Dessert and Diabetes: The Best Diabetes-Friendly Sweets

Written by Rachel Nall, RN, BSN | Published on May 22, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE on May 22, 2014

Eating Desserts With Diabetes

A popular misconception about diabetes is that it is caused by eating too many sugary sweets. While sweets can and do affect your blood sugar, they do not cause you to develop diabetes. However, when you have diabetes, you must carefully monitor your carbohydrate intake. This includes sugars found in desserts.

While you can enjoy desserts when you have diabetes, it is important to do so in moderation and with some understanding of how it could impact your blood sugar.

Types of Sugars in Foods

When you have diabetes, your body is not able to use insulin correctly, not able to make any or enough insulin, or both. Since insulin is responsible for helping sugar move from the blood and into the cells, these problems with insulin can cause sugar to build up in your blood. Foods that contain carbohydrates raise blood sugar, and need to be regulated when you have diabetes to help you manage your blood sugar.

On nutrition labels, the term “carbohydrates” encompasses sugars, complex carbohydrates, and fiber. In desserts, a number of sweet-tasting products can be added to enhance sweetness. While some foods, such as fruits, naturally contain sugars, most desserts have some type of sugar added to them. However, many dessert labels will not list “sugar” as a key ingredient. Instead, they will list the ingredient as one or more of the following:

  • dextrose
  • fructose
  • high-fructose corn syrup
  • lactose
  • malt syrup
  • sucrose
  • white granulated sugar
  • honey
  • agave nectar
  • glucose
  • maltodextrin

These sugar sources can be found in cookies, cakes, pies, puddings, candy, ice cream, and other desserts. They are carbohydrates and will raise your blood sugar. Because these simple sugars are digested much more quickly, they have the potential to impact your blood sugar very quickly compared to other foods that contain carbohydrates along with fiber, such as whole-grain bread or fruit. They also often contain a lot of carbohydrate for a small serving. Both of these things can affect your ability to maintain control over your blood sugar levels.

To address the needs of the ever-growing population of people with diabetes, food manufacturers have introduced alternate sources of sugar. These artificial or modified sweeteners do not impact a person’s blood sugar as significantly—or at all. These foods can help you stay within your recommended carbohydrate intake for the day without adversely impacting your blood sugar, if eaten in moderation. Examples include:

  • artificial sweeteners, such as Equal or Sweet’N Low
  • sugar alcohols, such as maltitol
  • “novel” sweeteners, such as Truvia or Pure Via

Knowing the difference between sugar-containing foods and those with less sugar content can help diabetes management.

To help moderate sugar intake, many people use the “three-bite” rule where you enjoy three bites of a dessert. Having a beginning, middle, and end can satisfy your sweet tooth without skyrocketing your blood sugar levels.

Tips for Reading Labels

You can get an idea of how much a dessert may impact your blood sugar by reading the nutrition facts label on the back of its packaging. The three most important areas are “Serving Size,” “Total Carbohydrates,” and “Total Calories.”

All nutrition information on the label is calculated according to the listed “Serving Size.” It is very important to note the serving size of the food. You want to calculate your carbohydrate and calorie intake based on how much you plan to eat. For example, if the serving size is two cookies, and you only eat one cookie you will half the number of carbohydrates and calories if you are eating one cookie. But if you are eating four cookies, you will want to double the carbohydrate and calorie amounts.

The “Total Carbohydrates” portion gives lists how many carbohydrates are present in a serving of that particular food. Some exceptions to this number exist if you are counting grams of carbohydrate to manage your blood sugar; you may need to subtract half of the total fiber from the carbohydrate count if there are more than five grams per serving;, or calculate the impact of sugar alcohols. Unless otherwise instructed by your physician, you can determine the impact of sugar alcohols by subtracting half the grams of sugar alcohols from total carbohydrates. For example, if you have a 30-gram carbohydrate candy bar that contains 20 grams of sugar alcohols, subtract 10 from 30 to equal 20 grams of carbohydrates.

Calorie intake is important as well. Many low sugar or artificially sweetened foods are still high in calories. Eating them excessively can contribute to weight gain, which makes your blood sugar levels harder to control.

The Impact of Sugar Alcohols and Artificial Sweeteners

A number of different types of sugar replacements can appear in desserts. It can be difficult to determine what will impact your blood sugar versus what won't. You must read food labels carefully to determine what could impact your blood sugar. Below are three examples of modified sugars you may find or add to desserts:

Artificial Sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners are synthetic substitutes for sugar that have been altered so they will not impact blood sugar. Examples  include acesulfame potassium, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, and sucralose. These sweeteners can have an aftertaste. Most can be purchased in a grocery store for use in home recipes. However, they can be sweeter than typical sugars, so you may need to adjust how much to add. Some cannot be heated, so be sure to follow the instructions on the label. These sweeteners do not add calories or carbohydrates.

Sugar Alcohols: Sugar alcohols can occur in nature or are synthetically manufactured. Unlike artificial sweeteners, they are no sweeter than sugar and do contain calories. However, they only contain 2 calories per gram versus 4 calories per fram for regular carbohydrates. Examples include glycerol, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol. They are commonly added to prepackaged foods that are labeled "sugar-free" or "no sugar added." They have been known to cause increased incidences of gas and loose stools. This is especially true when a food contains anywhere from 10 to 50 grams of sugar alcohols, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Natural Sweeteners: Natural sweeteners are often used to replace sugar in recipes. They include nectars, fruit juices, honey, molasses, and maple syrup. Natural sweeteners impact blood sugar just like other sugar sweeteners.

One exception to these rules is Stevia, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes as a "food additive." Stevia can be added to desserts at home. Some products, such as soft drinks, have started to add stevia. Stevia is significantly sweeter than sugar, and does not increase blood sugar levels. Brand-name products that manufacture stevia include Truvia, PureVia, and Stevia.

Considerations for Eating Desserts

People with diabetes can still enjoy something sweet from time to time. However, it's important to know what impact, if any, certain foods can have on your blood sugar. Examples of some diabetic-friendly desserts include:

  • granola (with no sugar added) and fresh fruit
  • sugar-free hot chocolate sprinkled with cinnamon
  • sugar-free fudge popsicle
  • sugar-free gelatin made with fresh fruit with sugar-free whipped topping
  • sugar-free pudding with sugar-free whipped topping

Many companies also make sugar-free or no-sugar added foods, including cookies, cakes, and pies. Keep in mind, however, that just because these foods do not have sugar does not mean they are carbohydrate or calorie-free. They must still be enjoyed in moderation.

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