No Starches, No Sugars — Then What?

People around the world are eating low-carbohydrate diets to treat their diabetes. But all plant foods, other than seeds, are carbs. So what can you eat? Is it all animal products, or are there other options?


We know the arguments against eating carbs. Other than fiber, carbs are either sugars or starches that break down into sugars. Since people with diabetes have little to no effective insulin, which is necessary for handling sugars (glucose), they probably shouldn’t eat them.

But is this argument totally true? Perhaps not. Vegans and vegetarians tend to eat a lot of carbs, and many of them seem to do quite well with diabetes. Many people in poor countries who cannot afford meat also have relatively low rates of diabetes. So what’s their secret? What are they eating?

It seems clear that the successful ones eat very low amounts of refined sugars and simple starches. They may have small amounts of truly whole grains (not stuff that is marketed as “whole grain” but is actually highly processed). They eat small amounts of fruits and starchy vegetables. (Diabetic low-carb guru Dr. Richard Bernstein says he hasn’t eaten a piece of fruit in decades.)

What’s left? Well, from a carb standpoint, you can eat as much animal food, like meat and eggs, as you want. They don’t have any carbs (although dairy products do). You can vary that with sea animals — they don’t contain carbs either.

There are probably a few health risks from eating so much meat. Your toxic load will be higher, unless you consistently eat organic free-range meat and wild-caught, small fish. You might get too much fat if you overdo it, but advocates like Bernstein have found no problems for themselves or their patients.

However, from the standpoint of your wallet, the animals, and the planet, eating so much meat is problematic. Organic, free-range meat is usually quite expensive. Low-cost, factory-farm-raised meat, fish, and eggs are full of chemicals. The animals are treated terribly at many of these “farms.” And it takes about fifteen pounds of animal feed (grains) to raise one pound of beef, which wastes energy and water.

To eat less meat and also less carbs seems quite a challenge. Everyone agrees on eating high amounts of green vegetables, especially leafy ones. Nuts are also terrific low-carb foods. Starchy vegetables have to be eaten in moderation.

What else besides green vegetables? Where do you get protein? In addition to nuts, I think most people’s easiest path will be soy products like tofu.

According to, a half-cup serving of firm tofu contains 10 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat, and only 2 grams of carbohydrates. In addition to tofu, a number of soy products like tempeh and miso contain a lot of protein and few carbs.

As someone who eats a lot of tofu, I have to admit it doesn’t taste like much. The good thing is that it will absorb just about any flavor you put on it, so you can use a wide variety of seasonings and sauces. We have many tasty tofu recipes on our site.

What about beans?
A big question for people who want to eat few carbs and not much meat: How do beans fit in? As a mix of protein, fat, and carbs, they are sort of a perfect food, but they do have a lot of carb content, usually from 20 to 40 grams per cup, depending on the type.

Now here’s the complicated thing — everyone will react to beans differently, and the same person might react differently to different kinds of beans, and different ways of cooking them. The only way to know about beans or other plant foods like squash is to monitor yourself. After eating one such food, check one hour and two hours after eating, and if your glucose doesn’t spike, check again a bit later, in case slow digestion skews your numbers.

You can also vary the amounts you eat and see how that affects your blood glucose. You might have enough insulin for a small amount but not a larger one. It should only take a month or two of serious monitoring to learn what foods spike your glucose levels and how much, and which ones don’t.

I think the main reason some plant foods are healthier than others is their fiber. Often, a person with Type 2 can eat fair amounts of carbs, if they contain large amounts of fiber.

The fiber slows the entry of glucose into the system. It also stimulates the distal ileum (the last part of the small intestine), which stimulates insulin production. Finally, fiber gets into the large intestine, where it is fermented by bacteria into a number of healthy acids that help with diabetes and provide energy.

Here’s a short, incomplete list of good low-carb plant foods from a number of sources. Vegetables include lettuce, green beans, artichokes, avocado, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, olives, zucchini, and small amounts of squash and bell peppers.

Fruits include strawberries, papaya, watermelon, blueberries, cantaloupes, and honeydew melons, and small amounts of peaches, apples, and nectarines. Basically melons are manageable because they’re mostly water, and berries tend to be OK because they’re mostly fiber, but you have to be careful of the amounts. Monitoring is the only way to know how they work for you.

Final note: Exercise makes a difference. The more you exercise, and the more muscle you have, the more carbs you can eat, because exercise lowers insulin resistance and muscles soak up glucose. Of course, if you’re Type 1, you still need to inject insulin to cover what you eat.

