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6 Recipe and Cooking Substitutions for Diabetes

Updated on September 26, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Robert Hurd, M.D.
Article written by
Marnie Willman

Finding recipes and cooking substitutions can be complicated when you’re living with diabetes. It can be challenging to determine which foods are good choices and what you should avoid.

Members of DiabetesTeam often ask how they can cook healthy meals every day despite being busy with responsibilities like work and school. “What are some good recipes out there?” asked one member. “What’s safe to eat as a snack?”

In this article, you’ll find tips on cooking substitutions that can boost the healthiness of your favorite recipes — as well as cooking hacks to make meal prep simpler.

1. Swap High-Carb Foods for Low-Carb Alternatives

To keep your blood glucose levels within the most healthy range, try eating foods that are lower in carbohydrates, like vegetables and proteins, rather than foods heavy on carbs and starches. Choose nonstarchy vegetables like broccoli, zucchini, greens, or peppers instead of starchy vegetables like potatoes or corn.

For example, if you enjoy eating stir-fry, serve it over a bed of veggies rather than over rice. The fewer carbohydrates on your plate, the more diabetes-friendly your meal may be. The American Diabetes Association’s Diabetes Plate method recommends that you fill half of your plate with nonstarchy vegetables and serve carbohydrates as a quarter of the plate. (Rice, potatoes, and pasta items all need to fit into just one quarter.) Foods that include protein — like meat or fish — should comprise the remaining quarter of the plate. As one DiabetesTeam member advised, “Pick a rainbow of foods to stay healthy.”

2. Switch to Heart-Healthy Fats

You should be eating vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Try to stay away from foods high in saturated fats. For instance, try to avoid butter, cream, shortening, and lard in your cooking to reduce unhealthy fats that can add empty calories to your dishes.

By seeking out healthier options such as lean meats (like chicken or fish) and liquid oils (like canola oil or olive oil) instead, you can reduce your risk of heart disease and other health problems that often accompany diabetes.

3. Use Alternative Sweeteners in Moderation

Anyone living with diabetes should limit how much sugar they consume, including high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose (table sugar), fructose (sugar found in fruit), and other sources of added sugar. These types of sugar raise your blood sugar levels quickly, then drop them just as quickly, which can cause significant issues in people who have diabetes.

However, using non-nutritive sweeteners or sugar substitutes like sucralose (Splenda) does not necessarily give you a free pass. Some studies indicate that artificial sweeteners can cause other health issues, including weight gain, which may worsen type 2 diabetes. Several alternative sweeteners have been approved for human consumption and are safe to eat in moderation. These can be helpful substitutes for sugar, but you should limit your intake.

4. Bake Foods Instead of Frying

Foods fried in oil can cause cardiovascular disease and raise your cholesterol level and blood pressure. When you deep-fry foods, they lose water and instead take in the fat they’re cooking in, removing nutrients and adding an unhealthy amount of fat.

Instead of deep-frying foods, try cooking in a microwave grill or oven. Using an air fryer is another way to reduce the fat content and keep the crispy quality of foods.

5. Add More Plants to Your Plate

For some people living with diabetes, switching to a plant-based diet helps improve their blood glucose levels. This is something you should discuss with your dietitian, doctor, nutritionist, or other health care professional before you try it. Plant-based diets focus on whole grains, lentils, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, which can make them healthier than diets high in red meat, unhealthy fat, and sugars.

A plant-based diet is not automatically healthier, however, and can still lead to consuming too many processed or sugar-laden foods. As one DiabetesTeam member pointed out, “The trick is variety! Add beans to salad, soup, and entrees, for example.”

6. Consider Making One-Pot Meals

Nobody likes having a kitchen full of dishes to clean up or taking hours to make dinner, which may lead you to opt for less healthy options like take-out, drive-through, or food delivery. One-pot meals are a great way to make foods easily and quickly while also using healthy ingredients.

One-pot meals are similar to batch cooking in that preparation is usually minimal. By cooking your full meal — including protein and vegetable elements — in the same pot, you can reduce the amount of prep and cleanup involved while keeping your meals diabetes-friendly. Compared to making all of these components separately, one-pot meals can be an easier way to create healthy dishes.

Some people like to make several one-pot meals during the weekend so they can reheat them throughout the week to save time on work days. This can be a good way to ensure you have diabetes-friendly options ready when you get hungry.

Talk With Others Who Understand

DiabetesTeam is the social network for people with diabetes and their loved ones. On DiabetesTeam, more than 123,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with diabetes.

Are you living with diabetes and looking for new recipes or cooking substitutions? Do you have some recipes, meal plan ideas, or substitutions of your own to share? Share in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Robert Hurd, M.D. is a professor of endocrinology and health care ethics at Xavier University. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Marnie Willman is a Ph.D. candidate in medical microbiology and infectious diseases at the University of Manitoba. Learn more about her here.

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