetes must carefully manage their diet by eating the right foods, ideally in the right amounts at the right times.
This can make snacking tricky at best and dangerous at worst, since abnormal blood sugar can lead to confusion, loss of consciousness, and in severe cases, seizures.
Here’s what you need to know about which snacks are considered healthy for someone with diabetes and which ones to avoid.
The importance of healthy snacks for diabetics
Counting carbohydrates is crucial for diabetics. The amount of carbs you eat, alongside the amount of insulin in your body, is essentially what determines your blood sugar levels, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA).
When you eat carbs, your body quickly turns them into glucose. This causes your blood sugar to rise. When your cells absorb glucose, your blood sugar then drops.
But if you have diabetes, your cells don’t absorb the glucose efficiently, so it stays in your bloodstream, leading to high blood sugar.
In order to stabilize your blood sugar, it’s important to balance out carbohydrates with other nutrients — such as protein, fiber, and healthy fats — that are not immediately turned into glucose and do not have as much of an impact on blood sugar levels.
Most foods contain a mix of carbohydrates, protein, fiber, and fats. For diabetics, the snacks that contain less carbohydrates and more protein, fiber, and healthy fats are best.
1. Eat high-protein snacks
High-protein snacks don’t cause a sharp rise in blood sugar after you eat them, which means they don’t require as much insulin to digest, says Amy Stephens, MS, RDN, CDE, a licensed dietitian who specializes in diabetes.
That’s because your body uses protein to build and repair tissues, instead of converting it to glucose, which would cause a spike in your blood sugars.
In fact, a study published in the Diabetes Medicine Journal in 2016 found that for type 1 diabetics receiving intensive insulin therapy, eating between 12.5 grams and 50 grams of protein in one sitting as a snack — without any fat or carbohydrates — did not result in a spike in blood sugar.
For context, two large, scrambled eggs contain around 12.5 grams of protein, and you’d find about 50 grams of protein in a 6-ounce steak. Of course, if your snack is high in protein but it’s also high in carbs and sugar — like some protein bars — you may experience a sharp rise in blood sugar.
Stephens recommends the following healthy, high-protein snacks for diabetics:
- Half a cup of low-fat cottage cheese, with 1 teaspoon of almond butter (12g protein)
- A handful of almonds (6g protein)
- A few slices of turkey breast (about 3g protein per 10g of turkey breast)
- Two hard boiled eggs (12.5g protein)
- A protein shake made with almond milk (the amount of protein depends on the type of powder you use, for example, this brand of powder contains 22.9 grams of protein per 35 gram serving)
However, it’s important to remember that if you eat more protein than your body needs, the excess protein could get stored as fat or lead to high blood sugar levels if the body releases stored sugars in response to certain hormones. For example, the study mentioned above also found that when participants ate 75g to 100g of protein in one sitting, there was a significant spike in their blood glucose levels.
How much protein you need every day depends on your age, weight, height, sex and level of physical activity. For people with diabetes, the Joslin Diabetes Center recommends 20% to 30% of daily calorie intake should come from protein.
Alternatively, you can target the recommended 1g of protein per kg of body weight for diabetics — but remember the exact amount will vary depending on the factors mentioned above and should be tailored to an individual eating plan.
2. Try some high-fiber snacks
Foods high in fiber are digested more slowly. That means they help delay the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream and can prevent blood sugar levels from quickly spiking.
A study published in the Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine Journal in 2016 found that when type 2 diabetics regularly consumed more dietary fiber, their blood glucose levels and insulin resistance improved significantly.
“Fiber can also help keep someone feeling fuller for longer,” says Stephens. “This is especially helpful for type 2 patients that are overweight.”
High-fiber foods also rank low on what’s known as the glycemic index (GI), a scale that ranks carbohydrate-rich foods by how much they raise blood glucose levels. For a tasty, high-fiber snack, Stephens recommends the following:
- One cup of roasted chickpeas (12.5g fiber)
- One cup of edamame beans (8g fiber)
- One serving of multigrain crackers with peanut butter (5g fiber)
- One slice of whole-grain bread with two tbsp peanut butter (4g fiber)
According to the Joslin Diabetes Center, people with diabetes should eat at least 20 to 35 grams of fiber every day, and ideally 50 grams.
3. Healthy fat snacks are also a good option
Foods with healthy fats — that’s the unsaturated fats you find in nuts, seeds, and avocados — can also slow down digestion, so the rise in blood sugar levels after eating is more gradual and delayed, according to Stephens.
“A high-fat meal will elevate blood sugar after two to three hours, whereas a high-carbohydrate meal can spike blood sugar levels closer to one hour after eating,” says Stephens.
Like protein, your body doesn’t convert fat into glucose for energy. Instead, the fat molecules are either broken down without conversion and directly used for energy, or they go through a process called gluconeogenesis, which converts fat into glucose over a longer period of time.
In addition, healthy fats can also help control your weight, since the slower digestion process may help you feel fuller for longer. Stephens recommends the following healthy fat snacks:
- One avocado with egg (34g fat)
- One cup of sunflower seeds (24g fat)
- Celery with two tablespoons of peanut butter (16g fat)
- One cup of olives (14g fat)
- A handful of almonds (14g fat)
- One serving of whole milk plain yogurt with cinnamon (8g fat)
For people with diabetes, the Joslin Diabetes Center recommends that 30% to 35% of daily calorie intake should come from healthy fats. Overall, the quality of the fats you eat — healthy, unsaturated fats instead of trans or saturated fats — is more important than the quantity.
Avoid starchy and sugary snacks
Your body converts foods that are high in starch or sugar into glucose immediately after eating, which can cause a quick spike in blood sugar levels. This can also lead to a large drop in blood sugar later, Stephens says.
Ideally, you want your blood sugar levels to be as stable as possible — it’s the sharp swings that can cause health problems. But starchy and sugary carbs do just this.
Starchy carbs include white bread, white rice, pasta, and potatoes. Sugary carbs include fruit juices, sweets, chocolate, and desserts. Overall, Stephens recommends avoiding the following:
- Fruit juices (26 g carbs in one cup of orange juice)
- Dried fruit (17g carbs in one 21g package)
- Pastries (26g carbs in a medium-sized croissant)
- Cakes (36g carbs in one medium-sized piece of sponge cake)
- Muffins (61g carbs in a medium-sized blueberry muffin)
- White bread (12g carbs in one slice)
For people with diabetes, the Joslin Diabetes Center recommends 40% of daily calorie intake should come from carbohydrates.
Stephens recommends people with diabetes should aim for about 15 to 30 grams of carbs every day depending on how much physical activity they do, whether they want to maintain or lose weight, and other health factors.
Can diabetics eat fruit?
While fruit juices and dried fruit aren’t recommended for their high-sugar content, fresh fruit can be part of a healthy diet for someone with diabetes. However, Stephens says it’s best to have it in smaller portions, and with meals — not just as a snack — in order to minimize blood sugar spikes.
“I usually recommend two to three servings of fruit per day,” says Stephens, “Where one serving would be three quarters of a cup of mixed fruit or berries, 10 cherries, or one medium-sized apple or orange.”
If you have diabetes, you should try to avoid snacks that are high in carbs and low protein and fiber, such as sodas or cakes.
Instead, focus on eating snacks that are low in carbs and sugar, and high in fiber, protein, or healthy fats — such as whole-grain crackers with peanut butter. These types of snacks will help better regulate your blood sugar and keep you healthy.