6 Simple Diet Changes That Help Prevent Type 2 Diabetes

Each of these eating strategies is backed up by research.

Getty Images

Approximately 1 in 10 Americans has diabetes—with 90-95% diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes happens when the body doesn't make enough insulin or use insulin properly. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps blood sugar (i.e., blood glucose), which is affected by the food a person eats, move into the body's cells for energy. As a result of the issues with insulin and cells not getting enough glucose to use, blood sugar can get too high and lead to type 2 diabetes.

A person may not know that they have type 2 diabetes, as type 2 diabetes develops over time, and its symptoms can go unnoticed. However, some strategies can help prevent type 2 diabetes. And the preventative measures are pretty straightforward, doable, and sustainable, such as finding ways to maintain a healthy diet.

Diet Changes That May Help With Type 2 Diabetes Prevention

Here are six eating strategies that will help you ward off type 2 diabetes. Combining them with an active lifestyle can also help prevent diabetes.

Eat Breakfast

You've heard it time and again, and it's true. Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day.

Here's another reason to fuel up in the a.m.: A meta-analysis that involved more than 100,000 participants found that people who skipped breakfast had a 15% to 21% increased risk of getting a type 2 diabetes diagnosis compared to individuals who ate breakfast regularly.

Of course, not all morning meals are created equal. To best manage your weight, regulate your blood glucose and insulin levels, and get the right mix of nutrients, try eating a balanced breakfast that contains these five components: vegetables, lean protein, good fat, and a small portion of healthy carbs, and herbs and spices.

That could mean throwing together a veggie, herb, and avocado omelet, paired with fresh fruit. Or you could whip up a smoothie made with kale, pea protein powder, almond butter, frozen berries, ginger, and cinnamon.

Enjoy Your Coffee

If you start your day with java, there's good news: After assessing 28 previous studies that included more than one million participants, researchers found that downing six cups per day was tied to a 33% lower risk of type 2 diabetes, compared to drinking no coffee at all.

Additionally, it didn't matter whether people drank caffeinated or decaf coffee. And the effects were seen in both men and women across the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

If you're not currently drinking six cups daily, you don't need to increase your intake. But if you're already a coffee lover, you don't have to feel guilty about drinking coffee.

For a healthier take on your coffee, you can add plant-based milk, like almond or coconut milk, and a dash of ground cinnamon. The latter will add a sweet-like flavor so you can enjoy your coffee with less or no sugar.

Reach for Magnesium-Rich Foods

Most Americans don't get enough magnesium, a mineral found in the body, foods, supplements, or medicines. It's crucial for your heart, nerve, muscle function, and bone structure.

Plus, magnesium even plays a role in keeping type 2 diabetes at bay. Compared to the lowest magnesium intake (less than 50 milligrams per day), the highest magnesium intake (greater than or equal to 150 milligrams per day) was associated with a 22% reduced risk for type 2 diabetes in a 2020 study.

For reference, about 100 grams of magnesium can be found in a little over one cup of cooked brown rice, one cup of beans, ½ cup of cooked spinach, or three bananas.

But rather than aiming for those specific portions each day, your best bet is to up your overall daily intake of magnesium-rich foods, including avocado, beets and beet greens, whole grains (such as brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa, and millet), pulses, dried figs and plums, papaya, seeds (like pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower), and dark chocolate.

Go Mediterranean

You've likely heard that sticking to a Mediterranean diet packs all kinds of health perks, like lowering your risk of cancer and keeping your heart healthy.

As it turns out, the diet may also help prevent type 2 diabetes. Men and women at high cardiovascular risk in one study were randomly assigned to one of three diets: a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil (EVOO); a Mediterranean diet supplemented with nuts; or a control diet, which was low in fat.

Researchers found that the low-fat diet group had the greatest number of type 2 diabetes diagnoses during the study period (101 new-onset cases). Meanwhile, 92 people in the nut group were diagnosed with type 2, and only 80 were in the EVOO group.

