Nutrition Articles

Eating with Diabetes: Desserts and Sweets

Can You Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too?

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I’d be willing to bet that most everyone has been told—and therefore believes—that people with diabetes cannot have any sugar and are resigned to living without dessert for the rest of their lives. Well, as a Certified Diabetes Educator, I'm here to tell you that this is a myth. People with diabetes can eat sugar, desserts, and almost any food that contains caloric sweeteners (molasses, honey, maple syrup, and more). Why? Because people with diabetes can eat foods that contain carbohydrates, whether those carbohydrates come from starchy foods like potatoes or sugary foods such as candy. It’s best to save sweets and desserts for special occasions so you don’t miss out on the more nutritious foods your body needs. However, when you do decide to include a sweet treat, make sure you keep portions small and use your carbohydrate counting plan

No sugar ever again? No way!
The idea that people with diabetes should avoid sugar is decades old. Logically, it makes sense. Diabetes is a condition that causes high blood sugar. Sugary foods cause blood sugar levels to increase. Therefore people with diabetes should avoid sugary foods in order to prevent hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and keep their diabetes under control. However, simply avoiding sugary foods does not go very far in terms of controlling blood sugar. Here's why.

After you eat, your blood sugar level (aka postprandial blood glucose level) is largely determined by the total amount of carbohydrate you ate, not the source of the carbohydrates eaten. There are two types of carbohydrates that elevate your blood sugar levels: sugar and starch. Both will elevate your blood glucose to roughly the same level (assuming you ate the same amount of each). For example, if you were to eat a ½ cup of regular ice cream (15 grams of carbohydrate), your blood sugar would rise roughly the same amount as if you had eaten 1 slice of whole wheat bread (also 15 grams of carbohydrate). Because of this, it makes no sense that you can eat one type of carbohydrate (starch) but not the other (sugar).

It is important to remember that while foods with sugar in them can be incorporated into a diabetes meal plan with little impact on blood glucose control, most sweets and dessert are high in calories and have little to no nutritional value. So, while it is entirely possible to work these foods into any diabetes meal plan, they are still food choices that should be considered “treats” and should be eaten in limited quantities. This is also true regardless of the type of sweetener you choose to consume. "Natural" sweeteners (honey, agave syrup, cane sugar, etc.) still contain carbohydrates that elevate your blood sugar level and should not be thought of as any healthier for people with diabetes than other sweeteners.

For optimal blood sugar control, use these sweet tips for sweet treats:
1. Budget your meal carbs. When the urge for a sweet treat hits, use some of your meal’s carbohydrate budget for a small dessert. This is the beauty of carbohydrate counting—the ability to use your carbohydrate allotment for any carbohydrate you choose. A typical carbohydrate allotment for one meal is usually around 45-60 grams (3-4 servings). If you would like to have a slice of pumpkin pie with your meal, for example, incorporate the amount of carbohydrate in the slice of pie into your total carbohydrate budget for the meal. One slice of pumpkin pie (1/8 of an 8-inch pie) contains roughly 23 grams of carbohydrate (1 ½ servings). Simply adjust your intake at meal time to account for your upcoming dessert. In this example, you'd still have 22-37 grams of carbohydrates (1 1/2 to 2 1/2 servings) remaining, which you can spend on more nutrient-rich, carbohydrate containing foods.

2. Snack attack. Most people with diabetes are able to enjoy 1-3 snacks throughout the day, spending 15 to 30 grams (1 to 2 servings) of carbohydrates on each snack. Instead of eating dessert with your meal, you could satisfy your sweet tooth during snack time by enjoying a dessert item that fits into your snacking budget. Just remember to eat it at least 2 hours after your meal.

3. Use low- and non-calorie sweeteners wisely. Some people with diabetes prefer to rely on artificial sweeteners as a way to cut down on carbohydrate intake. If you enjoy desserts, candies or recipes made with these non-caloric sweeteners, that's fine. But don't forget to account for the carbohydrates that may still be in the food you are eating. Packaged cookies with "no added sugars," candies made with artificial sweeteners, or homemade cookies baked with stevia are NOT carbohydrate-free foods. Be sure to read labels and still account for the carbohydrates you are consuming, whether the foods contain sugar or not. You can even use the free recipe calculator at SparkRecipes.com to find out exactly how many calories and carbohydrates are in your homemade treats!

4. Keep sweets away.  If you tend to overeat on sweets, don’t buy them in large amounts to store at home or at work. Instead, plan to have dessert only when away from home. Purchase a single-serving or split a larger dessert with a friend. Check out the nutrition facts of your sweet treat to stay on track with your carb counting plan.  

5. Step up your physical activity. Along with the carbohydrates, many desserts also add extra fat and calories as well. Consider incorporating some extra physical activity on, before, or after the days that you splurge on sweets. Exercising to burn more calories can help with weight management and blood sugar control.

