Diabetes = no desserts, right? Thankfully, no! While you probably shouldn’t house a pint of Ben & Jerry’s every night, there’s still room for sweets in your diet.
TBH, you can eat anything you want (including Cherry Garcia) as long as you do it in moderation. But thanks to hidden sugars, surprise carbs, and misleading serving sizes, it’s not always easy to tell which desserts will skyrocket your blood sugar.
Here are a few tips to keep your blood glucose numbers steady and your sweet tooth satisfied.
Sugar is sugar is sugar!
There is some confusion about “natural” sugars vs. “refined” sugars.
Natural sugars are found in milk, fruit and fruit juices, honey, agave nectar, and maple syrup. These sugars are usually said to be “healthier” than refined sugars like white sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
Many organic products boast the use of rice syrup as a natural sweetener, but it has more calories and carbs than white sugar and a much higher glycemic index. Because rice syrup is not as sweet as white sugar, you have to add more of it to get the same taste.
The truth is, your body treats all these sugars the same way, and they all can raise your blood glucose.
White sugar, or sucrose, comes from a “natural” source such as sugarcane or sugar beets. It’s purified to remove all the molasses and any other components of the plants.
A better way to distinguish the sugars in your diet is to compare those that are naturally occurring in a nutritious package, such as the sugar (lactose) in milk or the fructose in whole fruit, to the sugars that are added to processed foods and drinks.
The American Heart Association and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugars to only 100 calories per day for women and 150 calories per day for men.
Unfortunately, added sugar is amazing at the undercover spy game. Since it has many different names, you have to read labels carefully to make sure you’re not getting a secret dose of sweetness.
On a nutritional label, sugar might be called:
- malt syrup
- maple syrup
- white granulated sugar (sucrose) or cane sugar
- agave nectar
- high-fructose corn syrup
- rice syrup
Basically, if it ends in “-ose” or the name includes “syrup,” be mindful of how that sugar fits into your meal plan. Which leads us to…
Know your serving sizes
Nutritional labels are tricky little buggers. Sometimes you’ll read a label and see 4 grams of carbs and 2 grams of sugar per serving. Hooray! But they get you on the serving size.
That pint of Ben & Jerry’s we mentioned earlier? That’s not two servings (or one, if you’re having a bad day). It’s four! When was the last time you ate one-quarter of a pint of ice cream?
The American Diabetes Association recommends limiting your servings of sugary foods to 15 to 30 grams of total carbs. That’s about 1/2 cup of traditional ice cream or a 2-inch square of a brownie.
It’s not much, but the important thing is not to mindlessly nosh on sweets, which can be difficult because they’re so delicious and abundant in our food supply.
Serving size is also important with nutritious foods like fruit. Though fruit has a fair amount of natural fructose, it’s also packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals. That fiber helps you digest the fruit more slowly, so the fructose doesn’t spike your blood sugar.
The ADA recommends the following serving sizes: a small piece of whole fruit, 1/2 cup of frozen or canned fruit, or 2 tablespoons of unsweetened dried fruit.
Use the Force… er, the glycemic index
Since there are so many kinds of sugar (all of which affect blood glucose), an easy way to pick a dessert is to use the glycemic index. The GI ranks foods based on how quickly they break down into sugar in your bloodstream.
If you choose a food with a low glycemic index (under 55 is best), you can eat a little more of it. If you choose a high roller, you’ll have to savor a smaller serving.
(Interested in a low-GI diet? We got you.)
Cherries, grapefruits, pears, and apples all have a low GI, while canned fruits, pineapples, and grapes have a higher GI. If you start talking doughnuts, they rank even higher.
So, if you’re in the mood for a dessert, get apple-picking. If you want a little something sweet, enjoy a mini doughnut.
Log those carbs
Sugar and carbs, carbs and sugar — isn’t it all the same? Not quite. Carbohydrates are an organic compound found in many foods, such as certain starches, fibers, and sugars.
Translation: Sugar is a carb, but carbs encompass a lot more than just sugars.
If you keep track of all your carbs, you’ll have a better idea of what you can have for dessert.
Even if you choose fresh fruit after eating a bowl of pasta topped with sugar-laden pasta sauce and French bread, the high total carb load is still going to send your blood sugar on a roller-coaster ride.
When you log your total carbs, you won’t have any surprises. Plus, if you’ve had a lower-carb day, you might be able to eat a higher-carb dessert while keeping your numbers in range.
Water is the perfect carb-free drink, so if your ideal dessert is a bowl of ice chips, go for it!
OK, the idea of chomping on ice isn’t as magical as swan-diving into a chocolate milkshake. But water can play a big role in how you enjoy dessert.
When your blood glucose levels are high, your body goes through lots of water to try to flush out the extra sugar. It’s really important to drink enough H2O so you don’t get dehydrated.
Drinking water won’t magically reduce the amount of carbs or sugars in a dessert, but it will help your body process the glucose. So enjoy a tall glass with that treat.
Take a post-dessert walk
“Boy, that was good ice cream. Now it’s time for a run,” said no one in the history of time.
You don’t have to throw on your jogging shoes every time you have dessert, but gentle exercise can help lower your blood sugar after you eat a sweet food.
