If you’re living with diabetes, you may feel like eating a sweet treat is playing with fire. Many of my clients come to me thinking it’s necessary to completely avoid sugar in order to manage diabetes, leaving them feeling hopeless about ever enjoying their favorite sweet foods again.
Fortunately, for most people, following a healthy diabetes management plan does not have to mean totally restricting yummy desserts and indulgent foods. The healthiest way to manage a diabetes-friendly diet is not to deprive yourself of your favorite foods, but to focus on balance. If you fill the majority of your meals with nutritious, whole foods and balance the food groups to stabilize your blood sugar, then you can incorporate special sweet foods in small amounts and on occasion. Of course, the amount of sweets that you can safely afford in your diet is unique to you, so be sure to talk with your doctor to determine what’s right for you.
Here are a few tips for satisfying your sweet tooth without making your blood sugars soar:
1. Lower Your Sugar Tolerance
The best way to make room for the occasional dessert or your favorite sweet foods is by eliminating other culprits of hidden sugar in your diet, thereby lowering your “tolerance” or cravings for sugary foods and making them more special.
If you think sneaky sugars may be lurking in other parts of your diet, the best way to find out is to be a devoted label-reader. Start looking at the grams of sugar in any packaged foods you regularly consume, even things like bread and yogurt. Also look at the ingredients in the product. If one of the first ingredients is sugar or some type of “syrup,” you’re likely better off finding a better meal or snack option.
2. Go Natural
Artificial sweeteners have been widely popular among those living with diabetes for a long time. In theory, it sounds great to be able to have all of the sweet foods you like without any of the consequences of spiked blood glucose. Even so, I normally recommend that my clients stick with non-artificial, natural sweeteners like cane sugar and raw honey to sweeten their foods and use sparingly. This is for several reasons. For one, simply replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners like aspartame or sucralose does not do anything to decrease sugar cravings or diminish sugar-eating habits. Continuing to eat artificial sweeteners, especially in large amounts, only furthers the cravings for sweet foods and makes it more difficult to practice discipline when faced with real-sugar versions of foods.
In addition to this, while most artificial sweeteners on the market have been granted the GRAS (generally regarded as safe) approval by the FDA, some newer studies still suggest we could be putting our bodies at risk by routinely ingesting them. Ultimately, there is still a lot to learn about the long-term effects of artificial sweeteners.
3. Make Healthy Food More Indulgent
We’ve all heard the traditional dieting tips for curbing a sweet tooth: eat a piece of fruit, drink water or go for a walk to distract yourself. While some of these tips may work occasionally, there may be times when an apple just won’t cut it. In these cases, I suggest getting a little creative with healthy foods and find ways to make them feel more indulgent.
Some of my clients’ favorite ideas include drizzling dark chocolate on fresh fruit or making their own “ice cream” out of frozen banana and peanut butter. You can also try bumping up the fiber and protein in some of your favorite baked goods like cookies and brownies by adding pureed beans (yes, really) without compromising the taste.
Another good rule of thumb is to always pair your sweet treat with a bit of healthy fat and protein, such as a handful of sweet and salty trail mix made with raw nuts or a fruit salad with yogurt dressing. The protein and fat in nuts and yogurt can help slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream, therefore allowing for a steady rise in blood glucose rather than a fast spike.
4. Practice Mindful Eating
On the occasions where there will be a lot of indulgent food options to choose from, it’s best to practice mindful eating. Mindful eating means being very aware of everything that goes in your mouth, eating slowly and intentionally and savoring your foods. For instance, at a holiday party, it may be normal to load up our plates with goodies, go back for seconds and then have a slice, or two, of dessert. You can avoid this type of binge-eating behavior by setting a plan ahead of time, making a commitment to yourself to be mindful of portion sizes and sources of carbohydrates. Try to be selective with those sweet treats. Skip the mundane, store-bought sugar cookie if you’re planning to have that once-a-year piece of grandma’s pie.
Sometimes, there is nothing like having the real version of a dessert, and that’s okay. The more infrequently you have these foods, the more special they become and the easier it is to manage blood sugars and your health.
By making sugary foods an occasional treat and not a normal part of a daily diet, most of my clients find that their cravings for sugary foods eventually decrease and their blood glucose is more easily stabilized. You may also find that your once-loved sweet foods eventually taste way sweeter than before, making it easier to practice portion control and not over-indulge.