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Nutrition Articles  ›  Special Concerns

Eating with Diabetes: Desserts and Sweets

Can You Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too?

-- By Amy Poetker, Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator
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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 just takes a good plan to fit sugar into your day. In this article, you'll learn how to incorporate sweets into a healthy diet when you have type 2 diabetes.

No sugar? 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.
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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.

Member Comments

  • 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. - 6/22/2014 6:59:22 AM
  • JJSDISCOUNTS
    Great Article! My girlfriend is a borderline diabetic and I found this article helpful. I have created a diabetic candy website to help others who want treats and do not have to search all over to get a large selection. I have tried many myself and they do not taste bad at all!
    John Sherack
    http://www.choc
    olatesforever
    .com - 2/15/2014 1:03:15 AM
  • I just found out that I am prediabetic and am a little freaked out. I have yo yo ed with my weight my entire life. That was about looking good. This is about how I will live or not through my elder years. I don't want to go through what I have witnessed firsthand with my mother....stroke.
    ...disability
    ....nursing home....diabetes.
    ...sores that won't heal. I am on the end of my 3rd day of cutting way down on carbs, eliminating ice cream, and stopping even fake sugar. - 11/1/2013 9:58:42 PM
  • I know this is a slightly older article - but - Please quit telling people these outdated "rules". Articles like this are the reason that so many diabetics can't control their blood sugar. A diabetic should have no more than 50 carbs per day...not per meal! Thank God I have a Doctor that understands your advise is dangerously outdated and put me on a low carb eating plan. Now my fasting sugar is under 90 and I never go over 111 during the day. Try doing that eating 45 carbs per meal. - 9/22/2013 9:51:20 PM
  • RUSTICHEALTHY
    Thank you, not usual to hear. I see some of the "outraged" comments :) but, I agree with you totally. Just to add, when I went organic, cravings actually stopped so I only have sweets once in a while. Usually I have snacks like nuts, organic raw cheese and fruit. I will make it a point of walking after eating as Millicent suggests. Nice idea too. - 8/8/2013 3:55:15 AM
  • Thank you so much for the clarification. - 7/29/2013 1:54:48 PM
  • I know from experience the truth of this article and I have personally been able to "reverse" diabetes from using an insulin pump to needing no medications for type 2 diabetes! It is a matter of taking control of the amount you eat and the amount of exercise and when it is taken. Exercise can actually work in place of insulin if you take a gentle 15 minute walk fairly soon after a meal. I don't mean vigorous exercise , just some form of activity. For me just doing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen and dining room after the meal works.

    I think it is "a crime" the way people think diabetics should be sentenced to a life with no desserts or only use of artificial sweeteners. I resent it when others attempt to control my diet and I am so glad I am the cook in our family! others seem to delight in making diabetics feel guilty if they want to eat like everyone else. I found this a very good article which bears out what I learned at a great life style change center I attended a few years ago. - 3/20/2013 12:52:57 PM
  • i am very disappointed in this article. telling people sugar is fine even if you are diabetic. please!

    my dh has type 2 diabetes. the nutritionist we met with and the paperwork we were given and the research i've done myself says a diabetic should have no more than 45-60 g of carbs per DAY (less if your blood sugar is consistently high), not per meal. and they shouldn't have more than 20-25 grams per meal. and these carbs should come from healthy vegetables and minimal whole grains.

    diabetes is a very serious disease. you cannot afford to take chances. your limbs, eyes and life are at stake. not worth a cookie or a brownie in my opinion.

    i have a friend who doesn't see it as a big deal that she has had to move from metformin to daily shots of insulin. she is overweight, smokes and eats donuts, cookies and such. i have to strictly ban her from bringing any of that crap into our house. your article seems to be written for people like her who need support of their unhealthy lifestyle choices.

    i think the members of spark are people who want to be as healthy as possible. you should be writing articles to support that goal of health.

