Managing a chronic condition like type 2 diabetes involves leaning into nutritious eating. But doing so doesn’t have to break your budget.
I’ve often felt that managing a chronic condition like type 2 diabetes requires financial privilege. By themselves, the cost of healthcare and diabetes medications can be difficult.
Further, the idea that a person can give themselves the disease is a common misconception about type 2 diabetes. Yet the prevailing advice for managing it involves changes to lifestyle factors like following a nutritious diet. And many so-called “healthy” foods are often cost-prohibitive for many Americans.
As someone who once relied on food stamps to afford groceries, I know the struggle firsthand. Even today, I help manage my household on a teacher’s budget, so I must be careful about what I toss in our grocery cart.
Here are a few strategies I’ve learned over the years to manage my type 2 diabetes on a tight budget.
Even before I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, I was a lifelong chronic dieter, something I’ve only recently begun to discover can be more harmful than helpful.
This dieting mindset led me to try things like the keto diet and intermittent fasting, both of which have been hyped as ways to “cure” type 2 diabetes.
Though many people with type 2 diabetes (including my sister) have successfully put their diabetes into remission with various eating plans, neither keto nor fasting reversed my type 2 diabetes. In fact, for multiple reasons, eating more carbohydrates than what’s allowed on the keto diet better lowered my average blood glucose.
I learned from these dieting experiences that there isn’t one right diet for type 2 diabetes. Everyone’s body works differently and responds differently to various foods and amounts of macronutrients like carbohydrates.
This means that managing blood sugar through food choices requires some experimenting.
But the good news is that you don’t need to follow eating styles like the keto diet, which often involves buying expensive keto foods.
Although it’s important to do what works for you, the best nutrition advice for those with type 2 diabetes is to focus on eating nutrient-dense, whole foods. These are primarily fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and lean meats like chicken and fish.
Fortunately for our wallets, some of these foods — like frozen vegetables and chicken — are some of the best bargains in the grocery store.
Filling your plate with vegetables and low sugar fruits can help manage blood sugar. These foods also help us avoid or lessen the impact of complications like kidney disease and heart disease.
But fresh produce can be a budget-buster. It can spoil faster than you eat it. I’ve thrown out tons of fresh produce that went bad within days, which always makes me feel like I’m literally throwing money away.
Frozen fruits and vegetables, however, keep for months.
Moreover, research has found that frozen produce is nutritionally comparable to fresh. And in some cases, frozen produce is even more nutritious.
Best of all, frozen fruits and vegetables are typically less expensive than their fresh counterparts.
If your budget doesn’t allow it, you don’t have to buy organic to reap the nutritional benefits of fruits and vegetables.
It’s true that certain pesticides have been linked with the onset and severity of type 2 diabetes. But organic produce is typically more expensive than non-organic produce — sometimes significantly.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also notes that organic fruits and vegetables do contain some pesticides, so it may not be possible to avoid them entirely anyway.
If you’re concerned about pesticides, you can make an inexpensive wash to remove contamination from your produce:
When we’re first diagnosed with diabetes, there’s a temptation to run to the grocery store and buy tons of sugar-free candy and desserts to replace our old favorites. But many of these options cost significantly more than their sugar-laden counterparts.
For example, a 7.5-ounce bag of Russell Stover’s chocolate candy-coated peanuts runs almost $8 at my local Walmart. But a 10.7-ounce bag of peanut M&Ms is only $4.50, about half the price for more candy.
Moreover, sugar-free candy and baked goods may not be a great option anyway. Except for a few boutique brands, most commercial sugar-free candy is sweetened with maltitol. Although maltitol is technically “sugar-free” and noncaloric, it still has carbohydrates.
Perhaps even worse, maltitol upsets many people’s stomachs. Every time I eat it, I get uncomfortably bloated and gassy, making most sugar-free candy not worth it to me.
Recent research suggests the popular sweetener erythritol, used in many low carb keto desserts, may cause blood clot formation, thereby increasing one’s risk of heart attack and stroke. Still, this was a small study and more research is needed to confirm the effects of erythritol on heart health.
Observational research in 2020 has also found potential problems with the various artificial sweeteners commonly used in foods like diet soda, including the potential for increasing insulin resistance.
It’s enough to confuse anyone about what to eat, much less someone with type 2 diabetes who’s been told to avoid sugar.
Fortunately, diabetes nutritionists say it’s better to eat small portions of the food you’re craving rather than opt for the fake stuff. An occasional sweet treat shouldn’t cause problems if your diet is primarily nutritious, but check in with a dietitian to see how sweets can fit into your diet.
And the good news for your wallet? The real thing is usually cheaper. For example, a single serving of peanut M&Ms is about $1.20 at my local Walmart.
There are many foods people with diabetes are told to avoid, including sugar, simple carbs like white flour and white rice, processed foods, and fried foods. These also tend to be the cheapest options at the grocery store.
But if there’s one thing I’ve discovered with all my experimentation with nutritious eating, it’s that your diet doesn’t have to be perfect.
First, it’s important to remember that diet is only one part of a larger overall management plan that includes exercise, stress relief, and medication.
Further, every little bit counts. Meaning it’s OK to aim to buy as many nutrient-dense options as possible and forget the rest. Even small tweaks can make a big difference.
For example, I enjoy drinking diet soda. Although the jury’s still out on diet soda and artificial sweeteners, it’s probably healthier for me to buy stevia-sweetened soda rather than brands sweetened with sucralose or aspartame.
But I buy what’s cheapest, which means drinking artificial sweeteners. So I compromise by limiting my intake to the weekends and quench my thirst with cheap and healthy plain water the rest of the week.
I also understand that diet soda will always be a better option for me than regular soda. And life’s too short to live on water alone.
Aside from diabetes-specific, cost-saving strategies, you can save money at the grocery store with traditional money-saving techniques.
It also means shopping the sales and stocking up when prices are low. Flipp, which collects all the sale flyers for stores in your local area, can help you comparison shop.
Pairing coupons, rebate apps, and store sales can save you the most.
Although most coupons and rebates tend to be for processed rather than whole foods, shopping seasonally can also be a money-saver. For example, stock up on strawberries in the summer and oranges and grapefruit in the winter when their prices are lowest.
Having a tight grocery budget can make managing a condition like type 2 diabetes feel impossible. Plus, new and alarming nutrition studies can leave us confused about what to even eat.
Fortunately, we can address both these issues at once by leaning into general nutritious eating advice, which focuses on eating whole foods as much as possible and letting go of the rest.
Medically reviewed on March 28, 2023
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