Insulin Diet: Foods to Eat and Foods to Avoid

It’s estimated that 150-200 million people worldwide inject insulin to manage their diabetes. 

Insulin use is estimated to increase by 20% worldwide by 2030. 

If you take insulin, you might be wondering what type of diet you should follow.

Keep reading to learn which foods are great to eat, and which foods you may want to limit or avoid.

What is insulin?

Insulin is a hormone that helps to lower blood sugar levels. If you have diabetes, your body either doesn’t make enough insulin, or you have insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is when your body doesn’t use insulin effectively, resulting in high blood glucose levels

People with type 1 diabetes have insulin deficiency, not insulin resistance. Insulin deficiency means that your pancreas doesn’t make enough (if any) insulin to promote healthy blood sugar levels.

On the other hand, the most common cause of type 2 diabetes is insulin resistance. Unlike type 1 diabetes which has fewer known risk factors, the risk factors for developing insulin resistance include:

  • Obesity, especially carrying weight around your belly

  • Inactive lifestyle

  • Eating a diet high in carbohydrates, especially refined carbs, and added sugars

  • A family history of diabetes

  • Smoking

  • Ethnicity – Africans, Latinos, and Native Americans are at greater risk

  • Age 45+

  • Hormonal disorders like Cushing’s syndrome

  • Long-term use of medications like steroids, antipsychotics, and HIV medications

If you have insulin resistance or don’t make enough insulin, your healthcare provider may recommend that you take injectable insulin. Injectable insulin is meant to mimic your body’s production of insulin and helps lower blood glucose levels.

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Who would need insulin medication?

People with type 1 diabetes need to inject insulin because they don’t produce enough on their own. All other diabetes medications besides insulin are geared towards people with type 2 diabetes and aren’t effective in treating type 1 diabetes.

If your blood sugar levels haven’t been well-controlled on other medications, you may be a good candidate for taking insulin. 

Taking insulin doesn’t mean you’ve failed to manage your diabetes. It means that your pancreas can’t make enough insulin anymore and needs some help from injectable insulin.

Having a hemoglobin A1c of 9% or greater is often an indicator that you probably need insulin. It’s best to keep your A1c below 7%, indicating good blood sugar control. With an A1c over 9%, you’re more likely to suffer from diabetes complications like kidney disease, heart disease, neuropathy, and more.

You might also need insulin medication if you can’t take other medications to treat type 2 diabetes. For instance, certain diabetes medications aren’t suitable to take if you have kidney disease because your body can’t clear the medication from your body as quickly. Metformin is one example.

Can your diet affect insulin levels?

Your diet affects how insulin impacts your blood sugar level. For example, if you inject insulin and then don’t eat for hours, you’re more likely to have low blood sugar

If you eat a high-carbohydrate diet, you’re less likely to have low blood sugar after injecting insulin since the carbohydrates raise blood sugar levels.

If you’re prescribed insulin, your blood sugar levels are too high without it. An insulin diet should be similar to other healthy diets for people with diabetes to promote healthy blood sugar levels.

One of the biggest influencers on blood sugar in your diet is carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are in fruits, vegetables (especially starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn), fruit, grains, milk, yogurt, and any food with added sugar like honey, table sugar, etc.

Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose (sugar) when they’re digested. Foods like protein and fats don’t raise blood sugar levels like carbohydrates, but they can impact how quickly carbohydrates turn into blood sugar. Eating protein and/or fat with moderate amounts of carbohydrates slows down the release of sugar into your bloodstream.

If you have insulin resistance, eating a diet rich in refined carbohydrate foods and added sugar causes your body to try to release more insulin to compensate for the rise in blood sugar. Higher insulin levels can make weight loss more difficult and can lead to pancreatic burnout/insulin deficiency.

Foods to eat on an insulin diet

An insulin diet is no different from other healthy eating habits for managing diabetes. An insulin diet promotes healthy blood sugar levels while avoiding both high and low blood sugar. Moreover, an insulin diet may also promote weight loss which can improve insulin sensitivity.

Whole grains

Grains are a type of carbohydrate, but they fall under the “healthy carbohydrate” category. Whole grains are rich in fiber, a type of carbohydrate that doesn’t raise your blood sugar level. The higher the fiber content, the less impact the food will have on your blood glucose.

A few examples of whole grains are oatmeal, brown rice, whole wheat bread, bulgur, barley, and whole-wheat pasta. Whole grains are also richer in protein than refined grains like white rice and white bread.

Non-starchy vegetables

Most vegetables are low carbohydrate and rich in fiber, so they don’t raise blood glucose levels significantly. Vegetables are also a great source of vitamins and minerals. 

An insulin diet should include plenty of non-starchy vegetables such as:

  • Artichoke

  • Asparagus

  • Beans (green, wax, Italian)

  • Beets

  • Brussels sprouts

  • Broccoli

  • Cabbage (green, bok choy, Chinese)

  • Cauliflower

  • Eggplant

  • Green leafy vegetables (collard, kale, mustard, turnip)

  • Jicama

  • Mushrooms

  • Onions

  • Peapods

  • Radishes

  • Rutabaga

  • Salad greens (chicory, endive, escarole, lettuce, romaine, spinach, arugula, radicchio, watercress)

  • Sprouts

  • Squash (cushaw, summer, crookneck, spaghetti, zucchini)

  • Sugar snap peas

  • Swiss chard

  • Tomatoes


Nuts are a good source of healthy unsaturated fats as well as protein. Fat and protein don’t raise blood sugar as carbohydrates do. You should aim to eat protein with all meals and snacks on an insulin diet.

Meat, chicken, eggs, & fish

Animal products are rich in protein and free of carbohydrates. Eating protein with carbohydrate foods can help balance your blood sugar.


Legumes like beans and lentils are a great plant-based source of protein and are an excellent source of fiber.

Foods and drinks to avoid on an insulin diet

Foods to avoid on an insulin diet are those that are likely to cause sharp increases in blood sugar. These foods may also hinder weight loss.

Sugary drinks

Sugary drinks are the leading contributor to added sugar in most people’s diets. Drinks like soda, sweetened teas, sugary coffee drinks, energy drinks, and many more are packed with sugar.

Sugary treats, candy, etc.

Foods high in added sugar cause blood glucose spikes and should be eaten sparingly on an insulin diet. 

Sweetened foods like candy, ice cream, cake, etc., are usually sweetened with sucrose (table sugar), corn syrup, or high-fructose corn syrup and can worsen blood sugar control.

Refined grains

Refined grains are stripped of their nutrient- and fiber-rich parts, leaving behind a lower-fiber, lower-nutrient grain. 

White bagels, flour tortillas, white bread, and white rice are just a few examples of refined grains that you should avoid on an insulin diet.

Other foods with added sugar

Manufacturers add sugar to foods that might otherwise seem healthy, like yogurt, certain nutrition bars, and granola. 

Check the nutrition facts label and try to avoid foods with more than five grams of added sugar per serving. Aim to keep your added sugar intake below 30 grams per day on an insulin diet. 


Eating a healthy diet low in both refined carbohydrates and added sugars and rich in high-quality protein, healthy fats, and fiber-rich plant foods can help promote healthy blood sugar levels. An insulin diet should mimic these healthy eating habits to promote blood sugar control.

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  1. Freeman AM, Pennings N. Insulin Resistance. 2021 Jul 10.

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