If you want more information on low-carb eating without much meat, see here, here, or here.

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  • Ben Ross

    I’ve had Southwestern Bean Salad from a can with wonderful results . I do believe that the fibers from the kidney and black beans slow down the uptake of carbs and sugars . A carefully prepared homemade recipe would surely have similar healthy results with obvious advantages .

  • Maria Edna Bon

    Great that this forum is finally publishing even healthier information related to health maintenance and weight loss while being diabetic. I recommend, from my successful experience and that of many who have done the plan, to read and follow the books published by RD Diane Kress: Metabolism Miracle and Diabetes Miracle. Not to be confused with faith based goo-goo eyed plans, but logical and medically proven data and plan that address the nuances and special needs of the diabetic individuals. RD Kress has 30+ years of documented and refined information published under the two titles who has successfully helped diabetics like me become healthier, reduce body fat significantly and reduce or eliminate medications – with personal doctors approval upon applying the stages of nutrition as identified by the plan. I encourage everyone to read-up on the materials and healthily apply the pan to become happy, healthy, slimmer individuals. Good luck.

  • whatnext

    discovering versatile almond flour has changed my low-carb life. check out the many almond flour cookbooks online. also, order some Dreamfields excellent pasta. just these two things, as well as frequent testing to see how you reaact to various foods will make the switch to low-carb easy. i’ve been living like this for 7 years, am on no medication or insulin, and have kept my A1c at around 6. try it!

  • JohnC

    For a lot of us it is about balance. I eat very little of what would be considered a ‘fast’ carb — like corn (really a grain). Over the years I have learned to include only a small amount of a ‘fast’ carb in any meal. I am a firm believer in trying to never let your blood sugar go higher than 140 to avoid body damage.

    OK all that being said I don’t really eat a ‘lot’ of meat.. but I am on a low carb diet. Don’t eat a lot of beans because my meter says they do raise my blood sugar too high. Nuts are great but they are a real surprise hours later — moderation is in order here too. Tofu is not an option for me.

    Your article does make me wonder how I got to my diet (several years). Lots of trial and error and test strips 🙂 Have tried to mimic a normal person and keep my A1c in the low fives. The one thing that doesn’t work at all is just covering the extra carbs with more insulin — roller coaster ride with numbers and an invitation to weight gain… and a whole range of nasty stuff.

    Of course your mileage will vary — every body is different. But the goal is the same — healthy!

  • Lynne Nelson

    I have recently begun eating Irish Oatmeal, the steel cut version, for breakfast w/o any spike in my blood sugar. I also eat a homemade bean soup about every other day for lunch w/o any spike in my blood sugar. I use lentils, white beans, black beans, split peas, etc. to make a different soup every week. I put onions, celery, carrots and greens in the soup along with spices, but no potatoes or other starches. On the day I eat the soup, I do not eat any bread. other days I make a salad for lunch and will have a half slice of whole grain bread or Kavali crackers.
    I find that if I eat carbs at breakfast or during the day I utilize them better. In the evening, I eat just protein and vegetables. I make a home made cheese cake that has very few carbs because I use stevia and thus have a dessert. Once in a while I eat one square of 85 percent chocolate. I can eat a baked potato about once a month, and rice never as even the smallest amount of rice, no matter what kind of grain it is, will spike my blood sugar as if it were bread, of which I can eat very little.
    I’m 77 and have had diabetes since 2001 and do not take medication, but eat very carefully and walk about an hour a day, a half hour at a time. I used to lift weights also, but have slacked off in the last few months, but hope to get back to it soon. So far I have no diabetic neuropathy, nor retinopathy.

  • Pam Schmidt

    I also eat a fair amount of Dreamfields Pasta. Apparently, the inulin in it, which I believe is a form of fiber, slows the digestion and doesn’t spike my blood sugar.

  • Onoosh

    Thanks for the recipes! And yes, it’s me the LADA/1.5 (a.k.a. “Type Weird”) diabetic, weighing in on beans: can’t eat ’em because even in small quantities they make my blood sugar spike. Dang. Oh. And starches? Bread? Sweet potatoes? Fageddaboudit! Thank goodness there are green veggies, eggs, full-fat cheese, plus tofu and nuts. P.S.: Love the blog.

  • Alex B.

    In my case, when I eat protein, all the vegetables, greens, nuts, and whole fruits and cut all starches, sugars, and fried food I test in the 80’s, even with out medicine. But one veggie sub from subway with whole wheat bread will give me a spike of 160. and my liver seems to have a party every night, cause i am always high in the mornings.

