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The Anti-Diabetes Shopping Cart

How to navigate the grocery store to make healthy food choices

In this first installment of a two-part series, Scripps Whittier Diabetes Program dietitian, Kelly Barger, gives tips on shopping for foods that can help control blood sugar, weight, cholesterol and energy levels.

As the rates of obesity climb in the American population, Type 2 diabetes and related health problems are also on the rise.

According to the American Diabetes Association, 26 million people in America have diabetes, including 8.9 percent of Californians — a rate higher than the national average. An additional 7 million others nationwide remain undiagnosed, and more than 79 million are living with pre-diabetes and/or metabolic syndrome.

Surprisingly, the simple act of grocery shopping can be a potent weapon in the battle to prevent and/or manage diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

“Armed with knowledge ahead of time, going to the market can be a key to unlocking a healthy lifestyle,” says Kelly Barger, RD, a dietitian, certified diabetes educator and clinical supervisor with the Scripps Whittier Diabetes Program.

In this first installment of a two-part series, Barger helps navigate the ins and outs of shopping for foods that can help control blood sugar, weight, cholesterol and energy levels.

Insulin-friendly shopping for grains, beans and produce

Breads, grains and pastas

Barger advises spending the majority of your time and budget on the outer aisles of the store, starting with the bakery. “The important thing when you’re buying bread or pasta is to look for ‘100 percent whole grain’ or ‘100 percent whole wheat’ on labels,” she says. That’s because whole grains are metabolized at a slower rate than processed grains, which in turn means fewer and smaller changes in blood sugar.

The fiber in whole grains also helps you feel fuller for longer and may help lower blood cholesterol. “Items labeled ‘multi-grain’ or ‘7-grain’ can sometimes be misleading, in that they are not necessarily 100 percent whole grain,” Barger points out, “so double-check to make sure you aren’t getting processed flour along with the other seeds and grains.”


In addition to being cheap and plentiful, beans possess a host of other anti-diabetes properties. “Beans, lentils and other dried legumes like chickpeas all slow sugar absorption,” Barger says. “It doesn’t matter whether you buy them canned or dried — although if you do buy canned beans, rinse them off before using them to get rid of some of the excess sodium they may have been canned with.”


Fruits and vegetables should be the foundation of an anti-diabetes diet. The good news for budget-minded shoppers is these can be fresh, canned or frozen. Barger recommends filling your cart with “watery” (non-starchy) vegetables in as many colors as you can find — yellow peppers, red tomatoes, purple cabbage, orange carrots and green vegetables like lettuce, Brussels sprouts, artichokes and green beans. Minimize weekly intake of starchy, sugary vegetables (e.g., potatoes, corn and peas), because these are higher in calories and make a greater impact on your blood sugar.


These are a wholesome treat, provided they’re whole. Fruit juice is high in sugar and is calorie-dense, so stick to apple slices, citrus wedges, whole berries and bananas. This is also one food group where the freezer section is great; high quality frozen fruit can be found year-round, even when it’s out of season.


The cereal aisle is littered with sugary landmines, but savvy shoppers can still find whole-grain varieties to enlist in the pursuit of better health. “5-minute or long-cooking oatmeal in large containers is a safe bet,” says Barger, “but I advise my patients to avoid sugary varieties that come in instant packets.”

Granola is also on the “rarely or never” list, as it is frequently high in both fats and sugars. Barger also recommends unfrosted varieties of several old-fashioned favorites: whole-oat “O”-shaped cereal, shredded wheat squares and bran flakes.


The healthiest drink is water, and lots of it. But if you crave other flavors, stick to those with no added sugar — sparkling flavored zero-calorie water, diet sodas or unsweetened iced tea.

Be sure to read our March newsletter for Barger’s recommendations for finishing your shopping trip in the meat and dairy sections.

Find a physician

A Scripps Health primary care or metabolic disorder specialist can help you design a way of eating for optimal health.