Dining out with diabetes
Contrary to popular belief, a diabetes diagnosis doesn’t mean you have to spend your days eating flavorless fare. It’s completely possible to enjoy delicious food—even at a restaurant, as long as you know exactly what to order, how it’s prepared, and what an appropriately sized portion looks like. Since not everyone with diabetes has the same meal plan or health goals, we set out to create the most comprehensive list of diabetes-friendly restaurant dishes, whether you’re cutting calories or keeping salt, carbs, or fats to a minimum. Read on for nutritionist-approved orders from Chinese and Italian restaurants, delis, smoothie shops, and other popular eateries. Plus, don’t forget to be on the lookout for these menu words to avoid.
At American restaurants: Turkey burger with steamed broccoli
When you’re dining at your local sports bar or diner, Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN, says that a turkey burger is the way to go. "Remove the top bun, which doesn’t typically contain much fiber and swap fries for a green veggie. This will add fiber to your meal and help slow blood sugar spikes and promote satiety," she explains. Here’s how to get more fiber in your diet.
At American restaurants: Beef burger with a salad
If you prefer a beef burger, Smith suggests pairing one with a salad (sorry, no fries) and a vinegar-based dressing on the side. Ditch the top bun to keep empty carbs off your plate and say "no thanks" to cheese to keep excess salt and fat to a minimum.
At American restaurants: Filet mignon
Feeling fancy? Order a filet with a sweet potato and side of non-starchy vegetables such as spinach or broccoli, suggests Miriam Jacobson, RD, CDN. "Sometimes a steak can be the healthiest item on the menu. Just beware of portion sizes. It should be the size of your palm—not your head," she cautions. Take our Portion Distortion quiz—can you guess the right serving sizes?
At American restaurants: Grilled salmon
"Steamed or grilled wild salmon is always a good option because it’s rich in omega-3 fats," says Patricia Bannan, MS, RDN, author of Eat Right When Time is Tight. "The nutrient helps ward off heart disease, which is important for those with type 2 diabetes, as they have an elevated risk of the condition." Pair your fish with a side of steamed or sautéed veggies. Bannan suggests non-starchy veggies like broccoli, spinach, carrots, green beans, and Brussel sprouts, as they won’t spike blood sugar and are among some of the best foods for diabetics.
At American restaurants: Broth-based soup
Looking for a go-to appetizer? Broth-based soups are always a smart pick, as they tend to be lower in carbs, fat, and calories than soups made with milk or cream, Bannan explains. If you’re looking to slim down, these are the best and worst soups for weight loss.
At a deli: Protein and veggie sandwich
When you find yourself running around all day, a deli sandwich is a perfect solution. The key to staying on track is avoiding salty and fatty meats like smoked ham and bacon, and using healthier add-ons. Smith recommends crafting your creation on whole grain bread, as it contains more fiber than the white stuff. Or if the deli has it, go with sprouted grain bread. It’s filled with fiber and protein, which will help slow digestion and prevent sugar spikes. As for fillings, Smith says to "add lots of vegetables like tomato, lettuce, and roasted red peppers along with turkey or chicken." If you want to grab something to go along with it, opt for a side salad or piece of fruit instead of chips, which tend to be high in salt, carbs, and fat.
At a deli: Salad bar
istock/rudisillSome delis have fantastic salad bars with lots of healthy options. But don’t add just anything to your plate. "Be sure to focus on protein and vegetables and go light on the starchy carbs and fats," Bannan cautions. "A salad made with spinach and other non-starchy veggies, grilled chicken, avocado, beans like chickpeas, and a handful of nuts or seeds like sunflower seeds would be a balanced and nutritious meal. Just remember to go easy on the dressing or use a light version when possible."
At Italian restaurants and pizzerias: Caprese salad
"A Caprese salad is an excellent choice for anyone with diabetes," says Lori Zanini, RD, CDE, the creator of the Free 7 Day Diabetes Meal Plan. "I recommend that my clients start their meals at Italian restaurants by ordering this salad because it’s delicious and is free of added sugars." Watch out for these surprisingly high-sugar foods.
At Italian restaurants and pizzerias: Thin-crust veggie pizza
istock/hdereWhile few places serve whole grain pizza, most establishments offer thin crust pies. Make thin crust your go-to base and load it up with veggies to add fiber to your meal and help blunt the sugar spiking effect of the dough, suggests Smith. Another way to keep blood sugar levels in check: Start your meal with a side salad. "The fiber from the greens will fill you up and help you eat a less carb-dense pizza," she explains.