Your blood sugar naturally spikes after a meal, and the higher the carbs, the higher the spike. According to one study, exercising about 30 minutes after a meal can help regulate your blood sugar. The exercise doesn’t need to be intense — just a brisk walk will do.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should eat five Twinkies and try to run it off. Moderation is still key, but exercise is an extra tool in your blood sugar-regulation kit.
Seek out an expert
Everyone is different, so one person’s perfect dessert might send someone else’s blood sugar to the moon.
If you have questions, and especially if you’re having any problems, check with your healthcare provider or seek out a registered dietitian to help you design an eating plan that’s right for your health goals.
To have your cake and not have a spike, too, watch out for some of these common blood sugar landmines.
Trusting labels that look healthy
If a dessert’s packaging says “organic,” “all-natural,” “low sugar,” or “no added sugars,” it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good choice. There are all kinds of desserts in the grocery store with healthy-looking labels that contain all kinds of sugary traps.
No matter what the label says on the front, check the back! The nutritional label will tell you exactly what’s in that food.
Eating sweets between meals
You’re starving, and that snack machine is calling your name. When you haven’t eaten anything and you go straight to dessert, it hits your bloodstream faster.
Eating fruit on an empty stomach is less of a problem since it has that built-in fiber, but other sweets can be tough if you’re running on empty.
Combining a fruit serving with a source of protein and heart-healthy fat, like an apple with a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter, may limit the effect on your blood glucose.
Try a cup of lower-sugar, higher-protein Greek yogurt topped with fresh berries, nuts, and a few dark chocolate chips to satisfy that sweet tooth without spiking your glucose levels.
Reaching for refined sugars… all the time
Refined sugary stuff is everywhere (booooo!), but as long as you count your carbs and stay aware of portions, you can have that refined stuff on occasion.
Because processed foods are typically easy to get, make, and eat, you might find yourself reaching for them often. Instead of falling into that trap, find a healthy alternative that’s fast and easy.
Sure, an apple might not fulfill the same craving as a cookie. But maybe some homemade low-carb dark chocolate mini muffins could help fill the void. Or some lovely roasted nuts. Or fresh pineapple.
Falling for natural sweeteners and sugar substitutes
Yes, honey is natural, but it’s still sugar. (Sorry, y’all — no way around it.) When it comes to natural sweeteners, go by the numbers. If the GI or carb count is high, use that product in moderation, whether it’s natural or not.
As for sugar substitutes, they’re a little trickier.
First, the good news: Artificial sugar won’t give you cancer. Those rumors have hung around because, in the 1970s, saccharin was potentially linked to causing cancer in male rats.
But after some thorough research, saccharin’s name was cleared. A 2015 literature review found no clear relationship between cancer risk and any artificial sweetener commonly used in the United States.
There’s also conflicting advice when it comes to using low- and no-calorie sweeteners to help control weight and blood glucose levels.
By replacing sugar-sweetened drinks with sugar-free versions, you can save some calories and avoid spiking your blood glucose. But if you pair that sugar-free choice with a candy bar or a package of cookies, there will be no benefit.
Since sugar substitutes have no calories or carbs, they’re often recommended to people living with diabetes as a perfect substitute. Sugar-free popsicles, gelatin, and sodas can be used for a sweet treat without worry.
Then there are sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols (sorbitol, xylitol, maltitol, and, you know, the other -tols) have half the calories of sugar and contain carbs our bodies can’t digest.
Since your body can’t process the carbs in sugar alcohols, they don’t spike your blood sugar. But sugar alcohols can cause gas and diarrhea, and there’s some evidence they still raise blood sugar in people with diabetes.
Because they’re not as sweet as sucralose or aspartame, it takes more of these sugar alcohols to get that same sweet taste.
Does that mean you should banish all artificial sweeteners from your life? Meh, not really. Just like everything else, they’re fine in moderation.
You just can’t use the “sugar-free” label as an excuse to eat with abandon. “No sugar added” or even “sugar-free” does not mean carb-free!
Since reading labels is so important (and not always easy), here’s a quick decoder of the key things you need to look out for in your food.
This is the most important number of all! The “total carbohydrates” number includes sugars, starches, and fiber, so it gives you a much better idea than looking at the sugar number alone.
Try to keep the carbs to about 15 to 30 grams in a sweet treat, or keep them within your daily allowance.
Sometimes a food will say it’s sugar-free but still be high in calories. Obviously you want to keep your calories in the range that will help you maintain your healthy weight, so be careful not to use a whole meal’s worth of calories on a sweet food.
Serving size can be hard to spot, but it’s right up at the top. Even when all the other numbers look great, if the serving size is 1 tablespoon and you eat 2 cups, you’ll be in trouble.
Sometimes it seems obvious that the food is one serving (say, a small bag of chips), but you never know. We’ve seen everything from frozen dinners to granola bars listed as two servings when the average person would eat the entire package, so always check.
Ingredients to watch out for
Added sugars must be listed in the ingredients on any processed-food packaging. The ingredients listed first are the ones that are present in the highest amounts. If you see several types of sugar near the top of the ingredient list, move on to another option.
Fun fact: If you slice some sweet apples (like Galas or Pink Ladies) and cook them with butter and cinnamon, they’ll taste beautifully sweet without any added sugar.
Now that we’ve whet your appetite, here are some other lovely dessert options: