Key Takeaways

  1. Diet plays a significant role in managing diabetes, affecting blood sugar levels.
  2. Carbohydrates in food are broken down into sugars, impacting blood sugar levels.
  3. Type 2 diabetes involves insulin production or insulin resistance issues, leading to high blood sugar.
  4. Differentiating between simple and complex carbohydrates helps make healthier dietary choices.
  5. The glycemic index helps identify how foods affect blood sugar levels.
  6. Added sugars and artificial sweeteners can negatively impact diabetes management.
  7. Reading food labels is crucial to identify added sugars in products.
  8. Cooking homemade meals allows for better sugar control and healthier choices.
  9. Swapping sugary treats for fruit can satisfy cravings without blood sugar spikes.
  10. Opting for unsweetened products and managing portions helps control sugar intake and blood sugar levels.

Navigating diabetes can be a daunting task. Adequate diabetes management involves a combination of lifestyle changes, such as diet and exercise, often with one or more types of medications. It can be difficult to keep track of everything that you should be doing for optimal health, specifically when it comes to diet.

When it comes to diabetes and diet, there is one recurring theme that constantly comes up: sugar. While most of us think of sugar in terms of sweet treats like candy, cake, and pastries, sugar encompasses much more than that. All types of sugar can affect your blood sugar levels, and as a consequence, your diabetes. This article will explain the best types of sugars and foods for diabetes to help you keep your glucose levels in check.

How does food impact sugar levels?

Diet has a major impact on blood sugar levels through the intake of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are broken down by the digestive system, converting them into sugars. Sugar is transported into the bloodstream, creating “blood sugar”.

When you eat food, specifically carbohydrates, your blood sugar increases. Your body responds to this increase by secreting insulin. Insulin is an important hormone implicated in regulating blood sugar for either energy or storage. With its release, the cells uptake the blood sugar, resulting in a decline in the sugar levels in your blood. The pancreas can also secrete glucagon, a separate hormone that communicates to the liver to release stored sugar. Together, these mechanisms balance blood sugar levels throughout the body.

How does diabetes impact sugar levels?

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body cannot make adequate amounts of insulin or becomes insulin resistant, meaning its response to insulin hormone is diminished. Over time, the body may stop producing insulin altogether, causing very high blood sugar levels. Prolonged periods of high blood sugar leads to health complications involving the heart, nerves, eyes, ears, feet, mouth, and more.

When trying to manage diabetes, it is important to understand how carbohydrates and sugars contribute to diabetes. Certain foods are better than others when it comes to carbs and sugar.

The different kinds of carbohydrates

When thinking about carbohydrates, we typically organize carbs into two categories: simple and complex carbohydrates. It’s important to remember that carbohydrates are made up of sugars, which relates to these categories. Simple carbohydrates are more basic, meaning that they only contain one sugar (monosaccharide) or two sugars (disaccharide). Because of their simple structure, the body can break these down with greater ease and at a quicker pace. Blood sugar then increases quickly, which is not good for diabetes.

Complex carbohydrates are exactly as they sound – a bit more complex. They contain more than one or two sugars, so the digestive system takes longer to break them down. As a result, your blood sugar increases more gradually. This steady rise in blood sugar is preferable for diabetes, as opposed to the spike caused by simple carbs. In addition, complex carbohydrates can also contain added benefits like fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

When thinking about carbs, you can also consider the glycemic index. The glycemic index provides a numeric value that represents how simple or complex a carb is. Higher glycemic foods have a high glycemic index (70 to 100). The digestive system breaks them down quickly, causing blood sugar spikes, which we know are bad. Lower glycemic foods have a low glycemic index (55 or lower). The digestive system breaks these down more slowly, causing more gradual increases in blood sugar. These are beneficial for diabetes but can also help with weight loss and inflammation.

What about “typical” sugar?

When most of us think of sugar, we don’t think of carbohydrates. When we think of sugar, things like candy and soda may come to mind. There are several places in your diet and food where sugar is found. It is found naturally in things like fruits and vegetables, but it is also frequently added to foods and drinks by manufacturers. Things that include sugar involve table sugar, honey, syrups, smoothies, fruit juices, and more. Additionally, sugar is often added to premade foods, drinks, and sauces.

