By Lori Brookhart-Schervish; Reviewed by Connie Crawley, RD, LD
Edited by Karen Verdusco
Including these extra-healthy power foods in your diet will help you meet your nutritional needs as well as lower your risk of diabetes complications such as heart disease. Of course, the foods on this list shouldn’t be the only foods you eat, but incorporating some or all into your diabetes meal plan will help improve your overall health.
Are These Power Foods in Your Diet?
If you already follow a healthful meal plan filled with whole grains, fresh fruits and veggies, and lean protein, congratulations! You’re on your way to a long, healthy life and are taking a major step in controlling your weight and blood glucose levels.
Not only are these power foods high in fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins and minerals, they’re also familiar and easy to find. That means you don’t have to shop at specialty grocery stores to find foods that will help you get on track with a healthful meal plan.
If you love asparagus, you’ll really love that it’s a non-starchy vegetable with only 5 grams of carbohydrates per serving and nearly 2 grams of dietary fiber. It is also high in the B vitamin folate, vitamin C, and a health-promoting antioxidant. This antioxidant may help boost the immune system and promote lung health by protecting against viruses.
The cardiovascular benefits of folate and other B vitamins have been studied in relation to an amino acid in the blood that has been linked to a higher risk of coronary heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends including foods containing folate and other B vitamins in your diet.
A serving of asparagus is 1/2 cup, or 4 ounces cooked, and provides 33 percent of the daily recommendation of 400 micrograms of folate, according to the FDA.
Enjoy the benefits of blueberries on their own or in a variety of foods, including smoothies and pancakes. Blueberries provide dietary fiber, vitamin C, and flavonoids, that offers antioxidant protection in boosting your immune system and fighting inflammation. Flavonoids may also help decrease the LDL (bad cholesterol)-oxidation process that can lead to arterial plaque.
Blueberries get their dark blue color from anthocyanins, another disease-fighting antioxidant that may benefit heart health. Blueberries have also been studied for their potential to protect and improve vision.
One serving is 3/4 cup and has 15 grams of carbohydrates. You can enjoy fresh, in-season blueberries May through October or buy the frozen varieties year-round.
3. Red Grapefruit
Sweet, juicy, and delicious, the ruby red grapefruit packs more antioxidant power and possibly more heart benefits than the white grapefruit. In a preliminary 30-day test of 57 people with heart disease, those eating one red grapefruit daily decreased their LDL (bad) cholesterol by 20 percent and decreased triglycerides by 17 percent. In contrast, those eating a white grapefruit reduced LDL by 10 percent with no significant change in triglycerides, compared with a group of people who didn’t eat the fruit.
Include the vitamin C-rich grapefruit as a juice, in salads, or by itself. The only way the body can get vitamin C is through food, such as citrus fruits, or supplements.
Grapefruit interacts with certain drugs, including statins and other medications, so be sure to check with your health-care professional.
One serving of a large grapefruit is one half of the grapefruit or 3/4 cup of grapefruit sections.
You can’t go wrong with beans. Beans are high in fiber and protein and are a good source of vitamins and minerals, such as folate, iron, magnesium, and potassium, which is essential for the water balance between the cells and body fluids, such as electrolyte balance. The American Heart Association recommends eating a variety of foods to get the necessary soluble and insoluble fiber needed daily–about 25 to 30 grams a day, which is twice the amount the average American adult normally consumes. One serving of navy beans is 1/2 cup and has 5.8 grams of fiber per serving.
There are so many delicious varieties of beans to choose from, such as black, kidney, garbanzo, white, Lima and pinto. Finding ways to incorporate beans in your diet is a breeze. Soak and cook dry beans or use canned beans (rinsing and draining canned beans first can remove unhealthy sodium too). Try substituting beans as your main protein source for lunch or dinner a couple times a week. Protein is an important part of your daily nutrition, which helps the body repair and produce cells and build muscle and bones.
