Eating with Diabetes: Desserts and Sweets

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

HOTPINKCAMARO49
Great info! Thank you for sharing. Report
An excellent article. Report
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Thank the Lord that my husband and I know better than to believe anything in this article. If he had followed the advice in this article he would be in serious trouble and injecting himself with insulin constantly. He keeps his diabetes in check by not eating any more than 30% carbs at every meal and snack and he NEVER has a carb without a protein, EVER! So if he eats lunch that is 500 calories, no more than 30% of that 500 calories is carbs. It took some math for us to figure that out. Thats about 38 carbs for a 500 calorie meal. If some of those carbs are fiber, then he can raise the carb number to adjust but no more than 30% net carbs per meal. He takes his blood sugar all the time and this works perfectly. If we had listened to articles like this and some doctors who don't know what they are taking about, he would be dead by now from complications of diabetes. People have to take their own blood sugar 2 hours after every meal and snack and figure out what foods don't sit well with them. My husband can't do rice, bread or flour carbs (of any kind), and absolutely no sugary desert! He's o,k. with that because there is so much wonderful natural food out there to eat that will not kill your blood sugar. Report
Good article, thanks. Report
Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it's better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring. ~ Marilyn Monroe ~ 2/15/18 Report
JWCOLBY
A calorie is not a calorie.

https://youtu.b
e/f_4Q9Iv7_Ao Report
JWCOLBY
A carb is not a carb. As explained by a doctor, NOT a dietitian trained 30 years ago.

https://www.you
tube.com/watc
h?v=T8G8tLsl_A4 Report
I do better on a lower carb diet, under 150 net carbs per day. Instead of bread, I eat two halo oranges, which doesn't raise my blood glucose as much as a portion of bread or ice cream. Diabetes is individual to each person. You have to figure out what works for you.

My blood glucose is terrible if I try to eat as many carbs as the dietician and the diabetes educator told me.

I've noticed that the type of carb I eat counts. It helps if you portion control with carbs with a good amount of fiber, like a portion of beans.

For me, clean eating works, but I do occasionally save up for a dessert.

The lower carb also keeps my appetite controlled which is a win-win for me.
Report
I remember when someone in my husband's family was diagnosed with diabetes, everyone acted like it was the end of the world. She was the first in the family and I was amazed over their reaction. "So much fuss over nothing", I thought. For my family, this was a way of life and if you don't have it, you soon will. I cannot remember a time growing up without those little pink "sweet and low" packets and being perplexed when someone confused low-fat and low-sugar.

A lot of people jumped on this article because the author wrote that it is okay for a diabetic to eat sugar if they are careful. My father, who is type-1 diabetic, eats sugar occasionally and is now in his 90's. His life is not over. I do not believe that the article is saying that a diabetic should consume high quantities of sugars, but it is saying that having sugar occasionally is okay. Follow a healthy diet, but if it your birthday, don't feel guilty eating that slice of cake (just skip the potato).

Being a diabetic is not as bad as it once was. There are a lot of options. There's a plethora of low-carb flours as well as sweeteners. There are websites with low-carb desserts and instructions for low-carb bread. I am not yet a diabetic, but I already already count my carbs. Report
SEG1061
I don't know--I have heard the story both ways from dietitians and drs. I did a low carb diet for about a year and ended up sick and did not loose a single pound and my A!C did not move-not one point!. I have decided that may be the way for some but doesn't seem like it works well for me. So I do more of a reduced carb diet but I admit to allowing sweets--always with some protein and a controlled portion (usually about half of a normal serving depending on what it is and what the nutrition values are) and I have found a 10-15 minute walk after a higher carb meal or sweet helps to bring bs down. I am a constant work in progress and concentrate on eating better each meal/day and getting more exercise. I look for healthy meals and ways to make them healthy--but depriving myself of something sweet that I want or not joining in a birthday party/celebration makes me feel bad and later I eat too many carbs. I have my smaller slice/controlled amount and go on my way. I feel like I am living and I don't do to bad at the dr. appointments so I am happy. I think you have to do what's right for you and just keep working at eating better and exercising. Report
MAKINGASPARK
Very interesting. Report


 

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.