At Italian restaurants and pizzerias: Chicken Caesar salad
istock/NightAndDayImagesTurn a side Caesar or house salad into an entrée by adding a grilled protein and healthy fat, suggests Zanini. Healthy protein options include grilled chicken, shrimp, or salmon, while a vinaigrette dressing or avocado slices make for delicious sources of healthy fats. To make sure the kitchen doesn’t overload your plate with calories or sugar, Zanini says to ask for the dressing on the side and double-check that the dressing has no added sugars. If your server is unsure, err on the side of caution and go for oil and vinegar, instead.
At Italian restaurants and pizzerias: Branzino with veggies
istock/MaharaMKRoasted, seared, or baked branzino served with a potato and broccoli rabe or wilted greens is a diabetes-friendly meal Jacobson says is available at many Italian eateries. "Fish is a great protein with omega-3 fats that help sensitize the body to insulin and naturally reduce blood sugar levels," she explains. If calories and fat are a concern, the American Diabetes Association suggests asking for fish to be prepared without butter or oil.
At Italian restaurants and pizzerias: Fruita de mare
istock/bgsmith"This traditional Italian dish contains different types of steamed and cooked seafood, which makes it an excellent source of lean protein," Zanini says. "If it’s served with pasta, ask if whole wheat is an option." Since Zanini says pasta portions should be no larger than a half-cup, ask for the noodles on the side, and add the appropriate amount to your plate yourself.
At Mexican and Spanish restaurants: Ceviche
istock/FudioNext time you find yourself at a food fiesta at your favorite Latin American restaurant, order the ceviche, recommends Jacobson, and pair it with a side salad and some guacamole with crudités. "While carb-based dishes like rice and beans will spike blood sugar when consumed in large quantities, this meal offers a healthy combination of protein, fats, and vegetables," she says of her recommendation. (This is how much protein you should be eating.)
At Mexican and Spanish restaurants: Fajitas and fajita bowls
istock/grandriverWho doesn’t love a delicious fajita?! No one, that’s who! We’re fans of this Tex-Mex staple because it tastes indulgent but is actually nutritious and veggie-filled. "Fajitas contain a good combination of protein and vegetables. You can keep the carb count reasonable by choosing to either have the rice, beans, or the burrito or a little bit of each," Smith advises. Zanini is also a fan of the dish but suggests ditching the starchy stuff altogether and transforming your fajita order into a salad. "Make a fajita bowl by serving your fajitas fillings on a bed of lettuce along with a cup of black beans," she suggests, adding, "It’s a filling and balanced meal." If you ask the kitchen to hold the wrap and the rice, they probably won’t mind giving you some lettuce, instead, free of charge.
At Mexican and Spanish restaurants: Fish tacos
Yup, that’s right! Tacos can be diabetes-friendly—so long as you pick the proper shell. "Corn tortillas are much smaller than flour tortillas, so they’re lower in carbs, explains Zanini. "Order two grilled fish tacos on corn tortillas with a side of guacamole. If you’re still hungry, get a side salad." Here are 24 Mexican restaurant terms you’ll want to know.
At Mexican and Spanish restaurants: Grilled lime-flavored shrimp & fresh avocado salad
"While all foods at Mexican restaurants tend to be high in sodium, there are some choices that are usually lower in calories and fat and provide good nutrition," says Bannan, who suggests ordering a lime shrimp appetizer with a side salad topped with avocado. Even if these exact offerings aren’t listed on the menu, Tex-Mex joints should be well-equipped to cater to your request.
At Mexican and Spanish restaurants: Bean enchiladas
istock/JuanmoninoSure, they seem indulgent, but an enchilada can fit into your diabetes meal plan as long as you order one filled with beans and make some special requests. Generally speaking, a bean enchilada will be a better choice than a meat enchilada. And that’s because beans have a winning combination of high-quality carbs, lean protein, and soluble fiber to help stabilize blood-sugar levels. "Ask the kitchen to go light on the cheese and sauce and add extra veggies," Bannan says. "Since enchiladas and restaurant dishes, in general, tend to be on the larger side, plan to eat half your meal and take the rest home."
At breakfast and smoothie joints: Veggie omelet
istock/Lilechka75No weekend would be complete without a delicious family brunch at your favorite restaurant. And thankfully this is a tradition that you won’t have to throw by the wayside just because you’re following a diabetes diet. Smith suggests ordering an omelet with vegetables and pairing it with either two slices of whole grain toast or a fruit salad. However, if you’re eating at a big chain, consider getting sunny-side up eggs with veggies sautéed on the side, instead. Places like IHOP add pancake mix to their egg mixtures to make omelets more fluffy. (Yes, seriously!) You don’t need those sneaky extra carbs.