The American Diabetes Association counts one serving of beans, or 1/2 cup, as one starch and one lean meat.
Don’t underestimate the nutritional power of broccoli. Truly a “super food”, this non-starchy vegetable has more vitamin C per 100 grams than an orange and is considered a good source of fiber and the antioxidant beta-carotene, which the body uses to make vitamin A. This dark green vegetable’s vitamin A power promotes healthy vision, teeth, bones, and skin. Vitamin C is essential for healing wounds and is a disease-fighting antioxidant.
One serving of broccoli is 1 cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked. Pick up fresh broccoli in the produce section or your local farmer’s market. Try the frozen food section for cut florets or plant broccoli in your garden this spring. The garden experts at Better Homes and Gardens recommend planting two types of broccoli and starting seedlings 4-6 weeks before the last spring frost date or buying starter plants to plant in early spring.
Cooked or raw, carrots are a healthy addition to any meal plan. Have them for a snack with 2 tablespoons of light ranch dressing or include them in your main course or as a side dish.
Carrots provide vitamin A from the antioxidant beta-carotene. This powerful phytonutrient may help prevent cancer and heart disease. Carotenoids found in yellow and orange vegetables may also help reduce insulin resistance.
Carrots are another source of fiber and heart-healthy flavonoids, which can also be enjoyed juiced with other healthful fruits and vegetables such as apples, beets, or the power spice ginger.
One serving of carrots is 1 cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked.
Seafood lovers rejoice! Fish is a great addition to your meal plan, especially omega-3-rich fatty fish, such as salmon, trout, tuna, sardines, mackerel, and herring. Omega-3s, a type of polyunsaturated fat, which is healthful, can help lower triglycerides. Omega-3s can also help reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, and reduce the risk of blood clots.
Although fish is good for you and is considered a lean-meat substitute for its high protein, concerns have been raised about harmful mercury levels and other toxins found in some fish.
Swordfish, shark, golden bass, golden snapper, and king mackerel have the highest mercury levels, measuring up to 0.99 parts per million for a 3-ounce serving. Fish lower in mercury for a 3-ounce serving include wild salmon (.01 ppm), herring (.04 ppm), catfish (.05 ppm), and canned light tuna (.12 ppm).
Try preparing fish on the grill, baked, broiled, or steamed. One serving of fish is 1 ounce.
Flaxseed is the new “it” superfood, noted for its alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a fatty acid that can be converted into omega-3 fatty acids, which offer similar benefits as the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA found in fish. ALA omega-3s are known for helping to lower triglycerides, reduce inflammation, and decrease the risk of heart disease.
Flaxseed has emerged as a must-eat power food for overall health. High in both soluble and insoluble fiber, flaxseed is also a good source of lignans, a phytoestrogen that is considered another type of antioxidant.
Flaxseeds are available whole, ground (milled), or as flaxseed oil. To reap the most nutritional reward from the nutty-flavored flaxseed, use ground flaxseed on salads and cereal and mixed into breads, smoothies, and dressings.
They’re not just for Thanksgiving dinner! Cranberries are a power fruit packed with the disease-fighting antioxidant vitamin C that can be eaten year-round. Although best known for helping to prevent urinary tract infections.
Add cranberries to smoothies, salads, or delicious chutneys. Look for cranberries in pre-packaged bags, in the freezer section, jellied, dried, or juiced. Be sure to look for reduced sugar or sugar-free cranberry products. One serving of dried cranberries is 2 tablespoons.
The soluble and insoluble fiber in apples can benefit people with diabetes. According to a 2003 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, a diet high in fiber can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease-a leading diabetes complication, which is often caused by high cholesterol, lack of exercise, and obesity. The good news is one medium-sized apple packs 3 grams of fiber–12 percent of the recommended 25 grams per day.
Plus, the soluble fiber in an apple may help slow digestion. Research has indicated this slowing-down process may help regulate cholesterol and stabilize blood glucose.
