Eating sweets can affect your blood sugar, but there are many more factors to be aware of. If you have diabetes, you should be mindful when eating sweets.

When you have elevated blood sugar levels, prediabetes, or diabetes, you need to carefully monitor your carbohydrate intake. This is because carbohydrates are responsible for raising your blood sugar levels.

While you can enjoy sugary foods when you have diabetes, it’s important to do so in moderation and with some understanding of how it could affect your blood sugar. This includes sugars found in desserts and sweets.

Read on to learn about how to eat sweets with diabetes.

When you have diabetes, your body is either not able to use insulin correctly or not able to make any or enough insulin. Some people with diabetes experience both of these issues. Problems with insulin can cause sugar to build up in your blood.

Foods that contain carbohydrates can raise your blood sugar. Carbohydrates need to be regulated when you have elevated blood sugar levels or diabetes to help you manage your blood sugar.

On nutrition labels, the term “carbohydrates” includes sugars, complex carbohydrates, and fiber. In desserts and many other products like salad dressings, breakfast cereals, and yogurts, a number of ingredients can be added to enhance sweetness.

While some foods, such as fruits and vegetables, naturally contain sugars, many processed foods and desserts have some type of sugar added to them. Many food 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 are carbohydrates and will raise your blood sugar. You can find them in many food products, including cookies, sweetened cereals, spaghetti sauce, flavored oatmeals, cakes, chips, pies, puddings, yogurt, sports drinks, smoothies, candy, ice cream, and other desserts.

Because these simple sugars are digested more quickly than complex carbohydrates like whole grains and starchy vegetables, they can affect your blood sugar much faster than foods containing complex, less processed carbohydrates.

To address the needs of people with diabetes, food manufacturers have introduced alternate sources of sugar. These artificial, natural, or modified sugar substitutes affect your blood sugar less or not at all.

These ingredients can help you stay within your recommended carbohydrate intake for the day without negatively affecting your blood sugar, if eaten in moderation. Examples include:

  • sugar alcohols, such as xylitol and erythritol
  • natural sweeteners, such as stevia (Truvia or Pure Via) and monk fruit sweetener

However, it’s important to note that the sugar substitutes aspartame (Equal) and saccharin (Sweet’N Low) may have negative health effects. A 2020 study found a positive correlation between people who used artificial sweeteners and higher rates of insulin resistance.

While one study showed that aspartame could have detrimental effects on health, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that it’s safe for consumption. A 2022 study found that aspartame was linked to an increased risk of cancer.

Many different types of sugar replacements can appear in store-bought desserts and sweets. In this section, we discuss key factors to consider.

Impact of sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners

Try to read food labels carefully to determine what could affect 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. Examples include:

  • acesulfame potassium
  • aspartame
  • neotame
  • saccharin
  • sucralose

These sweeteners can have an aftertaste, and some may have detrimental effects on health.

For example, some research suggests that certain artificial sweeteners may disrupt the oxidant/antioxidant balance in your body, cause blood sugar dysregulation, and also disrupt the gut microbiome. Where possible, try to avoid them.

Sugar alcohols

Sugar alcohols can occur in nature or be synthetically manufactured. Unlike artificial sweeteners, they are no sweeter than sugar and do contain calories.

They’re commonly added to prepackaged foods that are labeled “sugar-free” or “no sugar added.” Some kinds have known side effects of increased gas, bloating, and diarrhea.

Examples include:

  • glycerol
  • lactitol
  • maltitol
  • mannitol
  • sorbitol
  • erythritol
  • xylitol

Natural sweeteners

Natural sweeteners are often used to replace sugar in recipes. They include:

  • nectars
  • fruit juices
  • monk fruit
  • honey
  • molasses
  • agave syrup
  • maple syrup

Natural sweeteners affect blood sugar just like other sugar sweeteners.

Two exceptions to this rule are stevia and monk fruit extract. Both are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA.

