Skip to Content

Caribbean cuisine is a popular choice for many, including those from the region and those who have visited one of the numerous islands in the region. Healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle are important for everyone, but especially for people of African and Caribbean descent who are higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. However, “healthy” does not mean abandoning the flavours and tastes of the islands. It just means tweaking a few things, such as sodium, carbohydrates and sugar. With most of the customary ingredients of the region readily available across Canada, it’s easier than you might think.

Weight management: a key to good health

In addition to being among the groups at higher risk for type 2 (other groups include Aboriginal, Hispanic, South Asian, and Asian), many people of African and Caribbean descent also face the challenges of high blood pressure, which is more common. Plus, between work and family, it can sometimes be tough to be active. Weight gain, especially carrying extra weight around the middle, can increase the chances of developing type 2 diabetes, and can also make it more difficult to manage blood glucose (sugar) levels.

Quite often traditional foods are not unhealthy at all. It may just be the portion size that has to be modified, especially when we look at very starchy foods like rice and root vegetables,

says Joanne Lewis, a registered dietitian, and former healthcare provider education & engagement director at Diabetes Canada. “Having large portions of these foods or too many of them as part of the same meal may provide people with too much carbohydrate, leading to high blood sugar following the meal.”

In The Real Taste of Jamaica by Enid Donaldson, my “go-to” Jamaican cookbook, most recipes state “salt to taste,” says Zoe Barnett, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, and member of the Canadian Black Registered Dietitians Association (CBRDA). She recommends using either a measuring spoon or the same small spoon each time you add salt to a recipe, so you can measure the amount you are adding and gradually reduce it over time.

Barnett also offers these tips:

  • Add salt at the end of the cooking process instead of at each stage of cooking so that the final product has less added salt.
  • If you are using a salted meat or saltfish, soak it in water and drain it before cooking. Sometimes soaking and draining multiple times is required to remove enough of the salt before cooking. Remember: salt is a great preservative but it doesn't always have to end up in your body!
  • A slice or two of avocado (also called "pear") is an easy way to add healthy fats, fibre, folate, and potassium to any Caribbean meal. Skip the salt shaker though; the rest of the meal likely includes enough, so avoid adding extra salt at the table.

You can also replace some of the salt with spices and herbs that add flavour. Be mindful that seasonings, such as garlic salt, brown sauce, stock cubes, and curry powders and spices can add a lot of salt to a recipe so limit or avoid whenever possible.

Time for a change

Certain traditional dishes, though, may need some changes to lower carbohydrate, and also lower sodium or salt counts, which help with blood sugar and blood pressure management. For alternative carbohydrates, Radha J. Pooran, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, says,

Try steamed, baked, or boiled ground provisions—such as eddoes, cassava, yams, sweet potatoes, and dasheen—in place of rice, pasta, or roti.

(Ground provisions are root vegetables similar to potatoes but often higher in fibre.) Pooran also suggests these substitutions:

  • Use brown rice in dishes instead of white.
  • Replace regular white pasta with whole-wheat or multi-grain pasta.
  • When making roti or breads, replace half of the white flour with whole-wheat flour.
  • Beans are a great low-fat, high-fibre, high-protein food. Add them to soups, stews, or rice for a vegetarian friendly meal that will keep you feeling fuller longer.

Raise a glass

Drinks can be a great source of hydration but they can also be a place of added calories and sugar, says Barnett. “There are a variety of fruits that grow in the Caribbean: mango, papaya (also called pawpaw), passionfruit, guava, grapefruit, orange and lime to name a few.

Fruits can be a great source of hydration, vitamin A, vitamin C, and fibre. Fruit juices, fruit punches, and fruit drinks, on the other hand, can provide far more sugar and less fibre per serving than fruit. Coconut water, carrot drink and fruit punch may all sound like healthy options but be careful of added sugar, sweetened condensed milk and strawberry syrup that are often added to these drinks.

"For bottled or canned coconut water, check the nutrition facts and look for less than 10 g sugar per cup. Coconut water can be misleading since it naturally has sugar so you aren't going to find a ‘sugar-free’ version but much more than 10 g sugar per cup likely means extra sugar was added. Herbal teas (served hot or iced without added sugars or sweeteners) can be another great beverage choice. My favourites are cinnamint (cinnamon and mint), hibiscus (also called sorrel) and moringa mint.”

Eating West Indian-Style

Pooran offers a small sampling of well-known and popular foods from the Caribbean.

