Just because you have type 2 diabetes doesn’t mean you can’t ever let anything sweet pass your lips again. With a bit of strategizing, there are ways you can satisfy your cravings from time to time.
According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), if you have diabetes, you can absolutely include sweets and desserts in your diet, as long as they’re part of a healthy eating plan and you don’t overindulge. The ADA also recommends working with a registered dietitian, a certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES), or another diabetes healthcare professional to help you formulate an eating plan that’s right for you.
Why You Need to Watch Your Sweets Intake if You Have Type 2 Diabetes
When you eat or drink carbohydrates, such as sugar, starch, and fiber, your body breaks them down into glucose, raising levels in your blood, according to the ADA. If you have type 2 diabetes, your body isn’t able to use insulin efficiently to move this glucose from your blood into cells, where it’s used for energy. So it’s important to take steps to make sure your glucose levels don’t spike too high.
You also want to make sure you eat healthy foods that are nutritious and high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and avoid or eat only small amounts of foods that contain unhealthy ingredients such as added sugar, high amounts of sodium, and unhealthy fats.
Many sweets, including cakes, cookies, and candy, tend to be highly processed and chock-full of added sugar, refined flour, and saturated fats, which is why they should be enjoyed in reduced portion sizes as an occasional treat.
Smart Ways to Indulge in Sweets
Try these tips from diabetes nutrition experts to include sweet treats in your healthy eating plan.
1. Allow yourself the occasional treat. Deprivation isn’t likely to work, says Karen Lau, a registered dietitian and CDCES at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. “Completely eliminating treats from your diet may backfire, and you may end up craving those foods more,” notes Lau.
2. Plan ahead. Consider how many carbs you’re getting in your meal, not just in your dessert, says Tami Ross RD, CDCES, author of What Do I Eat Now? A Guide to Eating Well with Diabetes or Prediabetes and a spokesperson for the Association of Diabetes Care and Education Specialists (ADCES). That total number should factor into your calculation of what you will eat on days you have dessert or a sweet snack.
“Make sure the meal is balanced with other foods. Cut out carbs from the main dish, and save it for dessert instead,” says Lau. For example, if you’re planning to have dessert, skip the bread, pasta, or side of mashed potatoes at dinner.
3. Be mindful of sugar-free foods. Kristen Smith, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, suggests choosing foods that don’t list sugar in the ingredients and have sugar substitutes instead. “But keep in mind that these foods are often still made with flour and other carbohydrate-containing ingredients,” says Smith.
4. Pay attention to what you drink. You probably know that regular soda, juice, and fruit punch are loaded with sugar, but sports drinks, energy drinks, and bottled tea can also raise blood glucose. Plus, these sugary drinks can contain as many as several hundred calories in just one serving, according to the ADA.
Healthier options to help you stay hydrated while still giving your taste buds a treat include seltzer water with slices of lemon or lime or water infused with fruit, says Veronica Brady, PhD, an advanced practice registered nurse at MD Anderson Cancer Center and assistant professor of nursing at The University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. She is also a spokesperson for ADCES.
5. Swap out ingredients. In the kitchen, use whole-grain flours, such as wheat or oat, or versions made from nuts, such as almond flour, to help with blood sugar control, advises Smith. You can also look for recipes that use fruit or fruit puree to reduce or eliminate sugar, says Smith.
6. Designate a sweet treat day. Depending on how well your diabetes is managed and what you and your diabetes management team decide is best for you, you can decide how many days you can budget in per week or month to indulge your sweet tooth.
7. Focus on fruit. Not only is fruit delicious enough to satisfy your sweet tooth, but it has the added bonus of being healthier, because it has fewer carbs and no added sugar, compared with processed sweets, explains Smith. Plus, fruit has fiber, which is helpful, because it takes longer to digest and is less likely to cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, she adds.
That said, it’s still important to watch portion size and sugar content when eating fruit. If you’re making a smoothie, for instance, you’ll want to stick to about 4 to 6 ounces rather than drinking a giant tumbler of it, notes Dr. Brady. And if you’re snacking on dried fruit or using it in a recipe, make sure you take into account how much sugar it contains: Just 2 tablespoons of raisins or dried cherries can contain as many as 15 grams of carbohydrates.
Some great ways to enjoy fruit:
- Freeze grapes, dark sweet cherries, or berries to snack on for a refreshing and tasty treat.
- Make a smoothie with flaxseed for an extra boost of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. (And freeze some to make ice pops.)
- Freeze bananas. (You can even slice and dip them in chocolate before freezing.)
- Make your own ice cream using frozen bananas.
8. Pick something you really like. Rather than settling for something that you might not like as much just because it’s labeled low sugar, eat smaller portions of something you love, notes Lau. Not only will eating what you prefer leave you feeling more satisfied, but opting for the “diabetes-friendly” version may also prompt you to eat more than you should.
9. Take a few bites and make them last. Split that piece of cake with a friend, or just have half of a large cookie. The first few bites are often what you enjoy most, notes Ross. “Try to stick to two or three bites, and practice mindfulness about what you’re eating.”
The next time you take a bite of a treat, try this: “Eat more slowly, think about what you’re eating, and savor the taste,” suggests Brady.
10. Freeze bite-size treats. One great way to have portion-controlled sweets on hand is to freeze bite-size Halloween candies, says Brady. “Eat one of these slowly for a treat,” she says.
11. Keep temptation out of sight. Ask family members to be supportive and help you stay healthy by not eating sweets in front of you or bringing cookies or candy into the house. Store ice cream at the back of the freezer, and don’t put sweets in front or at eye level in the pantry, where you can see them, suggests Smith.
12. Identify your cravings. Are there circumstances where you’re more likely to be tempted? Think about what makes you crave sweets, says Smith. Are you often influenced by a TV show or commercial? Be mindful of activities that might spark a craving, advises Smith. If you know you’re always tempted when you pass a certain restaurant or billboard, for instance, try to avoid going that way.
13. Don’t be too hard on yourself. “You don’t need to always aim for 100 percent,” notes Lau. Instead, she recommends striving to strictly follow your diabetes diet at least 80 percent of the time and allowing yourself the occasional indulgence.