  • Sturat

    I’m surprised that mushrooms aren’t on this discussion. Mushrooms/funghi come in a lot of varieties and are essentially protein.

  • Carol

    Hi, Thanks for these articles and the personal experiences.
    About Soy. After cancer that is taboo since it is a hormone that boosts estrogene= more cancer. Even the popular edmame beans. the word also is that it causes weight gain.
    I have been type2 since 2001 and only take 15m metmorphin. A,M. read can be higher (140) but normally it is in the 114 vicinity with a1c under 6.5
    If I eat sweets it is a bite or two..unless I give myself a splurge moment. Can do without spiking. I agree that vegs and protein, plus sprouted grain slice of bread once a day works well. I eat quite a lot of fruit by itself, seems to aid the whole process.
    Oh yes, I usually have a handful of dark choc bits /day. Don’t tell anyone.
    I love these contacts. Thanks.

  • Beth Fletcher

    Thanks for all the information on low carb eating. My husband is a Type 2 and when I read reverse diabetes, we jumped on the band wagon. Bought Dr Bernstein’s and Dr Hyman’s book and it is working. Only problem is the afternoon reading is apt to be high, just under 140. We have learned 3 potato chips = 20 points. Amazing. Beans also don’t fare well, but lentil soup not so bad. Very interested in the bitter melon tea, will keep reading about that. David Spero you are great to keep bringing info to all of us out here in diabetic land.

  • Patricia Bergen

    I have just started the Adkins’ “new” diet again, which is strictly extremely low-carb. This is the second time I’ve tried it because the first time I did, I felt so good that I knew it worked at least for me it did, in not only helping me lose weight, but also in helping to control my blood sugar. I agree that low-carb eating for diabetics is healthy and makes a person feel so much better than loading up on carbs. I am a Type 2 diabetic. Thanks for all the additional information on low-carb eating
    that others are providing.

    Pat – April 3, 2013 at 8:30 p.m.

  • Ashley

    “But all plant foods, other than seeds, are carbs.”

    …uhm, what?

  • ElaineG

    Interesting article. I’ve often wondered how diabetics handle low carbs when their blood sugar levels are normalizing with just metformin. As a good protein source you mention eating various soy products. I’m very concerned about the fact that a substantial amount of the soy that is grown in the U.S. is genetically modified (GMO). I don’t knowingly eat GMOs. Whole Foods is moving towards GMO labeling and other markets may follow suit. Any thoughts on this from others reading this article?

    • Nick Presidente

      I know this is old, but if you are eating non-organic meat, you are eating all the GMOs stuffed into that meat. The GMO boom is almost exclusively meant for animal feed, the corn, the soy, its not a human grade crop, so that massive pesticide load goes into the animals, then into you.

      Have you bought soy products in the store? This is a question I know the answer to, you haven’t. Pick up a container of tofu, don’t buy it unless you know what to do with it, but what does it say on it? Non-GMO, they all do unless its a Japanese tofu, and they probably aren’t using GMOs there at all.

    • Violetta

      Processed, unfermented soy products are known to leach minerals from the body. I’ve known many people to develop severe mineral difficiencies from a high soy diet. Better to consume fermented soy, such as tempeh, which is health promoting

  • Kathleen

    Thanks David for the great information. And thanks to all you who post. It is wonderful to get so much personal experiences in one place. I have found that peas have a lot of protein. They also are high in carbs. I eat about of cup of them with broccoli and some tahini & garlic for dinner so the carbs are ok. After going to one of your “here’s” I have decided to add Braggs amino in the mix as well. I am exercising again and have cut way down on the carbs. Weight is coming off which I did not think would happen, as I have been trying to lose with no results. Most important to me is my numbers are coming down. I am not at the place that many of the above folks are, but now have new hope of getting off medication, or at least cutting down. Again Thank you for helping me find a new way to health.

  • steelsil

    Look up the glycemic index and glycemic load of foods online. Winter squashes and turnips are surprisingly high in carbohydrates. Eat only low GI foods if you want to lower your A1c count. Doing so knocked my A1c count down from 6.2 to 5.7. I also have gout, so I eat mostly chicken (raised without antibiotics and hormones,) and vegetables. (It takes only 2 pounds of grain to create one pound of chicken)

  • The Manz

    How many people on this thread are significantly overweight, at least 35 pounds or more?

  • Violetta

    Then why are there so many thin people with type 2 diabetes? You have no idea what you’re talking about. Different people have type 2 diabetes for different reasons.