  • Rice and peas This staple is usually prepared with pigeon peas.
  • Roti Similar to wraps or tortillas, rotis were introduced to the Caribbean by islanders of Indian heritage in Trinidad and Guyana. They are usually made with white flour and filled with curried meat and/or vegetables. Some examples include dhalpuri (contains ground split peas), paratha (no peas), and sada (a plain flatbread) roti.
  • Callaloo/Callaloo bush Similar to spinach, this leafy green vegetable is used in a soup made with crab and okra.
  • Saltfish and Ackee Made of ackee fruit (which is available in tins at the supermarket) and saltfish (salt cod), this dish is popular in Jamaica. It is seasoned with onions, tomatoes, red peppers, and hot pepper.
  • Patties Filled with meat and/or vegetables, this flaky pastry is usually yellow in colour due to an egg yolk wash applied before baking.
  • Jerk Seasoning A Jamaican spice mix or marinade containing garlic, pepper, chives, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, salt, and/or soy sauce; it is often used on chicken.
  • Plaintain is part of the banana family. Savoury chips can be made from green unripe plantain. Yellow ripe ones can be fried, boiled or baked, and enjoyed as a side dish.
  • Pepperpot is a soup containing stewed meat, cassava root and other vegetables, and dumplings.
  • Saltfish cakes are fish fritters made from sailfish or codfish.
  • Okra Also known as ochro, these edible green pods are filled with sticky seeds. They can be fried or boiled and added to soups and stews.
  • Dumplings A staple through the Caribbean, they are made with flour and fried or baked in the oven. They are usually eaten with fish.

Barnett also offers this tip:

Change the ratio for rice and peas by adding more peas. Kidney beans were the ‘peas’ of choice in my house when I was growing up while pigeon peas were reserved for special occasions like Christmas and Easter. By changing the ratio you can increase the fibre and lower the glycemic index of the dish to better control the rate of digestion and blood glucose (sugar) management.

Last but certainly not least, “How can you talk about Caribbean cuisine without mentioning the scotch bonnet pepper?” asks Barnett. “It can spice up any dish and it's naturally low in sodium. Hot pepper sauce, in contrast, can have lots of salt added to it, so use the actual pepper (a little goes a looong way!) rather than the sauce.”


Enjoy these three recipes for a healthy taste of the Caribbean. For the vegans in the house, Barnett recommends the cookbook, Caribbean Vegan by Taymer Mason.

Caribbean Pumpkin Soup

This soup is based on a traditional recipe from Antigua. To reduce the carbohydrates, the author did not include potatoes, and to reduce the sodium, she did not add seasoning salt. The soup is meant to have a kick, so add more cayenne pepper if you wish. If you cannot find Caribbean pumpkin, substitute butternut squash. The recipe is adapted from 150 Best Indian, Asian, Caribbean and More Diabetes Recipes by Sobia Khan. It is available where books are sold.

  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) vegetable oil
  • 1 cup (250 mL) chopped onion
  • 1 cup (250 mL) finely chopped green cabbage
  • ½ cup (125 mL) finely chopped celery
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 lb. (1 kg) Caribbean pumpkin, cut into 1-inch (2.5 cm) cubes
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) finely chopped fresh thyme
  • 1/8 tsp (0.5 mL) cayenne pepper
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) salt
  • ¼ tsp (1 mL) freshly ground black pepper
  • 5 cups (1.25 L) water

In a large pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion, cabbage, celery, and bay leaves; cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes or until vegetables are softened. Add pumpkin, garlic, thyme, and cayenne; cook, stirring, for 3 minutes.

Stir in parsley, salt, black pepper, and water; bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes. Discard bay leaves.

Working in batches, transfer soup to blender or food processor (or use immersion blender in pot) and purée to desired consistency. Return to pot, if necessary, and reheat over medium heat, stirring often, until steaming.

Makes 7 servings

Nutritional breakdown per serving: 13 g carbohydrate, 2 g protein, 2 g total fat, 0 g saturated fat, 2 g fibre, 348 mg sodium, 73 calories

Bora Beans

Known as bora beans in Guyana, in other parts of the world these long, thin beans are called bodi beans, Chinese long beans, yard-long beans, or asparagus beans. They take longer to cook than the green beans most North Americans are familiar with, but they are worth it! This dish contains a smaller amount of potatoes than the traditional recipe to reduce the carbohydrate content and glycemic index. Only a small amount of oil is used in this dish, so adjust the heat as needed to ensure the onion and garlic do not stick. If necessary, add a bit of water to the pan, but no extra oil. The recipe is adapted from 150 Best Indian, Asian, Caribbean and More Diabetes Recipes by Sobia Khan.

  • 2 tsp (10 mL) vegetable oil
  • 1 cup (250 mL) chopped onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 5 cups (1.25 L) sliced bora beans (2-inch/5 cm pieces)
  • 2 cups (500 mL) chopped tomatoes
  • 1½ cups (375 mL) cubed peeled potatoes (½-inch/1 cm cubes)
  • ⅔ cup (150 mL) waters
  • ¾ tsp (3 mL) salt
  • ⅛ tsp (0.5 mL) freshly ground black pepper

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic; cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes or until onion is translucent.

Stir in bora beans, tomatoes, potatoes, and water; bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes or until beans and potatoes are tender. Stir in salt and pepper.

Makes 5 servings

Nutritional breakdown per serving: 23 g carbohydrate, 5 g protein, 2 g total fat, 0 g saturated fat, 2 g fibre, 362 mg sodium, 128 calories

Jamaican Barbecued Pork Tenderloin

Mayo Clinic Healthy Weight for Everybody (Mayo Clinic) offers this taste of the Caribbean. Pork tenderloin is as lean as chicken breast, with a milder, slightly sweet flavour. It is coated with a jerk-style spice rub and grilled or broiled. It has less salt than the original recipe.

