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- Sugar gets a bad rap in diabetes management. While it’s true that eating too much sugar can spike your blood sugar levels and raise your risk of diabetes complications, it’s unrealistic to omit sugar from your life completely.
- Your goal: Find healthy ways to enjoy sugar in moderation.
- Once you learn how to enjoy sugar mindfully and strategically pair it with other nutritious foods, you’ll see how sweet treats can fit into a healthy lifestyle.
Welcome to Flavors We Savor, a blog series dedicated to helping you find ways to enjoy the flavors you love most without derailing your health goals. Whether you’re a salt fan or you have a mean sweet tooth, we know it’s not realistic to avoid certain foods altogether. Instead, we’ll show you new ways to savor your old favorites.
Too often, sugar is villainized when we talk about food in diabetes management. Yes, it’s true that sugar can spike your blood glucose levels and, in the long term, raise your risk of diabetes complications—that is, if you’re not finding balance in the ways you consume it. From sweet substitutes to clever food pairings, there are plenty of ways to enjoy sweets while living with diabetes.
Finding the Sweet Spot with Your Sugar Consumption
Sugar may carry some stigma when we talk about health, especially in diabetes management, but that doesn’t mean you have to nix it from your life altogether.
“Unconditional permission to eat any and all foods is a necessity to have a healthy relationship with food,” says One Drop coach, Lindsay Vettleson, a registered dietitian/nutritionist (RDN), certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES), and certified personal trainer (CPT). All-or-nothing thinking, on the other hand, can make you hold yourself to unrealistic expectations, she explains, making it harder to reach your health goals in the long run.
While it’s true that not all sugar is created equally—from artificial sweeteners like sucralose to sugar alcohols like xylitol to the natural sugars found in honey and fruit juice—each type of sugar can affect you differently, not just based on the type of sugar itself, but also on what you pair with that sugar (if anything), and, of course, your unique health background.
Healthy Ways to Manage Sugar Cravings
Regardless, there’s still room in a healthy meal plan for sugar—even the processed sugar in that slice of cake or soda pop you want to enjoy at your niece’s birthday party. “Allowing ourselves to eat those foods that we enjoy is part of a healthful eating pattern,” says One Drop coach, Sandra Gonzalez, RDN, CDCES.
The key, explains Gonzalez, is to find ways to enjoy these treats in moderation. That said, “moderation” will mean something different for everybody, so it’s important to talk to your doctor about what it might look like for you. Generally speaking, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting added sugars (think: soda, candy, sweetened coffee, desserts) to no more than 6% of daily calories (about 100 calories per day, or six teaspoons of sugar, for women, and about 150 calories per day, or nine teaspoons of sugar, for men).
“A strategy that I often recommend for maintaining balance with sweets is ‘the 80/20 rule,’” suggests Gonzalez. “This means we’re focusing on eating nutritious foods (fruits, vegetables, high-fiber foods, plenty of water) 80% of the time and allowing ourselves to eat less nutritious foods (like sweets) 20% of the time.”
Sweets Worth Savoring—Plus, How to Savor Them
Before getting into specific sweets to put on your next grocery list, it’s worth figuring out a few strategies for how you can consume sugar in ways that won’t spike your blood sugar too much.
One approach is to combine sweets with other nutritious foods for a more balanced impact on your blood sugar levels. “When creating a sweet snack, opting for foods that are also high in fiber tends to have the best effect on blood sugar after eating,” explains One Drop coach, Jackie, RDN, CDCES, and certified food safety manager (CFSM). “Adding a protein can also help reduce rises in blood sugar as well,” along with healthy fats, she adds. For example, you could pair sweet, yet nutritious carbohydrates like berries or apples with Greek yogurt or peanut butter to avoid a steep rise in blood sugar.
When it comes to baking or sweetening your daily cup of coffee, Whitney Stuart, RDN, CDCES recommends using lower-glycemic index, less-processed foods such as coconut sugar, pure maple syrup, or date syrup. “You can also use certain pantry staples for baking blood sugar-friendly sweets that are higher in fat and fiber to help balance out the sugar, such as almond or coconut flour, applesauce, ripe bananas (stored in the fridge or freezer), nut butter, coconut oil, ghee, cocoa powder, or high-quality dark chocolate,” she adds.
Another strategy for making the most of your sweets: mindful eating—that is, being fully present with and maintaining a sensory awareness of your food as you eat it.
“A single bite of mindfully eaten dessert may be much more enjoyable than a large serving of dessert eaten while distracted,” notes One Drop coach, Alexa Stelzer, RDN, CDCES. “Try this the next time you eat sweets: Center yourself before eating by taking a few breaths. Then, take a moment to appreciate how the food looks and smells. Cut into the food slowly, watching how your utensil moves through it. As you take your first bite, notice the temperature and texture of the food. Savor the flavor and chew well. Set your fork or spoon down between each bite. This simple act of slowing down and appreciating the food may prompt you to feel satisfied much sooner.”
Ready to put these strategies to the test? Try one of these balanced sweet snacks the next time you get a sugar craving:
- Dark chocolate-covered almonds
- Homemade real fruit popsicles
- Medjool dates stuffed with cheese or nut butter and dark chocolate
- Baked apple slices drizzled with cinnamon butter
- No-sugar-added yogurt with berries, nuts, and a sprinkle of granola
- Stevia-sweetened chocolate squares with peanuts
- Raspberries with Greek yogurt and pecans
- Blueberries and whipped cream
- Dark chocolate with peanut butter
- Apple slices with almond butter
- Pureed, frozen avocado with banana, raw cacao, and peanut butter (with an optional drizzle of maple syrup for extra sweetness)
- Fresh berries or bananas dipped in dark chocolate and frozen
- Chia seed pudding with berries and cinnamon
- Air-popped popcorn with a serving of dark chocolate chips
If you’re looking for a plant-based sweet treat, you’ll love our recipe for blueberries with walnuts and cacao.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Lisa Graham, RN, BSN, CDCES, health coach and director of clinical operations at One Drop.