6. Always monitor.  When consuming foods high in sugar, be diligent with monitoring your blood sugar level throughout the day. You may notice that some carbohydrate-containing foods increase your levels more than others--even when you eat the same grams of carbohydrates. If your levels are slightly higher, work with your health professional or Certified Diabetes Educator to obtain an individualized plan. Your educator will be able to tweak your plan and provide additional food suggestions to meet your specific needs for optimal blood sugar control.

7.  You’re Not Alone.  Everyone needs to limit sugar intake, not just folks with diabetes.  In fact, cutting back on the sweet stuff is one of the main messages in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The new sugar guideline encourages everyone to develop a healthy eating pattern that limits added sugars to less than 10 percent of total calories per day.
The following chart shows the average carbohydrate-count and proper serving size for some common sweets and desserts. Use it as a reference when selecting sweets, but always refer to package nutritional labels whenever possible for best accuracy. Remember, having diabetes does not mean you will never have birthday cake or pumpkin pie again. With a little planning, you can have a small serving of your favorite dessert once in a while and still manage your diabetes.

Chart information: (15 grams = 1 carbohydrate serving)

 Food  Serving Size  Carbohydrates
Apple pie 1/8 of pie 40 g (2 1/2 servings)
Banana bread 1 slice 33 g (2 servings)
Brownie, plain 2-inch square 15 g (1 serving)
Cake without frosting 2-inch square 15 g (1 serving)
Chocolate candy bar with almonds 1.45 oz bar 22 g (1 1/2 servings)
Chocolate-coated peanut butter granola bar 1 bar 15 g (1 serving)
Chocolate-covered peanuts 12 pieces 23 g (1 1/2 servings)
Coconut cream pie 1/8 of pie 31 g (2 servings)
Cinnamon coffee cake with crumb topping 1 piece 29 g (2 servings)
Cookie, molasses 1 large (3-1/2") 23 g (1 1/2 servings)
Cookies, general 2 small 15 g (1 serving)
Cupcake, low-fat with frosting 1 small 29 g (2 servings)
Frozen yogurt, regular 1/2 cup 15 g (1 serving)
Fudge 1 sq. in. piece 15 g (1 serving)
Glazed yeast doughnut or sweet roll 1 medium 30 g (2 servings)
Gummy bears or drops 11 pieces 23 g (1 1/2 servings)
Ice cream, light 1/2 cup 15 g (1 serving)
Pudding, sugar-free 1/2 cup 15 g (1 serving)
Pumpkin pie 1/8 of pie 23 g (1 1/2 servings)
Rice pudding 1/2 cup 22 g (1 1/2 servings)
Sherbet, orange 1/2 cup 23 g (1 1/2 servings)
Snickers bar 2 oz bar 35 g (2 servings)

This article has been reviewed and approved by Becky Hand, Licensed and Registered Dietitian.

Sources:
Carbohydrate Counting, from Diabetes.org
USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, from USDA.gov


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Member Comments

  • I really needed this! Thank you . . . finally, it makes sense!
  • Excellent article. I have noticed that that 15 gram is just enough to take care of a craving. I am going to incorporate this new information into my plan
  • Great article, good information to add to my knowledge base.
  • I wanted to comment on another article, about foods that are free for diabetes but couldn't (no comment section) so I came here. I read this article and now I'm really furious. This is about Type 2 diabetes and I really wish these so called experts would stop using the term diabetes!!! Diabetes has many different forms and depending what type you have, that will tell you what foods you can eat, your diet etc. I'm sick of hearing about Type 2 and having it hailed as THE DIABETES and it's NOT!! Type 1 is far more prevalent, it is an auto-immune disease and everything about it is very different than Type 2. So how about far play, how about experts such as this author also focusing on TYPE 1!!!!
  • EHPEHP
    As a diabetic, this article is horse manure, written by a non-diabetic I suspect. I just read an article where healthcare "professionals" cited that diabetics can have 75g of carbs per meal. All the comments from diabetics were in disbelieve, all stating that they had to stay under 10 carbs in order to maintain control of blood sugar.

    A huge problem we diabetics face is the out right lies so called "professionals", like this author, inflict upon us. And, they make a boat ass load of money off us us diabetics with their drivel.
  • Yea, she recycles this nonsense about once a year.

    But hey, she's a licensed and registered dietician. No need to re-examine her outdated training.

    Watch this.

    https://www.you
    tube.com/watc
    h?v=gmC4Rm5cpOI
  • I would love if I could eat as many carbs as this article suggests. Maybe my diabetes is a different sort of animal. To stay off medication I had to really eliminate a lot of foods like rice, potatoes, flour.
  • This is just wrong on several levels. Type 2 diabetes is caused by something called "insulin resistance". When we eat any carb, it ends up in our bloodstream as "blood sugar" or glucose. The body senses the rise in the level of glucose and causes the pancreas to release insulin. Insulin then assist the cells to absorb the glucose out of the blood into the cells for use as an energy source.