Sugar: the good and the bad

Are some sugars better than others? The answer is yes. Sugars that are contained naturally in foods, such as those in fruits and vegetables, are better than added sugar. However, it is important to keep in mind that some fruits have more favorable sugar content than others. Fruits higher in sugar include mangoes, cherries, grapes, figs, watermelons, pears, and bananas. Fruits lower in sugar include guava, cantaloupe, raspberries, strawberries, and papayas. In general, adding fruit to your diet can provide nutrients and fiber. However, still eat fruit in moderation to avoid large impacts on your blood sugar.

Added sugars are sugars that food manufacturers incorporate while making the foods. Typically, these added sugars have a high glycemic load. If you recall, this means that these spike blood sugar more than other types of carbohydrates. Over time, added sugars can also worsen hemoglobin A1C (HbA1c levels) and other diabetic markers. Added sugars also provide no nutritional value (as compared to things like fruit, which are full of fiber and antioxidants). Essentially, added sugars are “empty calories”.

Artificial sweeteners can also be tricky. While artificial sweeteners will not increase blood glucose levels, they do induce an insulin response. Over time, this can cause insulin resistance, which is implicated in diabetes.

How can I spot added sugars?

The best way to understand the sugar content in your food is to read the labels. Although the food label will tell you the total amount of sugar, it can be unclear what type of sugars are added. That is why it is important to check the ingredient label. If a sugar is added, it will be listed here. However, it can be difficult to distinguish as sugars are referred to as many names. Outside of the word “sugar”, also look for the following terms: malt, juice, cane, syrup, agave, honey, glucose, sucrose, dextrose, and fructose. These all indicate added sugar.

When looking at the ingredient list, also pay attention to what items are listed first. The first ingredients listed are those that have the most content in the food. Those listed last are those that have the least content in food. If sugar is one of the first ingredients listed, that means that there is a lot!

How do I cut back on sugar?

Food manufacturers are very sneaky when it comes to adding sugars. As you get familiar with reading food labels, you will realize that many, if not most of your pre-packaged food has added sugar! This can be discouraging in your diabetes journey, as it may feel challenging to avoid sugar. However, we have the following tips if you are looking to cut back.

  • Make your own meals. There are so many benefits to cooking your food at home. For one, avoiding processed foods is a great way to lose weight or prevent weight gain. Additionally, making your own meals gives you control over every ingredient that you are eating. For example, if you are baking cookies from scratch, you can control exactly how much sugar you are putting in as well as the type of sugar. You may opt for a more natural sugar like honey or maple syrup, for example, versus cane sugar.
  • Swap out sugary treats for fruit. To get your sweet treat fix, you may normally reach for highly processed foods and candies with a ton of added sugar. It’s important to note, though, that there are other ways that you can satisfy your sweet tooth without compromising your diabetes. Reaching for things like fruit, particularly those with lower glycemic loads, can satisfy your cravings while preventing huge blood sugar spikes. To make it even better, you can add in some nuts for even better blood sugar control.
  • When in doubt, opt for unsweetened. Many pre-packaged products will have added sugars but also come in unsweetened versions. When reaching for your favorite product, always select the unsweetened one. If later on you want to add some extra sweetness, you can add in a natural sweetener and control the added amount. For example, if you like drinking almond milk, select the unsweetened almond milk. When you put it in things like coffee, you could always add some maple syrup or honey as needed.
  • Manage your portions. If you do go for a food that has higher sugar content, make sure to portion control. For example, if you decide to get dessert, try splitting it with someone to minimize your sugar intake. This way, you can still get your sweet fix without overly compromising your blood sugar.

Low Sugar Foods for Diabetes

When managing diabetes, choosing foods with lower sugar content can help regulate blood sugar levels. Here’s a list of low-sugar foods to consider:

Food CategoryLow-Sugar Options
VegetablesSpinach, broccoli, kale, asparagus, green beans
Fruits (moderation)Berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries)
Whole GrainsQuinoa, oats, barley, brown rice
ProteinsChicken, turkey, lean beef, tofu, fish
LegumesLentils, chickpeas, black beans
Dairy (low-fat/non-fat)Greek yogurt (unsweetened), low-fat milk, cheese
Nuts and SeedsAlmonds, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds
BeveragesWater, herbal teas, sparkling water

Remember to monitor portions and consult with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian for personalized dietary guidance.

There are several ways to help manage both your sugar intake and blood sugar levels. Just because you have diabetes does not mean you have to compromise on some of your favorite things, you just have to get creative.