Ask the Expert
Ask the Experts: What is the ADA Diet?
Sacha Uelmen Answers by Sacha Uelmen

Ask the Experts: What is the ADA Diet?

Nutrition information in the media around diabetes meal planning is complicated and constantly changing. Type "diabetic diet" into a search engine and you're going to get thousands of confusing results. Should you be vegan? Low-carb? Keto? Should you cut out fat or eat nothing but fat? Everyone seems to be suggesting something different. So what is the American Diabetes Association diabetes diet?

Quick answer: There isn’t one. At least not one exact diet that will meet the nutrition needs of everyone living with diabetes. Which, in some ways, is unfortunate. Just think how simple it would be to plan meals if there were a one-size-fits-all plan that worked for everyone living with diabetes, prediabetes, or at risk for diabetes. Boring, yes, but simple!
As we all know, it’s much harder than that. We don’t often make food choices based on nutrition science alone —we often also make food choices for social, cultural, or emotional reasons. And because each of us is different, we each need to find an eating plan best matches both our nutrition and lifestyle needs.

For people living with diabetes and trying to learn more about healthy food choices, it can be tough to tell fact from fiction and make decisions in a sea of choices. Information in the news can often be confusing, with conflicting data and advice often given at the same time.

Part of our job at the American Diabetes Association is to help sort out the science and provide guidance that is safe and works well for people at risk for and living with diabetes. And current research shows there are a many eating patterns that can work to maintain a healthy life with diabetes, not just one. In the long run, an eating plan that you can follow and sustain and that meets your own diabetes goals will be the best one for you. 

What Is a Meal Plan?Where to start?

A meal plan takes into account your likes, dislikes, and lifestyle. It is a guide that is aimed at helping you meet your personal weight and blood glucose goals and guides you on what, when, and how much to eat. While many people may think a meal plan is the same as a diet, we like to consider a meal plan as something you follow over time rather than a diet, which is often related to a quick fix for a short period of time.
We often make food choices for social, cultural, or emotional reasons

What Is an Eating Pattern?

An eating pattern is a term used to describe the foods or groups of foods that a person chooses to eat on a daily basis over time. There a number of eating patterns that are helpful for people living with diabetes or at risk for diabetes. Following are a few of the more popular choices that the science shows can work. You’ll notice that all of these have three things in common:
  • Plenty of non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli, green beans, kale, and salad greens
  • Lean protein foods including meat, chicken, fish, shellfish, eggs, cheese, nuts, seeds, and plant-based protein foods like soy and beans are included in differing proportions
  • A focus on healthy fats—including vegetable oils like olive, canola, and sunflower—and limitations on solid fats like butter, lard, and margarines

There is no "one-size-fits-all" eating plan or "ADA Diet" for people with diabetes! The best eating plan for you is the one that you can sustain while still meeting your diabetes goals.

Popular Eating Patterns


Mediterranean-style eating uses olive oil as the main source of fat. Fish, chicken, and small amounts of dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt, are included. Red meat is less common, though wine can usually be consumed in small amounts (one to two glasses of wine per day) with meals.
There is a lot of research on the Mediterranean style of eating and most of it shows it may help you improve blood sugar, lose weight, and reduce risk of heart disease, stroke, and some cancers. This is a well-studied eating pattern than can work for many people with diabetes.
There is no "one-size-fits-all" eating plan or "ADA Diet" for people with diabetes!

Vegetarian or Vegan

Vegetarian eating plans generally include nuts, seeds, beans, and meat substitutes with little or no animal products, though there are many eating patterns you could label “vegetarian.” These patterns are different in terms of protein sources, from vegan eating plans that include no animal products of any kind to new patterns, such as flexitarian eating plans that include mostly plant-based foods but allow for eating meat at times.

Low Carbohydrate

A low-carbohydrate (low-carb) eating plan includes protein foods like meat, chicken, fish, shellfish, eggs, cheese, nuts and seeds, and fats (oils, butter, olives, and avocado). Most low-carb plans, such as Atkins, Keto, and Paleo, avoid highly processed carbohydrate foods and grains.


