sugar, carbohydrates and diabetes

sugar, carbohydrates and diabetes

There are mixed messages out there when it comes to eating a healthful diet with diabetes.  Store shelves are filled with sugar-free treats marketed to the diabetic population and there is no shortage of quick-fix diet advice in the media.  We all know and love someone who is managing diabetes, so separating myth from fact can help us support them in making the best possible choices.

Myth:  A diabetic diet requires special “diabetic foods”.

Fact:  A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins and dairy is perfect for everyone, which certainly makes life easier, doesn’t it?  Carbohydrates have the greatest impact on blood sugar, so choosing nutrient-dense carbohydrate options such as fruit, whole grains, starchy vegetables, and dairy and spacing them throughout the day will help to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.

Myth:  Sugar is not allowed in a diabetic diet.

Fact:  Many years ago, I made the mistake of bringing a “diabetic birthday cake” to an office party.  For those who were in attendance and may be reading this now, I’m very sorry (again).  Many foods marketed to those with diabetes are made with sugar alcohols – in the case of this cake, mannitol – which I now know can cause intestinal upset for many people!  Sugar alcohols and other sugar substitutes can be good choices for people wanting something sweet without the sugar, but try them out in small quantities to make sure they agree with you first.

As far as sugar goes, a small portion of the real thing can fit into a healthy eating pattern.  The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that less than 10% of calories come from added sugars, and this applies to everyone, not just those with diabetes.  Using a 2000 calorie per day diet as an example, 10% equates to about 50 grams of added sugar.  A 12 ounce can of soda has close to 40 grams of added sugar, so this really puts things into perspective.

Myth:  All sugar is created equal.

Fact:  This is a tricky one.  Eventually, sugar from all carbohydrate sources will be broken down and generate a rise in blood glucose.  And this is not a bad thing, because glucose fuels our brains and is a critical element of our metabolic processes.  We get to choose the fuel, so pick the carbohydrates that help maintain your health and energy.  Consider how the following stack up to the 140 calorie can of soda with 39 grams of carbohydrates from sugar:

  • 1 cup of strawberries provides fiber, antioxidants, potassium, and folate for 50 calories and 11 grams of carbohydrates
  • 1 cup of 1% milk provides protein, calcium, vitamins A & D, B vitamins, and potassium for 100 calories and 12 grams of carbohydrates
  • 1 small sweet potato provides fiber, vitamin A, potassium, and a host of other vitamins and minerals for 90 calories and 20 grams of carbohydrates

Here are a few other tips to help all of us, managing diabetes or not, maintain healthy blood sugar levels:

  1. Take it outside:  going for a walk before or after a meal allows our bodies to put extra blood sugar to good use, and regular exercise can actually improve insulin sensitivity and blood flow.
  2. Eat regular meals:  skipping meals can lead to low blood sugar followed by overeating and high blood sugar at the next meal.
  3. Space things out:  allow at least two hours between meals and snacks to give your body time to clear the last meal before having to respond to the next.

For more ideas and lots of recipes, check out Oldways (especially if you enjoy Mediterranean food), MyPlate, and the American Diabetes Association.


United States Department of Agriculture. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines: Answers to Your Questions. website. Updated January 7, 2016. Accessed January 31, 2016.

United States Department of Agriculture. Food Tracker. Supertracker website. Accessed March 6, 2016.