At breakfast and smoothie joints: Oatmeal
Oatmeal (one of the good carbs nutritionists swear by) is another diabetes-friendly option that just about every breakfast joint has on their menu. "Add walnuts to your cereal and get an order of eggs or turkey sausage to help balance blood sugar processing," Smith advises. Just make sure to send that little bowl of brown sugar right back to the kitchen when it arrives.
At breakfast and smoothie joints: Greens and fruit protein smoothie
istock/tanjichica7Kick your day off right with a custom-blended drink. Mixing and matching ingredients yourself (as opposed to ordering combos from a menu) helps you avoid sipping on something that’s overly sweet and not a smart choice for your diet. "Order a blend that has one serving of fruit, a serving of spinach or kale, a fat like peanut or almond butter, and a protein like plain Greek yogurt or unsweetened protein powder," Smith says, adding, "The protein powder should be free of artificial sweeteners. Sucralose, aspartame, and neotame, in particular, can be just as bad if not worse than sugar for diabetics, and for everyone, frankly. They still elicit an insulin response because they’re sweeter than sugar and they can also wreak havoc on the bacteria that lives in our gut that controls sugar, appetite, weight control, and more."
At Asian restaurants: Sashimi with brown rice
Pick up those chopsticks and get ready for a delicious and diabetes-friendly feast! "I suggest starting with a miso soup and then ordering sashimi with a small side of brown rice and an order of steamed broccoli," Jacobson tells us. "Sashimi is better than sushi rolls as it has more protein, and asking for the rice as a side dish allows for better portion control, which means you’ll be in better control of your blood sugar."
At Asian restaurants: Appetizer feast
istock/machiavelli1989If you’re a big fan of mixing and matching apps to create your ideal meal, you’re in luck because there are a ton of good-for-you options from your local sushi joint. Smith suggests pairing a protein-rich hot appetizer like miso cod, chicken skewers, or edamame with a big salad and one sushi roll. Stay away from anything that’s made with tempura (which is just a fancy word for deep-fried) and ask for all the sauces (including sushi vinegar) on the side. Most of them are super sugary and salty, so it’s best if you control how much makes it onto your roll, not the kitchen.
At Asian restaurants: Chicken and broccoli
istock/smpics"For those following special diets, Chinese is probably one of the more challenging cuisines," Jacobson notes. "Start with a steamed summer or spring roll and get shrimp and greens or chicken and broccoli as an entrée. These dishes are very simple and will be some of the cleaner items on the menu." To play it extra safe, ask for the sauce on the side and spoon over a reasonable amount yourself, as they tend to be sugar- and salt-laden.
At Asian restaurants: Hot and sour soup
istock/HailshadowSkip the wonton strips and duck sauce, which aren’t the best foods for diabetics, and fill up on a soothing bowl of broth instead. "While I can’t promise the soups from restaurants will be low in salt, I can tell you that traditional hot and sour soups are diabetes-friendly, says Zanini of the Chinese restaurant staple. "This broth-based soup is made with tofu, eggs, and vegetables. It’s a good choice if you are watching your blood sugar. Egg drop soup is another smart choice."
At Asian restaurants: Steamed Buddha’s delight
Whether you call it Buddha’s Delight or Buddha’s Feast, one thing is for certain: This delicious vegetarian dish gets the green light. "This meal is traditionally served with tofu and veggies, making it a smart choice. If it’s served with rice, ask for brown and keep portions to a half-cup or less," Zanini notes. These are the foods chefs never order in restaurants.
At Mediterranean restaurants: Chicken kabob
istock/zi3000Next time you’re craving Greek grub, Jacobson suggests noshing on a chicken kabob with grilled veggies or a Greek salad with grilled chicken. "Since it’s a lot of mixing and matching proteins and vegetables, Mediterranean food can easily be made diabetic compliant," Jacobson explains.
At Mediterranean restaurants: Hummus with vegetables
istock/tbralnina"While many foods at a Greek restaurant tend to be high in sodium, there are a number of items that have reasonable amounts of calories and fat, and provide plenty of nutrition," Bannan points out. Some of her go-tos: hummus with raw vegetables, yemista (vegetables stuffed with herbs baked with rice), dolmades (grapevine leaves stuffed with rice and veggies), Greek salad, and moussaka (eggplant casserole). Use these tricks to make your diet more Mediterranean.
At Mediterranean restaurants: Falafel platter
istock/MihailDechevAccording to Zanini, a delicious diabetes-friendly meal at a Greek restaurant includes chicken or lamb skewers with a side of tzatziki sauce, one or two falafel balls, and a side Greek salad. "This meal is high in protein, fiber, and carbs. It’s the perfect combination of protein and fiber to keep blood sugar levels stable," she says of her recommendation. Don’t miss the science-backed tips can help reverse diabetes.