DASH is an acronym for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension” and began as a research study to help lower blood pressure in people with hypertension (high blood pressure). This eating plan limits foods high in sodium (salt), saturated fat, red meat, sweets, added sugars, and sugary drinks. 

Looking for a quick place to start?

Try the Diabetes Plate Method. Most of the eating patterns above focus on what to eat. The Diabetes Plate Method helps figure out how much to eat, which can often be just as important. It takes the burden out of measuring and counting while meeting the goals of many of the eating patterns described above.  This method uses a 9-inch plate, often a smaller plate than most people use. Once you have a smaller plate, the idea is to fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables, 1/4 of your plate with protein foods, and the last 1/4 of your plate with carbohydrate foods.

Key Takeaways

Try to block out the fad-diet advice and choose a plan you are likely to follow long-term that fits both your diabetes goals and your personal needs. Think about your likes and dislikes and how a change to your eating will affect your day-to-day life with family and friends. Then see how you can match this with your personal weight-loss goals. Budget also plays a part in choosing the right healthy eating plan that will meet your needs.

Many eating patterns can help you maintain a healthy life with diabetes.
  • Work with a registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator on a meal plan that is right for you.

How to find a registered dietitian:

  • Ask your doctor for a referral.
  • Find a registered dietitian: 
  • Find an ADA recognized diabetes self-management education program in your area:

Related Articles

  • 5 Sneaky Ways to Eat More Veggies

    5 Sneaky Ways to Eat More Veggies

    Part of a healthy eating plan for anyone means adding lots of fruits and veggies to your meals—but this is especially important for people with diabetes. There are a lot of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber packed into these foods.

  • 8 Mediterranean Diet Ingredients You Need in Your Pantry

    8 Mediterranean Diet Ingredients You Need in Your Pantry

    The Mediterranean diet is touted as one of the healthiest eating plans. Meals are plant-forward and based on whole foods, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, pulses (chickpeas, lentils, dry peas, and beans), whole grains, herbs, spices, and olive oil. The eating plan also includes moderate amounts of dairy foods (including yogurt), eggs, fish, and poultry. Small amounts of red meats and sweets can periodically be included, if you’d like.

  • 6 Tips for a Happy, Healthy Holiday with Diabetes

    6 Tips for a Happy, Healthy Holiday with Diabetes

    The holidays are a wonderful time of year, where you get to spend time catching up with family and friends. It’s also a time where there is a lot of focus on food, which can be very stressful if you have diabetes. You want to enjoy the holidays and eat delicious food, but managing your diabetes can pose challenges. With some advanced planning and preparation, you can still enjoy holiday favorites without compromising blood sugar goals. Read on for tips to help you prepare for a happy, healthy holiday season.

  • 3 Ways to Eat Heart Healthy

    3 Ways to Eat Heart Healthy

    Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is one of the most dangerous complications for people with diabetes. In fact, CVD is the leading cause of death in people living with diabetes, resulting in two thirds of deaths in people with type 2 diabetes. And on top of that, people with diabetes are twice as likely to have heart disease or a stroke than people without diabetes.

  • Low-Carb Meal Plan Tips

    Low-Carb Meal Plan Tips

    Having diabetes or prediabetes does not mean you have to cut out all carbs, but cutting back on some carb foods, or making some smart swaps may help with managing blood glucose. If you are looking to include more low carb meals in your meal plan, we’ve rounded up some breakfast, lunch, and dinner ideas, plus some everyday tips for reducing carbs.

  • How to Start a Healthy Day

    How to Start a Healthy Day

    Follow these tips to start your day right! Studies have repeatedly shown the benefits of a healthy breakfast. In fact, a good start can help you manage glucose levels, too! Follow the steps below to take the hassle and headache out of your first meal of the day.

Recommended for You