Diabetic Foods – Fact Or Fiction?

Diabetic foods: do they really exist?

What is a diabetic food anyway?

  • Something to control your blood sugar?
  • A product that can actually make your diabetes better?
  • A food to keep your glucose levels from getting worse?
  • Or something to cure diabetes?
  • Or a food to help you lose weight?

Or could the term “diabetic food” be interpreted in the opposite way: foods that cause diabetes?

Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a “diabetic food.” Food is just food.

But there are foods which raise the blood sugar more quickly than others, those with a high glycemic index. When these foods are eaten, the normal pancreas would respond with a surge of insulin, keeping blood sugars below about 160 mg/dL. In the diabetic, the pancreas cannot or does not produce sufficient insulin quickly enough to adequately control glucose levels. Additionally, in Type II diabetics, the cells of the body that utilize glucose for metabolic energy cannot absorb the extra glucose as quickly as it is produced.

Foods that often raise the blood sugar more quickly than diabetics can metabolize it include: sugar, alcohol, high-fructose corn syrup, fructose (fruit sugar) (in some people), white bread, white rice, white potatoes, pasta, and other simple carbohydrates and starches.

Foods that raise the blood sugar less quickly include whole grains, sweet potatoes (yes!), brown rice, vegetables, dairy products, and protein.

Because everyone likes to eat, diabetics included, the food industry has created a whole line of products sweetened with artificial sweeteners and alcohol sugars. The artificial sweeteners (Nutrasweet, Splenda, Truvia) are very low in calories and therefore do not elevate blood glucose like natural sugars. They are commonly found in diet drinks and sometimes in frozen confections and ice cream. These sweeteners do not bake or cook like sugar, however, and will not produce the same results as sucrose if substituted for sugar in a recipe. For baked goods Splenda Sugar Blend comes closest to producing the same texture and taste as regular sugar – because it contains half sugar, half Splenda.

Because the artificial sweeteners don’t work well in all situations, foods sweetened with alcohol sugars have come on the market. The alcohol sugars have about as many calories as regular sugar but do not elevate blood sugar levels as quickly. Alcohol sugars are used to sweeten “no sugar added” products including chocolates, other candies, ice cream, frozen confections, not to mention no-sugar-added pie. Cracker Barrel and Marie Callender, for example, both offer no-sugar-added pie. However, a single slice has nearly 500 calories, which is still too many for most diabetics to enjoy for dessert. The total number of calories in the daily diet is usually more important than the source of the calories. If you eat more calories than your body uses as a day, they will be stored as fat, which will only make diabetes worse.

Ideally a diabetic should eat the same food everyone else should eat: plants, mostly leaves.

If we all ate only what we could grow, we’d all lose weight. I’ve never known anyone to gain weight eating only lettuce, tomatoes, celery, carrots, apples, cucumbers, onions, peas, green beans, squash, bananas, melons, peaches, grapes, and plums. But adding salad dressing, or sugar, or butter, or frying these foods doubles or triples the calories and gets us in trouble.

For Type II diabetics, the overall answer is, number one, to eat less overall. Reduce your daily calories, lose weight, and your blood glucose is sure to be better controlled. Beyond that, limit simple sugars and carbohydrates (the “white” foods – sugar, flour, bread, pasta, rice, cereal, potatoes), especially processed foods. And if at all possible, find some sort of enjoyable exercise to substitute for the pleasure you derive from eating.

Copyright 2010 Cynthia J. Koelker, M.D.