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Can I eat sugar if I have diabetes?

If you have diabetes, you don’t need to deprive yourself of sugar completely – but you do need to make significant lifestyle adjustments. Here’s what you should know.

One small thing: If you have diabetes, be careful not to substitute sugar with so-called “natural” sweeteners, such as honey and maple syrup – they have a similar energy content and therefore the same effect on your blood sugar.

There are many misconceptions about diabetes . One of the most common is that if you have diabetes, you have to avoid all traces of sugar in food. The truth is that while sugar can have a significant impact on blood sugar levels, it’s not the only important consideration for optimal diabetes management.

Foods that affect your blood sugar level

All kinds of carbohydrate foods can increase your blood glucose level, but how much your blood sugar goes up depends on:

  • • the amount of carbohydrate and fibre in your food and drink
  • • how active you are
  • • how much insulin your body produces and how your body uses it
  • • your medication

If you have diabetes, choose to get most of your carbohydrates from nutrient-rich whole foods, such as vegetables and fruit, beans, wholegrains and dairy products. Many people find it useful to spread out their carbohydrate intake throughout the day to keep their blood glucose levels stable.

Understanding sugar in foods

Sugar is a carbohydrate found naturally in many different foods, from lactose in milk to fructose in fruit and honey.

There are two types of sugar: naturally occurring sugar (for example, lactose in milk) and added or “free” sugars that include refined table sugar (sucrose), and concentrated sources like fruit juice, honey and syrups.

Your body uses natural and added sugars in the same way. However, compared with foods with added sugars, foods with natural sugars have additional healthy nutrients, such as fibre, vitamins and minerals. Foods with added sugars are often low in nutrient content, but high in energy.

You can lower your intake of added sugar by:

  • Choosing minimally processed foods, as these contain less added sugar.
  • Reading food labels to help you choose foods with less added sugars. Look under “carbohydrates” and find the amount of sugar (in grams) in one serving of the food. This value includes both natural and added sugars. Get into the habit of comparing products and choosing the one with less sugar. And make sure the serving sizes of the foods you’re comparing are the same.
  • Being aware of “natural” sweeteners such as honey, agave and maple syrup – they are not healthier than other types of added sugar and have a similar energy content.
Instead of … Try …
Cordials and cold drinks Sugar-free cordials and cold drinks, or water flavoured with sliced berries or lemon.
Jams and marmalade Low-sugar or sugar-free alternatives.
Granola Swiss muesli or granola with no added honey or sugar.
Fruit juice Diluted fruit juice (use sparkling water).
Fruit canned in syrup Fruit canned in natural juice, fresh fruit or stewed dried fruit.
Desserts Fruit sorbet or grilled nectarines. (Tip: going out for dinner? Share dessert instead of having a full portion.)
Flavoured milk A smaller amount of flavoured powder or a sugar-free alternative. Make your own delicious hot chocolate with cocoa, fat-free milk and sweetener.
Sweetened yoghurt Plain, low-fat yoghurt with added fruit or fruit purée.
Energy and granola bars Dried-fruit bars with no added sugar, homemade trail mix, and low-sugar digestive biscuits.
Rusks and muffins Low-sugar or low-GI rusks. (Tip: Sweeten muffins with bananas, raisins or apple purée and use less sugar than the recipe calls for.)

 

You may consider sugar substitutes like aspartame, sucralose or stevia as a way of eating less added sugars. Although sugar substitutes are one way to decrease added sugars, it’s important to know that not all foods sweetened with sugar substitutes are healthy or low in kilojoules.

Making sweet treats

While many baked goods are a major source of both saturated fats and added sugars, there’s still room for them in a healthy eating plan even if you have diabetes. Focus on enjoying smaller portions, and try creating healthier versions of your favourite recipes. You can:

  • Add fruit or vegetables, such as shredded or puréed apple, carrot, banana and pumpkin, to recipes to boost nutrients, flavour and moisture. In some recipes, these ingredients can replace some or all of the sugar and oil.
  • Swap all or part of the sugar in the recipe with sugar substitutes. Just remember the colour, volume, texture and cooking time may differ from that of products baked with sugar.
  • Use spices like cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg, or vanilla extract or almond flavouring to enhance the sweetness of treats.

 

The bottom line

If you have diabetes, it’s important to pay attention to the type and amount of carbohydrates you eat. The right amount and type for you will depend on your weight, medications and physical activity levels. Consider making an appointment with a registered dietitian who can review your individual needs and circumstances and help you tailor a nutrition plan that's right for you.

In the end, the best diet is the healthy one you're able to follow.

If you have a question for our dietitians, click here, or to find a dietitian in your area, visit adsa.org.za. To get in touch with us, email healthhotline@pnp.co.za.