Eating apples, especially with the skin, not only increases your fiber intake but provides vitamin C and flavonoids, a disease-fighting antioxidant.
A dessert straight from nature, melons come in many varieties including watermelon, cantaloupe, muskmelon, honeydew, casaba, crenshaw, Persian, and pepino.
While all provide good nutrients, watermelon is high in vitamins C and B6 and is a good source of the antioxidant lycopene, which may help protect against cancer, says nutritionist Jeannette Jordan. Lycopene is commonly associated with tomatoes and tomato juice, but watermelon is another optimal source. Watermelon is also high in beta-carotene, which the body uses to make vitamin A.
Honeydew is high in vitamin C and a good source of potassium, which can help improve or maintain blood pressure. Check with a health-care professional before increasing potassium intake if you have kidney complications or kidney disease.
Cantaloupe is also high in potassium and the antioxidant beta-carotene, and it’s a good source of fiber, vitamin C, and folate. The American Heart Association recommends getting enough folate and other B vitamins in your diet to help decrease the risk of heart disease.
Nuts are a good source of protein, fiber, vitamin E, and flavonoids and are power-packed with monounsaturated fat. Plant sterols known to lower cholesterol also naturally occur in nuts.
Walnuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, pecans, and hazelnuts are just some of the nuts that can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, making them heart-healthy choices.
Eat nuts in moderation and avoid salted, sugared, or chocolate-covered options that increase calories and decrease nuts’ natural health benefits.
One serving of almonds, cashews, or mixed nuts is 6 nuts. One serving of pecans is 4 halves, a serving of hazelnuts is 5 nuts, and a serving of pistachios is 16 nuts, according to the American Diabetes Association.
If you fuel up with a bowl of oatmeal in the morning, then you know its fiber content will keep you full longer, getting you to your mid-morning snack or lunch. The soluble fiber in oats also can help lower cholesterol, improve blood pressure, and stabilize blood glucose by slowing digestion. Oats are also a good source of antioxidants. Flavor oatmeal with cinnamon or artificial sweeteners to keep total calories low. Oats also provide vitamin E, B vitamins, magnesium, and potassium, which may help lower blood pressure.
There are several types of oatmeal to choose from. Steel-cut oatmeal has a dense, thick texture and can take up to 45 minutes to cook, while old-fashioned (or rolled) oats are thinner and take less time to cook. The less processed the oat, such as steel-cut oatmeal, the lower it is on the glycemic index, which may help control blood glucose. Quick cooking oatmeal and instant oatmeal are also available. Be sure to check the labels for added salt and sugar. One serving of oatmeal is 1/2 cup.
14. Red Onions
Red onions don’t just add great color to salads, sandwiches, and stews. They also score highest in antioxidant power, with yellow onions not far behind and white a distant third.
Onions are also a good source of fiber, potassium, and folate-all good for heart health. Onions’ high flavonoid content also puts them on the map for cancer and cardiovascular research and other chronic diseases, such as asthma.
One serving of the non-starchy vegetable is 1 cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked. If you love onions but not the scent that lingers on your breath, try chewing on a few sprigs of parsley or a mint leaf.
Raspberries are packed with fiber (partly due to their tiny, edible seeds) and are high in vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant that the body can only get through food. Vitamin C is beneficial for bone and skin health as well as cancer and heart disease prevention.
There are red, black, and purple raspberries, which you can plant in your garden or buy at your local market or farmer’s market. Store fresh raspberries in your refrigerator up to seven days or use ripe berries to make jams and jellies or freeze for later. In the winter, check your grocery store for frozen, unsweetened raspberries.
Popeye ate spinach for a reason. This dark green leafy vegetable is loaded with vitamins and minerals, including vitamins B2 and B6, folate, copper, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and fiber.