  • 2 tsp (10 mL) firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) each ground allspice and ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp (2 mL) each ground ginger, onion powder, and garlic powder
  • ¼ tsp (1 mL) cayenne pepper
  • ⅛ tsp (0.5 mL) ground cloves
  • ½ tsp (2 mL) freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp (2 mL) salt, divided
  • 1 pork tenderloin, about 1 lb./500 g, visible fat trimmed
  • 2 tsp (10 mL) white vinegar
  • 1½ tsp (7 mL) dark honey
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) tomato paste

In a small bowl, combine brown sugar, allspice, cinnamon, ginger, onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, cloves, black pepper, and ¼ teaspoon (1 mL) of the salt.

Rub spice mixture over pork and let stand for 15 minutes. In another bowl, combine vinegar, honey, tomato paste, and the remaining salt. Whisk to blend. Set aside.

Heat a gas grill or broiler (grill) to medium-high or 400°F (200°C). Away from the heat source, lightly coat the grill rack or broiler pan with cooking spray. Position the cooking rack 4 to 6 inches from the heat source.

Grill or broil pork at medium-high heat, turning several times, until browned on all sides, or for 3 to 4 minutes total. Remove to a cooler part of the grill or reduce the heat, and continue cooking for 14 to 16 minutes. Baste with vinegar-honey glaze and continue cooking until pork is slightly pink inside and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part reads 160°F (70°C), or for 3 to 4 minutes longer. Transfer to a cutting board and let cool for 5 minutes before slicing. Slice crosswise into 16 pieces and serve.

Makes 4 servings

Nutritional breakdown per serving: 6 g carbohydrate, 24 g protein, 2 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 1 g fibre, 365 mg sodium, 143 calories

Baked Curried Beef and Sweet Potatoes

This dish is from the Complete Canadian Diabetes Cookbook by Katherine E. Younker (Robert Rose). Draining off the beef fat will decrease the fat content. To lower the sodium level, use no-added-salt or lower-sodium beef stock or broth.

  • 4 sweet potatoes
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) butter or margarine
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 tbsp (25 mL) chopped fresh parsley
  • 1tbsp (15 mL) vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) minced fresh ginger
  • 1 lb. (500 g) lean ground beef
  • 2 tbsp (25 mL) curry powder
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) each ground cumin and ground coriander
  • 2 cups (500 mL) beef stock
  • 2 tbsp (25 mL) tomato paste
  • ⅓ cup (75 mL) each raisins and slivered almonds

Pierce sweet potatoes several times with a fork. Bake in 400°F (200°C) oven for about 1 hour or until tender. (Or peel and cut in large chunks; then either boil in water for 20 minutes or microwave on high for 7 to 15 minutes.) Peel and mash with butter, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir in parsley. Transfer to 4-cup (1 L) casserole. (Potatoes can be covered and refrigerated for up to 1 day or frozen for up to 2 months. Thaw in refrigerator and bring to room temperature for 30 minutes before proceeding.)

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat; cook onion and ginger for 5 minutes. Add beef, breaking up with a spoon; cook until no longer pink, about 7 minutes. Drain off fat.

Stir in curry powder, cumin, and coriander. Add stock and tomato paste; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes or until most of the liquid has evaporated. Stir in raisins and almonds. Taste and adjust seasoning. Transfer to another 4-cup (1 L) casserole. (Beef mixture can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days, or frozen for up to 2 months; thaw in refrigerator and bring to room temperature for 30 minutes before proceeding.)

Reheat both casseroles, covered, in 350°F (180°C) oven for about 30 minutes or until bubbly. To serve, spoon sweet potatoes onto heated platter; make a well in centre and spoon in curried beef.

Makes 4 servings.

Nutritional breakdown per serving: 50 g carbohydrate, 29 g protein, 31 g total fat, 8 g saturated fat, 7 g fibre, 507 mg sodium, 583 calories

Did you know?

People of Caribbean descent have a higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Nutrition and lifestyle choices can make a difference. If you’re looking for more cooking inspiration, Diabetes Canada offers a range of healthy meal-planning tools including various plant-forward, carbohydrate-balanced and culturally inspired recipes and meal plans. For another culturally relevant resource, check out the 7-Day Caribbean Healthy Meal Plan.

This adapted article originally appeared in Diabetes Dialogue.




Author: Rosie Schwartz, RD, FDC

Category Tags: Healthy Living;

Region: National

Sign up & stay connected

Want to know what's happening in our diabetes community? Sign up for our national newsletter and stay up to date with all the latest news, resources, events, and more.

Related Content


Browse our delicious collection of savoury and sweet recipes

View recipes About Recipes

Tools & resources

Take charge of your health with tools and resources from Diabetes Canada, such as the glycemic index.

Get started About Tools & resources

Virtual learning

Learn more diabetes management tips and tricks by checking out one of our many options.

Get started About Virtual learning