Eating well with Diabetes: East Asian diets

Many staple foods in the East Asian diet are good for your health. From fresh soybeans to leafy green vegetables to mandarin oranges, there are lots of nutrient-rich choices. However, refined grains and salty foods are also common and should be limited. If you have diabetes, you can work with your healthcare team to develop a plan that’s right for you. It will probably include exercise, a meal plan, blood glucose monitoring, and perhaps medication. This article will focus on the dietary changes that you can make and tell you which of your favourite traditional foods fit into a healthy diet, and which should be limited to help you manage diabetes.

What is type 2 diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease where the pancreas does not make enough insulin or the body does not use insulin properly. Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas.

When the body is working well, insulin helps carry sugar (glucose) from your blood to your cells where it is used for energy. If you have diabetes, your body's cells do not receive enough glucose, so it stays in your blood. High blood glucose (or high blood sugar) can lead to heart, kidney, vision and blood vessel problems.

Who has a higher risk of diabetes?

Some ethnic groups in Canada have a higher risk of getting diabetes, including people of Asian descent. There are certain genes that affect insulin function. Having these genes increases your risk of diabetes. These genes are commonly found in high risk populations such as people with an Asian heritage.

What to eat…and when

If you have diabetes, it is important to eat every 4 to 6 hours to keep your blood sugar levels stable. Try to have three daily meals at regular times and have healthy snacks when you are hungry. A balanced meal has foods from at least 3 of the 4 food groups: 1. Vegetables and Fruit 2. Grain Products 3. Milk and Alternatives 4. Meat and Alternatives You can work with a Registered Dietitian to make a personal meal plan. An example of a healthy meal plan may look like this:


1 cup of congee (try brown rice or multigrain rice) 1 oz of steamed fish ½ a cup of steamed leafy vegetables 1 cup of milk or fortified soy beverage


Noodle soup made with: ½ a cup of shrimp 1 cup of greens 1 cup of noodles (try whole grain) 1 cup of homemade or low sodium broth 1 orange 1 cup of tea, coffee or water


Beef and vegetable stir fry: 1 cup of vegetables (carrots, baby corn, mushrooms, broccoli) ½ a cup of sliced lean beef ½ a cup of rice (try brown rice) 1 cup of salad with 1 Tbsp of oil-based salad dressing


1 (60 g) steamed meat bun 1 cup of green tea or hot water

Choosing healthy fats

In addition to the four food groups, it is also important to include healthy fats in your diet. People with diabetes are at higher risk for heart disease so choosing better fats is important. Healthy fats are found in:

  • oils (olive, canola, sunflower, soybean)
  • nuts
  • seeds
  • avocado
  • oily fish such as salmon 

Try to limit saturated fats such as butter, lard, shortening, palm oil and coconut oil. You can also lower saturated fat by choosing lean meat, fresh fish, skinless poultry and low-fat milk products. Choose lower fat cooking methods such as baking, broiling, barbequing or roasting.

Cook with less oil. Limit deep-fried foods such as egg rolls, spring rolls, fried wontons, fried fish and fried noodles.

Choosing carbohydrates

Carbohydrate is a word for foods that have starch, sugar and fibre. The type and amount of carbohydrate you eat and when you eat it is important. Having too much carbohydrate in a meal can cause your blood sugar to go too high. Your personal meal plan will have the right levels of carbohydrate for you.

If you have diabetes, choose more high-fibre foods. A type of fibre called soluble fibre may help control blood sugar levels.

Try these high-fibre foods:

  • Vegetables: mushroom, bok choy, gai lan, broccoli, corn, lotus root, sweet potato, taro, water chestnuts, squash, snow peas, baby corn
  • Fruits: apple, banana, durian, berries, mandarins, grapes, guava, longans, lychees, mango, melon, persimmon, pear
  • Grains: bread, buns, cereal, oatmeal, crackers, rice and noodles made from whole grain whole wheat or brown rice
  • Legumes: dried mung beans, adzuki beans, kidney beans, black eyed peas, lentils, peas, soybeans (edamame)
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, sesame seeds

Limit foods such as:

  • Jam, sugar and honey
  • Sesame paste, walnut paste and almond paste
  • Sweetened mung bean soup and red bean soup
  • Ice cream (green tea, red bean and sesame)
  • Chocolate and candy
  • Baked goods
  • Deep fried snacks like shrimp chips and wasabi peas
  • Sesame pastry
  • Sweet buns like red beans buns, taro buns, lotus buns.
  • Egg tarts
  • Glutinous rice balls

These foods are mostly fat and sugar. They can make your blood sugar levels go too high. You should also limit sweet sauces such as honey garlic, sweet and sour and plum sauce. Talk to your dietitian about the type and amount of sweet foods that can fit into your meal plan.

Cut back on salt

Choose fewer foods that are dried, salted, pickled and fermented. They are high in sodium and can make your blood pressure go too high. Also limit salty condiments such as:

  • Soy sauce
  • Miso paste/soybean paste
  • Fish sauce or fish paste
  • Teriyaki sauce
  • Oyster sauce
  • Hoisin sauce
  • Black bean sauce

Bottom line

By making small changes to traditional recipes, you can still enjoy your favourite foods. To help manage your blood sugar levels, follow Canada’s Food Guide and your personal meal plan. Choose more high fibre foods and the right types of fat.


Last Update – October 13, 2020

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