For diabetics, the knee-jerk reaction of swearing off sweets altogether can be problematic for a number of reasons.
First, assigning all the blame to added sugars actually takes onus away from seemingly healthier carb sources that can spike blood sugar just as potently.
It’s also unrealistic for most of us to set such high standards when it comes to willpower, a practice that may devolve into a cycle of relapsing and re-committing (the last thing a diabetic person needs).
As usual, knowledge is the answer—the more you understand which sugars/carbs to eat and which to avoid, the better you can manage your blood glucose while still sneaking in a dessert here and there.
It all starts with a thorough “un-brainwashing” in the sugar department.
Isn’t All Sugar the Same?
Short Answer: No
Accompanying ingredients, food particle size, cooking/preparation method, and many other factors can influence how dramatically a carbohydrate-rich food spikes blood sugar.
All sugars are carbohydrates, and carbohydrates exist on a spectrum when it comes to their ability to spike blood sugar as well as their overall nutritional density (two factors that are strongly related).
Quantifying this ability for each specific food is the goal of the glycemic index, a scale that assigns relative values to express how quickly a food item raises blood sugar after consumption.
Yes, added or refined sugars are usually higher up on the scale, but not all sweets are as bad as you think for glucose spikes.
Conversely, some successfully marketed “health foods” like instant oatmeal can have a much higher glycemic index than you might think.
So, what’s the deciding factor?
Why are some sugars from across the spectrum of carbohydrates worse than others when it comes to blood glucose management?
Here’s the short list:
Processing and/or cooking
Molecular makeup of the carbohydrate
Other macronutrients (protein, fat)
Fiber is crucial for flattening blood sugar spikes, smaller grains and more easily digestible forms of starch will shoot blood sugar up more efficiently, and the more processed a carbohydrate-rich food is, the higher it will score on the GI scale.
This is why it’s wise for diabetics to tear down the mental wall between added/refined sugars and carbohydrates; both camps have the potential to be harmful or helpful to blood glucose levels depending on the above factors.
Indeed, this book authored by two registered dietary nutritionists and titled Nutritional Recommendations for Individuals with Diabetes says it best: “Available evidence from clinical studies shows dietary sucrose has no more effect on glycemia (blood sugar regulation) than equivalent caloric amounts of starch.”
Diabetics, Try These Sweets Instead
Before we launch into our master list of safe sweets for diabetics, we want to shed light on the all-important concept of carbohydrate balance, as this is key to incorporating dessert with minimal blowback for diabetics.
Since dietary starch (e.g., potatoes) can have just as much of an impact on blood glucose levels as less closeted forms of sugar (e.g., most desserts), it should sound reasonable by now that when one is increased, the other must decrease to maintain balance.
In other words, if you’re having dessert, take it easy on the potatoes, rice, grains, pasta, and so forth.
This is especially valuable for diabetics who practice mealtime insulin dosing as a way to keep glucose on an even keel before, during, and after eating.
There are hundreds of desserts that are safe for diabetics, but we narrowed it down to a dozen that represent key concepts we’ll mention below.
Here’s the short list:
Peanut butter oatmeal balls
Vanilla meringue cookies
Notice how many of these are fruit-based?
While naturally rich in sugar, nutrients and fiber in fruit serve as a strong buffer against blood glucose increases.
In many cases, the carbohydrate itself is slower to digest, a key metric influencing glycemic index value.
It’s not for everyone, but dark chocolate is an excellent way to get some natural sweetness (and a shot of bitter) without pumping up your A1C.
Even cookies and cheesecake are possible if you opt for low-sugar ingredients.
Hopefully, the attributes you want to look for are starting to materialize in your mind: slowly digesting and nutritionally dense sweets, plenty of fiber, and low-sugar ingredients wherever you possibly can.
Speaking of, it’s important to differentiate low-sugar ingredients from artificial sweeteners, because the latter is finally experiencing a bit of a reckoning when it comes to their perceived healthiness.
A Note on Artificial Sweeteners
A Hidden Tradeoff
Unfortunately, what most artificial sweeteners save in sugar, they “make up for” by potentially hampering the body’s ability to process it.
In the most direct sense, yes—artificial sweeteners are far more friendly to blood sugar levels than foods containing refined sugars.
However, this benefit is more than offset by the harshly contradicting issue of glucose intolerance.
According to this study from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, commonly consumed artificial sweeteners make several fundamental alterations to the benevolent bacteria that live in our digestive tracts—the “intestinal microbiota”—that in turn promote glucose intolerance.
Glucose intolerance is a more general term (encompassing diabetic, pre-diabetic, and non-diabetic people) denoting various irregularities in the body’s processing of glucose that usually results in regularly elevated blood glucose levels.
Being glucose intolerant doesn’t guarantee you have diabetes, but like a car that idles high, it’s still not where you want your blood sugar to hang out on a regular basis.
Embrace these ideas, and you just may be able to restore the important institution of dessert without destabilizing your blood sugar:
Understand the difference between fiber-rich, complex carbs and refined sugars.
Understand that starchy carbs can still potently raise blood sugar.
Use fruit, gelatin, chocolate, vanilla, whole grains, and other low-sugar/nutritious options for desserts to keep blood sugars stable.
Avoid artificial sweeteners whenever possible.
You work hard to manage your diabetes—it’s okay to have a dessert now and then.
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This may seem like a fun-killing exercise at first, but we’re not interested in coddling or pandering to our readers, so let’s get the harsh reality out of the way: most of us haven’t earned the right to binge on vacation.