Add "Free"dom to
Your Diabetes Meal Plan

Written by
Published in April 2008

( A person with diabetes may feel like their food choices are totally restricted. It's true that you have to pay more attention to what you eat when you have diabetes. But that doesn't mean you have to keep track of every single calorie and carb that you eat. Surprisingly, there are certain foods, called "free" foods, that can add flexibility to your meal plan.

What is a Free Food?

A free food is any food or drink that has less than 20 calories per serving and less than 5 grams of carbohydrates. They are different from sugar-free foods, which may still contain a significant amount of carbohydrates. Free foods do not affect your blood glucose levels. You can include free foods in your meal plan to help feel full without adding more carbs or calories. Free foods can be used to give spice and flavor to foods and be substituted for high-calorie foods that could jeopardize your diabetes management goals.

Free foods are included in the ADA (American Diabetes Association) Exchange Lists, a tool that's used for diabetes meal planning. Here's a list of free foods from ADA that can be part of any diabetes meal plan. The items without a serving size can be used in unlimited amounts. Other items that have a serving size are "free" as long as you eat no more than 2-3 servings per day.


  • Bouillon** or broth without fat
  • Bouillon, low sodium
  • Carbonated drinks, sugar-free (cola, ginger-ale, etc.)
  • Carbonated water
  • Club soda
  • Cocoa powder, unsweetened (1 tbsp.)
  • Coffee/tea
  • Drink mixes, sugar-free
  • Tonic water, sugar-free


  • Cranberries, unsweetened (1/2 cup)
  • Rhubarb, unsweetened (1/2 cup)

Vegetables (raw, 1 cup)

  • Cabbage
  • Celery
  • Chinese cabbage*
  • Cucumber
  • Green onion
  • Hot peppers
  • Mushrooms
  • Radishes
  • Zucchini*

Salad Greens

  • Endive
  • Escarole
  • Lettuce
  • Romaine
  • Spinach

Sweet Substitutes

  • Candy, hard, sugar-free
  • Gelatin, sugar-free
  • Gum, sugar-free
  • Jam/jelly, sugar-free (less than 20 cal/2 tsp.)
  • Pancake syrup, sugar-free (1-2 tbsp.)
  • Sugar substitutes (saccharin, aspartame)
  • Whipped topping (2 tbsp.)


  • Catsup (1 tbsp.)
  • Horseradish
  • Mustard
  • Pickles** dill, unsweetened
  • Salad dressing, low-calorie (2 tbsp.)
  • Taco sauces (3 tbsp.)
  • Vinegar

*3 or more grams of fiber per serving
** 400 mg or more of sodium per serving

The Bottom Line

If you are trying to lose weight, better manage your blood sugar levels, or just avoid high-calorie foods, add free foods to your diet. They can help you feel full without feeling deprived of food choices. Read labels to make sure you are getting a truly free food. And sit back and relax, have a bowl of crisp romaine topped with mushrooms, cucumbers and salad dressing, sip a glass of cool ice tea, and enjoy.

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Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or dietitian. Information and statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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