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.
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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

  • 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. - 5/26/2016 6:27:40 AM
  • 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... - 1/22/2015 10:40:18 AM
  • 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 . - 1/22/2015 5:37:46 AM
  • 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. - 12/24/2014 11:55:41 AM
  • 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. - 12/19/2014 2:52:42 PM
  • 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! - 11/1/2014 9:42:22 AM
  • 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
    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
    .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.
    ....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
    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

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