Diabetes nutrition: Including sweets in your meal plan

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Diabetes nutrition: Including sweets in your meal plan

Diabetes nutrition focuses on healthy foods. But you can eat sweets once in a while without feeling guilty or significantly interfering with your blood sugar control. The key to diabetes nutrition is moderation.

The scoop on sugar

For years, people with diabetes were warned to avoid sweets. But what researchers understand about diabetes nutrition has changed.

  • Total carbohydrate is what counts. It was once assumed that honey, candy and other sweets would raise your blood sugar level faster and higher than would fruits, vegetables or "starchy" foods, such as potatoes, pasta or whole-grain bread. But this isn't true, as long as the sweets are eaten with a meal and balanced with other foods in your meal plan. Although different types of carbohydrate can affect your blood sugar level differently, it's the total amount of carbohydrate that really matters.
  • But don't overdo empty calories. Of course, it's still best to consider sweets as only a small part of your overall plan for diabetes nutrition. Candy, cookies and other sweets have few vitamins and minerals and are often high in fat and calories. You'll get more empty calories — calories without the essential nutrients found in healthier foods — when you eat sweets.

Have your cake and eat it, too

Sweets count as carbohydrates in your meal plan. The trick is substituting small portions of sweets for other carbohydrates — such as bread, tortillas, rice, crackers, cereal, fruit, juice, milk, yogurt or potatoes — in your meals. To allow room for sweets as part of a meal, you have two options:

  • Replace some of the carbohydrates in your meal with a sweet.
  • Swap a high-carb-containing food in your meal for something with fewer carbohydrates and eat the remaining carbohydrates in your meal plan as a sweet.

Let's say your typical dinner is a grilled chicken breast, a medium potato, a slice of whole-grain bread, a vegetable salad and fresh fruit. If you'd like a small frosted cupcake after your meal, look for ways to keep the total carbohydrate count in the meal the same. You may trade your slice of bread and the fresh fruit for the cupcake. Or replace the potato with a low-carbohydrate vegetable such as broccoli. Adding the cupcake after this meal keeps the total carbohydrate count the same. Just remember, dessert serving sizes can vary significantly, so try to estimate your carbohydrate count as accurately as possible.

To make sure you're making even trades, read food labels carefully, and be sure to ask your dietitian if you have any questions. Look for the total carbohydrate in each food, which tells you how much carbohydrate is in one serving of the food.

Consider sugar substitutes

As part of diabetes nutrition, artificial sweeteners can offer the sweetness of sugar without the calories. Artificial sweeteners may help you reduce calories and stick to a healthy meal plan — especially when used instead of sugar in coffee and tea, on cereal, or in baked goods. In fact, artificial sweeteners are considered free foods because they contain very few calories and don't count as a carbohydrate, a fat or any other food in your meal plan.

Examples of artificial sweeteners include:

  • Acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One)
  • Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet)
  • Saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet'N Low)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)

Artificial sweeteners don't necessarily offer a free pass for sweets.

  • Keep an eye out for calories and carbs. Many products made with artificial sweeteners, such as baked goods and artificially sweetened yogurt or pudding, still contain calories and carbohydrates that can affect your blood sugar level.
  • Sugar alcohols are not calorie-free. Sugar alcohols, another type of reduced-calorie sweetener, are often used in sugar-free candies, chewing gum and desserts. Check product labels for words such as "isomalt," "maltitol," "mannitol," "sorbitol" and "xylitol." Sugar-free foods containing sugar alcohols still have calories. And in some people, sugar alcohols can cause diarrhea.

Two naturally derived sweeteners, stevia (Truvia, Pure Via) and agave nectar, offer another option when it comes to sweetening your food. Keep in mind that the sugar-to-sweetener ratio is different for each product, so you may need to experiment until you find the taste you like. Also, agave nectar isn't calorie- or carbohydrate-free, so it shouldn't be considered for weight loss; but it has a lower glycemic index than does sugar, so it won't affect your glucose level as much.

Reconsider your definition of sweet

Diabetes nutrition doesn't have to mean no sweets. If you're craving them, ask a registered dietitian to help you include your favorite treats into your meal plan. A dietitian can also help you reduce the amount of sugar and fat in your favorite recipes. And don't be surprised if your tastes change as you adopt healthier eating habits. Food that you once loved may seem too sweet — and healthy substitutes may become your new idea of delicious.

Last Updated: 2013-07-10
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