    With Type 2 diabetes, what (usually) happens is that we eat too much sugar (or carbs, which are broken down into sugar) TOO QUICKLY. When that happens, too much sugar enters the bloodstream, forcing the pancreas to release a LOT of insulin. At some point the cells become "insulin resistant" meaning that the insulin doesn't work "as well" any more. So the pancreas has to interject even MORE insulin , causing even more insulin resistance etc.

    There are additional things going on, including fat cells giving off chemicals which trick the brain and so forth but for this discussion we are going to concentrate just on the glucose / insulin cycle.

    What is important here (for this discussion) is that simple carbs (sugars) enter the bloodstream extremely quickly. The more sugar eaten, the more sugar in the bloodstream, the more insulin released. At some point the pancreas "wears out" and can no longer create enough insulin to deal with the high sugar levels and the diabetic has to start injecting additional insulin.

    NOTE that this is NOT a good answer. The cells themselves are insulin resistant, and high levels of insulin CAUSE insulin resistance, so simply injecting more insulin into the body is only going to make the insulin resistance worse.

    The right answer is to not consume sugars or simple carbs. I am sure that anyone with diabetes has run into "glycemic index". That is simply a measure of the difficulty of extracting the carbs from the surrounding foods. Pretty much all plant material has some carbs, but some require no work at all to extract (think sugar / honey / grape juice). Those are called "high glycemic index" carbs...
  • I'm sorry but I do not agree with consuming refined sugars of any kind . I do however consume natural sugars from fruit and vegetables except potatoes . Potatoes send my blood sugar levels through the roof , and I feel really poorly . I think that this advice is flawed . I know the modern idea is to eat sugar containing foods but I prefer to err on the side of caution and avoid sugar containing foods .
  • I am able to keep my blood sugar low by eating a low carb, high fat diet.

    70% fat
    15% protein
    15% carbs

    Eating lots of vegetables, healthy fats, meats and a small amount of low glycemic fruit allows me to have stable low blood sugars.
  • Miamojo and Wildkat are sooo right. For me personally the whole '30 to 45 grams of carbs a meal' is a recipe for disaster. I eat about 50 g of carbs a DAY and that helps me feel good. And it helps me lose weight! Any more and I can't lose weight no matter how few calories I eat. When are they going to realize that Type 2 is caused by insulin resistance and thus by eating carbs and not tell people they can just go on doing that and thus making it worse and worse? I just stopped going to my diabetes education class because they were spouting the same nonsense and when I tried it it was worse then ever before and my numbers were terrible!!! If you're diabetic, don't just blindly do what the 'specialists' tell you. Use a blood sugar monitor to check what keeps you low and what doesn't, and keep a diary of what foods make you feel okay in the short -and- long term and what foods don't. Despite the specialists' nonsense not each body processes carbs (or possibly other things) the same.
  • JOHNMN1952
    At my doctor's recommendation, I started working with a diabetes nutritionist. I was very surprised when she said I could have 60 carbs per meal and either two 30 carb or three 20 carb snacks per day. We set calorie and carb goals AND exercise goals. In 6 months I have lost 39 lbs and my A1C went from 6.8 to 5.1 . Technically I am no longer diabetic although I need to stay with my new lifestyle if I want to stay off medication.

    I had just crossed from pre diabetic to diabetic when I started working with the nutritionist. Goals and recommendations would probably be different for someone with a higher A1C or who had been diabetic longer. I really recommend finding a nutritionist who specialized in diabetes and finding time for 20 minutes of exercise 6 days a week.

    It can be done.

    Good Luck!
  • Over the past couple of years, I've been seeing more and more written about how those with type 2 diabetes can go off their diabetes meds completely by following a low-carb diet, essentially resolving the condition. Not something radical like Atkins, but a diet where the majority of carbohydrates come from vegetables. Are desserts and carbs really worth having type 2 diabetes for? Are they really worth risking serious health consequences for? It's possible to eliminate a craving for sweets and carbs. If a person has a problem with carbohydrate metabolism -- which is what type 2 diabetes is -- why keep telling them it's OK to continue eating more carbs than their body needs or can handle? Why control a disease with meds when you can resolve it instead? I saw this happen with a close friend who was considerably overweight and had type 2 diabetes. She followed a very healthy low-carb diet, and within several months she was able to go off the diabetes meds, get rid of her intense sugar and carb cravings, and lose more weight than she'd ever been able to on previous attempts.

About The Author

Amy L. Poetker Amy L. Poetker
Amy Poetker is a licensed and registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with a master's degree in dietetics. Amy, who has spent most of her career working in diabetes education, is dedicated to the treatment of that disease and the prevention of related complications. See all of Amy's articles.