Stevia is an extract that comes from the plant Stevia rebaudiana. You can add it to desserts made 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 and Pure Via.

There is less clinical research on newer sweeteners such as these, so scientists are still determining the long-term effects.

You can get an idea of how much a dessert may affect your blood sugar by reading the nutrition facts label on the back of its packaging. The most important factors are serving size, total carbohydrates, added sugars, total sugars, and total calories.

Serving size

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 halve the number of carbohydrates and calories listed on the label. But if you are eating four cookies, you will want to double the carbohydrate and calorie amounts.

Total carbohydrates

The total carbohydrates portion lists how many carbohydrates are present in a serving of that particular food. There are some exceptions to this number if you are counting grams of carbohydrates to manage your blood sugar.

Added sugars

Added sugars” describes sugar added during food processing or during cooking. These do not naturally occur in the food itself.

Some foods we think to include in a healthy eating plan such as cereal, oatmeal, breads, dressings, sauces, and yogurt, have a lot of added sugar. Always look at the nutrition label to see how much added sugar you’ll be consuming.

Total sugars

On a nutrition label, “total sugars” includes both added sugar and naturally occurring sugar in the item. Foods like fruits and dairy products naturally contain sugar but may also have sugar added before being sold.

For instance, a 6-ounce serving of plain Greek yogurt may have 5–10 grams (g) of natural dairy sugar and no added sugar. But a flavored version could have upward of 10 g of added sugar, bringing the total sugar to over 20 g or much higher.

Looking at total sugar will give you insight into how it may affect your blood sugar when you eat it.

Total calories

Calorie intake is important as well. Many low sugar or artificially sweetened foods are still high in calories and often low in nutritional value.

Eating them excessively can contribute to weight gain, which can increase insulin resistance and make it harder to manage your blood sugar.

The American Heart Association recommends 25 g for women and 36 g for men as the maximum amount of added sugar a person without diabetes should consume per day.

This added sugar can add up fast. Just one can of Coca-Cola, for instance, has 39 grams of sugar.

People with prediabetes or diabetes should generally try to keep their overall added sugar consumption low — usually under 10 percent of overall calories.

Tips to lower your sugar intake with diabetes

  • Eat carbs with a lower glycemic index, such as whole wheat, whole oats, and whole fruits.
  • Eat fiber-rich foods to promote good blood sugar management.
  • Eat carbs alongside lean proteins and healthy fats.
  • Include lots of nonstarchy vegetables, such as leafy greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and mushrooms.
  • Avoid sugary snacks, alcoholic drinks, processed foods, and “diet” or “low fat” foods as much as possible.
  • Drink water instead of sugary beverages, soft drinks, and juices.
  • Avoid fruits canned in syrup. Whole fruits eaten in moderation are best.
  • Limit or avoid artificial sweeteners as much as possible.
  • Consider food swaps to limit sugar such as using salsa instead of ketchup, an oil and vinegar mixture on salads, sparkling water instead of soda, and cinnamon to sweeten coffee.
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People with diabetes can still enjoy something sweet from time to time. However, it’s important to know what impact certain foods can have on your blood sugar.

The key is to manage portions. There are many recipes on the web today that are tasty and low in carbohydrates and do not use any artificial sweeteners.

Examples of some diabetes-friendly desserts include:

  • granola (with no sugar added) and fresh fruit
  • trail mix with nuts, seeds, roasted pepitas, and dried cranberries
  • graham crackers with nut butter
  • angel food cake
  • chia seed pudding
  • low sugar avocado mousse
  • frozen yogurt bites made with plain Greek yogurt and berries
  • mixed berries and homemade whipped cream (with no sugar added)
  • low sugar brownies

You may encounter “sugar-free” or “no sugar added” foods, including cookies, cakes, and pies.

Keep in mind that just because these foods do not have sugar does not mean they are carbohydrate or calorie-free. Limit these to only special occasions and opt for whole foods and fresh fruit as your usual dessert option.