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10 Diabetes Diet Myths

Diabetes myths

Scouring the internet for reliable information about a diet for those with diabetes can leave you confused and misinformed. There’s no shortage of advice, but it’s often challenging to discern fact from fiction. Below we debunk 10 common diabetes diet myths.

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1. Eating sugar causes diabetes

According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), eating too much sugar alone doesn’t cause diabetes, but it may be a contributing factor in some cases. Type 1 diabetes is caused by genetics and possibly an autoimmune response to a trigger. Type 2 diabetes is caused by genetics and various risk factors, some of which are related to lifestyle. Being overweight, having high blood pressure, being over the age of 45, and being sedentary are just some of the risk factors that can lead to diabetes. Sugar-sweetened drinks, such as sodas and fruit punches, are high in empty calories, and recent studies have linked these to a higher risk of diabetes. To help prevent diabetes, the ADA recommends avoiding them. However, other sweets by themselves are not a cause of diabetes.

2. Carbohydrates (carbs) are the enemy

Carbs aren’t your enemy. It is not carbs themselves, but the type of carb and the quantity of carb that you eat that is important for those with diabetes. Not all carbs are created equal. Those that are low on the glycemic index (GI) scale, a measure of how quickly foods with carbohydrates may impact blood sugar levels, are better choices than those with a high GI, explains the ADA. Examples of low-GI carbs include:

  • rolled or steel-cut oatmeal
  • whole-grain bread
  • dried beans and legumes
  • low-starch vegetables, such as spinach, broccoli, and tomatoes

It’s also a good idea to choose foods with a lower glycemic load (GL). GL is similar to GI, but it incorporates serving size into the calculation. It’s considered a more accurate estimate of how foods will affect your blood sugar. Examples of low-GL carbs include:

  • 150 grams of soybeans
  • 80 grams of green peas
  • 80 grams of parsnips
  • 80 grams of carrots

If you eat a high-GI or high-GL food, combining it with a low-GI or low-GL food can help balance your meal. Harvard Medical School provides a helpful list of GI and GL values for over 100 foods.

Once you pick healthy carbs, you still need to manage the portion of carbs, as too many carbs can cause higher blood sugar levels. Stick to your personal carb target. If you don’t have one, ask your healthcare team what’s best. If you use the plate method of portion control, limit your carbs to one-quarter of the plate.

3. Starchy foods are off-limits

Starchy foods contain carbohydrates, and, as explained above, they can fit into your meal plan. Choose high-fiber, less processed carbs to get the vitamins and minerals you need while still managing your blood sugar.

4. You’ll never eat dessert again

Go ahead and enjoy a slice of cake or a cookie now and then, even if you have diabetes. The key is moderation and portion control. According to the National Institutes of Health, restricting yourself too much may eventually lead to binge eating or overeating.

Beware of the “all or nothing” mentality. Feel free to indulge in a small serving of your favorite sweet on special occasions. Just be sure to limit other carbs in your meal to strike a safe balance. Stick to your personal carb target. The average person should eat about 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per meal, advises the ADA. You can find healthier, low-carb versions of many sweet treats by exploring the plethora of recipes available online.

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5. You can’t unwind with wine

Alcohol in moderation is OK if your diabetes is under control. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that women drink no more than one alcoholic beverage per day and that men don’t go over two. One drink is 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. It’s also a good idea to monitor your blood sugar levels for 24 hours after drinking. Alcohol can potentially cause your blood sugar to drop below normal levels, interfere with your medications, and prevent your liver from producing glucose.

6. Fruit is bad

There are no forbidden fruits on a diabetes diet. While it’s true that some fruits contain more natural sugars than others, you can enjoy any of them if you stick to the proper portion. According to the Mayo Clinic, one serving of any type of fruit contains about 15 grams of carbohydrate.

For example, that’s equal to about:

  • 1/2 medium banana
  • 1/2 cup cubed mango
  • 3/4 cup cubed pineapple
  • 1 1/4 cups strawberries
  • 2 tablespoons dried fruit

7. Sugar-free products are healthy

Walk down almost any grocery store aisle and you’ll find a selection of sugar-free, processed foods. But don’t assume that a sugar-free label on a product makes it healthy. It may still contain a lot of carbs, fat, or calories. Be sure to check the nutrition label for the total carb content.

8. While on medication, you can eat what you want

Taking diabetes medication doesn’t give you free reign to eat what you want, as often as you want. You need to take your medication as prescribed and follow a healthy diet to keep your diabetes under control. A diabetes eating plan is like other healthy eating plans, in that some foods support your goals while others may sabotage them. Regularly eating unhealthy foods or oversized portions may prevent your medication from doing its job.

9. Fats don’t matter

According to the American Heart Association, having type 2 diabetes increases your risk of heart attack and stroke. Part of this link is due to the fact that many people with diabetes are overweight. They often have high blood pressure or unhealthy blood cholesterol levels, too.

To lower your risk of heart trouble, avoid trans fats and limit saturated fat in your diet. Eating foods that are rich in saturated fats, such as high-fat dairy products and deep-fried foods, can lead to weight gain, increase your unhealthy cholesterol levels, and raise your risk of heart disease and stroke. According to the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, trans fats should be avoided as much as possible and saturated fats should make up less than 10 percent of your calories in a day.

10. Artificial sweeteners are safe

Although many people assume that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strictly regulates artificial sweeteners, many food additives enter the market without any oversight. The manufacturer itself can determine if their additive is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). They can also decide whether or not they want to notify the FDA when they use a new food additive, whether it’s GRAS or not.

Despite the controversy around the safety of artificial sweeteners, the FDA has deemed the following sweeteners safe to consume under certain conditions of use:

  • saccharin
  • aspartame, which you should avoid if you have phenylketonuria 
  • acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K)
  • sucralose
  • neotame
  • advantame
  • stevia

The FDA’s artificial sweetener safety classifications are in direct conflict with recommendations from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The CSPI classifies the safety of food additives based on thorough reviews of research. It warns that some artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, saccharine, and sucralose, may pose health risks.

The ADA still recommends using artificial sweeteners in place of sugar to help sweeten foods without adding a lot of carbs. Keep in mind that some artificial sweeteners still add a small amount of carbs to your diet, so you’ll need to keep track of how much you use.

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Outlook

Diabetes can be a difficult condition to manage, but it gets much easier when you have all the facts and nutrition information. Eating foods with a low glycemic index and glycemic load, limiting your consumption of alcohol and trans and saturated fats, taking your medications as prescribed by your doctor, and monitoring your blood sugar levels can help improve your overall health and symptoms.

Once you untangle the myths, you’ll find that a diabetes eating plan doesn’t have to be overly restrictive or complicated. Instead, it can be healthy, tasty, and easy to follow. Work with your doctor or dietitian to develop a healthy eating plan that incorporates your favorite foods and helps keep your blood sugar in check.

Consult your doctor or dietitian before you make any changes to your diet to help ensure that you’re making the best choices for your health.

You asked, we answered

  • What are some good diabetes-friendly breakfast options?
  • To help manage blood sugars, eat a mix of foods at breakfast. Both protein and healthy fats can help slow digestion of carbs, which can help avoid blood sugar spikes. Some ideas include plain Greek yogurt with berries and nuts, whole-grain toast with low-fat cheese or egg, or oatmeal made with plain almond milk and slivered almonds on top.

    - Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE

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