    this is not such an article.
    thumbs down to you on this one. - 2/21/2013 4:25:00 PM
  • The idea that diabetics can consume a significant number of carbs is completely outdated and dangerous. Diabetes is a disease of carbohydrate intolerance. The fewer carbohydrates a diabetic eats the better. Carbohydrates are not an essential nutrient as the body only needs them in very small amounts in the brain and those can be made by our body through gluconeogenesis. For most people it is possible to completely reverse type 2 diabetes, pre-diabetes and metabolic syndrome just by reducing carbohydrate consumption to very low levels (somewhere between 0 and 50 for most). I'm saddened by the fact that the health of many people who innocently believe this article is at significant risk. For anyone who wants to learn more about the effects of carbohydrates join the low-carb and paleo/primal teams on Spark to learn more. - 2/21/2013 12:48:23 PM
  • It's honestly scary to think folks will read this article and believe this...When you see where the increase in sugar and junk carb consumption has gotten this world I think you'd see this is just not logical.

    I agree about the comments about dietitians and nutritionists. It's not just being wrong, it's damaging health and ultimately killing people. - 2/21/2013 11:54:41 AM
  • Wrong Wrong Wrong
    If you want to control your diabetes, go find other sources and read, read, read.
    Spark does a lot of good, but they need to wake up about this subject.
    PLEASE
    Do your own research, listen to your own body, pay attention to how you feel.
    Try to not believe everything you read either, TEST IT OUT YOURSELF!
    Food is fuel for our bodies-we need to use quality fuel.
    Trust me-I was the junk food queen for 45 years. I lived on sugar!!! Now, 15 years later, I eat no wheat, no sugar (except Stevia) and very little meat, corn, soy and dairy. Those things are not necessary for survival or even great taste! We eat gourmet meals.
    EVERYONE LOVES TO EAT AT OUR HOUSE!
    You can do this-trust yourself to find your own path if you really want to change, get healthier and control your diabetes!
    Best of Luck.
    - 2/19/2013 10:07:46 AM
  • BELOHA
    According to what I've been researching on diabetes this article is outdated and dangerous. It was the only advice they had to give at the time. Up to date research show that eating protein with any carb will allow the sugar to be absorbed at a slower and steadier pace. Fiber has a huge impact also. It takes a long long time for research to get into text books to be taught in the school for the dietitians to start teaching it. If you must indulge in your occasional sugar concoction, fit it into your meal or make sure you add at least a small amount of protein to your snack, check your blood sugar &do what works for you - 2/18/2013 4:41:28 PM
  • Glycemic index DOES matter, but it's not regulated and there is mixed "data" on it since everyone's bodies are different, so it's not reliable. You can only figure out how things affect you from trial and error. BUT, you can safely bet that a regular white/wheat flour cookie made with refined sugar is going to do a heck of a lot more to your blood sugar than a cookie made with almond flour and stevia! This article is misleading and disappointing. Most people haven't become diabetics because they are good at practicing moderation and to advise this kind of indulging when there are sooo many other healthy low carb recipes/options out there is what makes it so upsetting. Just because it tells you what you want to hear doesn't mean you should believe it... that said, it's your body so do as you like. - 2/18/2013 2:42:59 PM
  • RLRIDLEY
    This article is rubbish! A slice of cake and a slice of whole wheat bread are not equivalent! I am on a low carb diet and while I do have some sweets (dark chocolate) and some grains I make sure that they are low carb to begin with and eat a fraction a 4th to a half of the suggested portion to ensure that the carbs/sugar I am consuming remains even lower. I stick to 50g of carbs per day and she is suggesting you eat 30g of carbs at one sitting! I wouldn't do it! - 2/18/2013 2:30:51 PM
  • I agree with Fatsochubby, RGFITFORLIFE, Woubbie and Jannebarn and the others who are educated enough to know -- Sugar and grains make your sugar spike dangerously Up AND dangerously Down. THAT'S what diabetics need to AVOID! The spikes as well as high glucose levels. Following this would kill me! I absolutely HAVE to add FIBER and PROTEIN if I want to indulge, and I do so only rarely to avoid the DAMAGE that sugar causes. - 2/18/2013 12:19:04 PM