Studies of spinach have found it has potential to decrease the risk of cancer, cataracts, and heart disease. Spinach is high in beta-carotene, an antioxidant that the body uses to make vitamin A. Beta-carotene helps protect the body’s cells from free radicals, which contribute to chronic illness and aging. Plus, just 1/2 cup of cooked frozen spinach has 145 mg of calcium and 3.5 grams of fiber. Although many studies have concluded that more research is needed to declare that cartenoid-rich vegetables, such as spinach, prevent or decrease disease, spinach is still a great non-starchy vegetable to include in any meal plan.
You can find fresh or frozen spinach at your local market. When buying canned spinach, choose low sodium. One serving of spinach is 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw, which is great for salads.
Soy is an excellent power food to incorporate in your diet, even if you aren’t a vegetarian. Soy can be eaten in whole bean form, such as baby green soybeans called edamame, which is the highest in protein. Other soy products include soy milk or cheese, tofu, soy nuts, or vegetarian meatless products.
Soy is also a source of niacin, folate, zinc, potassium, iron, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a fatty acid that can be converted into omega-3 fatty acids, known to help lower cholesterol.
Check with a health-care professional before increasing potassium intake if you have kidney complications or kidney disease.
Serving sizes depend on whether soy is consumed in food or drink. Read the food label for specific serving sizes on individual items.
The next time you pour yourself a cup of white, green, or black tea, you could be doing your health a favor. Tea contains antioxidant-rich flavonoids, , which have been studied for their effectiveness in preventing chronic illnesses such as cancer and heart disease.
There are various types of teas from all over the world, and many are sold ground in tea bags or as loose-leaf varieties.
Fun tea facts: White tea is the highest in antioxidants, with green coming in second, followed by oolong tea, then black tea. This is because of each tea’s degree of oxidation–the less it is oxidized, the higher the antioxidants and the lower the caffeine.
Tea can be enjoyed either hot or cold. If you prefer decaf, steep regular tea for 30 seconds, then pour it out. Steep the tea leaves or tea bag again for 3 to 5 minutes, then drink. This natural, chemical-free decaffeinating process removes 80 percent of the caffeine, which is released in the first 30 seconds.
The tomato is an excellent source of vitamin C and potassium and is rich in lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that is easier for your body to absorb from cooked and processed tomatoes, such as tomato juice, than from fresh, whole tomatoes. Adding a little bit of oil while sauteing or cooking tomatoes can help aid in lycopene absorption.
Studies suggest lycopene-rich tomato products may help protect against certain types of cancer, including prostate cancer, and may offer cardiovascular and anti-inflammatory protection.
Check the Nutrition Facts food labels on packaged and canned tomato products to find those with the least sodium and sugar. Also, make sure you choose tomato sauce. The American Diabetes Association points out that tomato sauce is different than pasta or spaghetti sauces, which are categorized under starchy vegetables.
Yogurt is a sweet treat that is creamy, delicious, and good for you. An excellent source of calcium, which helps promote the health of bones and teeth as well as muscle and blood vessel function, yogurt is also a good source of energy-boosting vitamin B2 (riboflavin) and protein. It also provides zinc, which can be deficient in some people with diabetes and aids in immune function and wound healing. Pro-biotic yogurt contains health-promoting bacteria that some research has proposed is beneficial for digestive health, including lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome.
There are different yogurts to choose from on the market, including Greek yogurt, which is thicker than regular yogurt because it is strained before being packaged.
One serving of 2 percent Greek yogurt is 6 ounces.
*Karen’s Note: Some great recipes to try on my blog that include some of these “Power Foods” are my Whole Wheat Blueberry Pancakes (for the compote – just use Splenda instead of sugar), Broccoli and Walnut Salad (use 1-2 cups of dried cranberries – instead of raisins), Frank’s Grilled Tilapia in a Pouch, Frank’s Cedar Plank Smoked Salmon and for apples, and oatmeal: try my Baked Apple Crisp recipe (substituting any sugar with Splenda).