To truly reap the benefits of a Mediterranean diet, be sure to stick with its traditional principles: a high monounsaturated-to-saturated fat ratio (in other words, more olive oil than butter); plenty of fruits, veggies, whole grains (think quinoa and oats), and pulses (beans, lentils, and chickpeas); a moderate intake of red wine and dairy products; and minimal red meat and a healthy amount of fish.

Chow Down on Greens

You've heard the advice to eat your veggies umpteen times, but one particular variety may offer more protection against diabetes: dark green leafy vegetables.

Managing weight and blood sugar are important factors for preventing diabetes. Low-calorie foods can help with weight management, while low-carb foods can help ensure blood sugar levels aren't too high. And these vegetables don't have a lot of calories or carbs.

Dark green leafy vegetables also come with several vitamins and minerals. They include:

  • Vitamins A, C, E, and K
  • Iron
  • Calcium
  • Potassium

To up your intake of this super veggie, try incorporating dark leafy greens into breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner. Whip them into fruit smoothies. Add finely chopped kale to oatmeal along with berries or other fruit. Throw spinach in an omelet. Opt for salads over a sandwich for lunch, wrap salmon burgers in collard greens, snack on kale chips, and replace some of your starch portion (such as brown rice) with greens.

Drink in Moderation

You don't have to completely give up alcohol to avoid diabetes. Researchers have noted that light-to-moderate drinking may decrease a person's risk of developing diabetes. However, they also stated that heavier drinking was associated with higher diabetes risk.

This may be due to the connection between blood sugar and alcohol intake: Higher blood sugar is associated with heavy drinking (i.e., more than three drinks per day).

Therefore, it's important to monitor how much you are drinking. If you don't drink, don't start. But if you do imbibe, stick with moderate amounts to best protect your health.

Remember, one standard drink is 5 ounces of wine (a little less than a single-serve yogurt container), 12 ounces of beer (with 5% alcohol), or a 1.5-ounce shot of 80-proof distilled spirits.

A Quick Review

Type 2 diabetes affects many people, but it is a preventable condition. Other than leading an active lifestyle, making diet changes is another significant way that may help prevent type 2 diabetes. For example, eating dark leafy vegetables, breakfast in general, and magnesium-rich foods may decrease a person's likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes. But if you still have questions about these or other methods of diabetes prevention, talk with a healthcare provider.

Was this page helpful?
11 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Type 2 diabetes.

  2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Type 2 diabetes.

  3. Bi H, Gan Y, Yang C, Chen Y, Tong X, Lu Z. Breakfast skipping and the risk of type 2 diabetes: a meta-analysis of observational studies. Public Health Nutr. 2015;18(16):3013-3019.  doi:10.1017/S1368980015000257

  4. Ding M, Bhupathiraju SN, Chen M, van Dam RM, Hu FB. Caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and a dose-response meta-analysis. Diabetes Care. 2014;37(2):569-586. doi:10.2337/dc13-1203

  5. Office of Dietary Supplements. Magnesium.

  6. Zhao B, Zeng L, Zhao J, et al. Association of magnesium intake with type 2 diabetes and total stroke: an updated systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open. 2020;10(3):e032240. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2019-032240

  7. Salas-Salvadó J, Bulló M, Estruch R, et al. Prevention of diabetes with Mediterranean diets: a subgroup analysis of a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med. 2014;160(1):1-10. doi:10.7326/M13-1725

  8. American Diabetes Association. Diabetes prevention.

  9. American Diabetes Association. What superstar foods are good for diabetes?

  10. Polsky S, Akturk HK. Alcohol consumption, diabetes risk, and cardiovascular disease within diabetes. Curr Diab Rep. 2017;17(12):136. doi:10.1007/s11892-017-0950-8

  11. American Diabetes Association. Alcohol & diabetes.

Related Articles