During my time as Nutrition and Health Consultant at Hedia, I’ve noticed that many people want to know what is “safe” to eat when you have diabetes.
When food is so closely related to diabetes, it makes sense to wonder about how certain foods can affect diabetes. And the internet is filled with claims about food that apparently cures diabetes.
The reality is that most people with diabetes can eat what they want. Of course, blood glucose can go higher with certain foods, but food is not usually unsafe. (As long as it’s not past the expiry date!)
Additionally, while there is no food that will cure diabetes, there are foods that can make blood glucose more stable – and so will make diabetes easier to manage.
I’m here to explain this all! And if you want to know happens with food for diabetes, then see my verdict on common food items below.
In this article (click to scroll down!):
Before we get into what food is “good” or “less good” for diabetes, let’s set the record straight on why food is even an issue to begin with.
Carbs and insulin is what it’s all about.
The body gets energy mainly from carbs, which you get when you eat or drink foods that contain carbs.
Those carbs will become glucose in the blood (blood glucose). Then, the cells need to use that glucose for energy. This is where insulin comes in to help the glucose enter the cells from the blood.
For people with diabetes, there is little or no insulin to do this job. As a result, without medication, the glucose will stay in the blood, leading to high blood glucose levels. Blood glucose that’s too high will be dangerous if not treated.
Carbohydrates are essential for a balanced diet: they are the body’s main source of energy. Without the energy, the body will lack the ability to function as it should.
As a substitute, the body will attempt to get energy from proteins and fats. But this isn’t an ideal substitute because eating too much fat or protein comes with its own problems.
(Alongside the fact that ketones are produced when fat is used as an energy source – as Harvard Health points out. Those with diabetes already need to be wary of ketones.)
Without carbs, you’re also likely to be missing out on nutrients (fiber, vitamins, and minerals).
When it comes to food and diabetes, you need a balanced diet, just as anyone else does. And so, carbs are not dangerous for those with diabetes.
In general, people with diabetes can eat anything that those without diabetes can eat. So really, any food is okay for people with diabetes.
The main issue is the rise in blood glucose as a result of having carbs. However, this will usually be resolved with medication by injecting insulin or by taking pills which help with lowering blood glucose.
For those with insulin-dependent diabetes, the amount of insulin needed is calculated by counting how many carbs in food will be consumed, and by checking blood glucose levels. Hedia helps with this: the app gives an insulin recommendation based on your carbs and blood glucose level. You can get your first taste of Hedia at the App Store or Google Play!
As long as a person with diabetes is aware of their blood glucose level and can medicate accordingly, there should be no issue when considering what food for diabetes based on its carb content.
Of course, other considerations play a role, such as whether the food is part of a balanced diet and whether it will make blood glucose levels more difficult to control (especially for those with non-insulin-dependent diabetes who manage their diabetes with diet alone). More on that next.
For anyone – regardless of whether they have diabetes – a balanced diet is, of course, beneficial. While there may be freedom to choose what to eat, it’s important to know what influences those decisions.
I write in more detail about the sections of a balanced diet in my blog post, Food and Diabetes. But in short, I’d say try to aim for food that:
- is generally more nutritious,
- contains carbs that are “complex” (i.e. containing fibre and starch)
- and has a low GI (glycemic index) level
These points are useful for anyone managing their diet, but they are especially useful for helping people with diabetes manage their blood glucose levels.
Fibre and starch are digested slowly, which also means that blood glucose levels rise slower, making them easier to control. Similarly, the glycemic index measures how much a food item will raise blood glucose: the lower the GI, the less blood glucose will rise.
At the same time, certain foods will have a high GI level but are worth having because of the nutrients they contain. By eating more nutritious food, you help yourself not to overeat and to help your body stay in the best shape.
In turn, this helps diabetes because the better your body functions, the more it will help your blood glucose levels. For example, excess body fat contributes to insulin resistance. By cutting down on excess fat or unhealthy carbs in your diet, you can help your body respond to insulin more efficiently.
It can be a bore to constantly think about what you’re eating. As I’ve said in my other blog post: think about your diet, but don’t overthink it. Just bear in mind what a particular food will do to your body.
And keeping a track of your food ought to be easier with Hedia’s diabetes logbook, along with the food database containing over 1700 food items. Hedia can be downloaded from Google Play or the App Store!
To finish off, let’s have a look at some common food items that people ask about, and what I can tell you about them!
Apples are a great snack because they are a source of carbs, while also being fibrous. The carbs in the apples are mainly from a sugar called fructose, meaning that an apple is fairly sugary.
Nonetheless, naturally-occurring sugars are usually a better source of sugar because they come with nutrients (you can get vitamin C from apples, for example). And apples tend to have a GI level of about 36 – according to Harvard Health – which is fairly low.
So, overall, apples won’t send your blood glucose all over the place, while providing you with nutrition.
According to the NHS’s classic 5-a-day recommendations, one of your daily five pieces of fruit and veg should be a medium-sized fresh fruit – an apple can be one of them!
Apple juice, or indeed any kind of fruit juice, tends to have a great deal more sugar than the fruit it’s made from. This is for two reasons.
First, several apples (or other fruits) need to be used to make a drinkable amount of juice. More apples means more sugar. Second, extra sugar is often added to juice when it’s being produced.
And without the substance of the fruit itself (e.g. the fibre), the carbs of that sugar are going to be digested fairly quickly, leading to a spike in blood glucose.
That doesn’t make fruit juice dangerous. The juice will still contain the nutrients of the fruit. Drinking fruit juice is probably still better than not having any fruit at all.
Plus, it can count towards your 5-a-day (although, according to the NHS, juice should only replace one serving of fruit). Moreover: it tastes good!
Bananas are an example of a fruit that has a slightly higher GI level. Bananas contain some fructose and sucrose, but they are also very starchy (starch being another kind of carb).
Don’t forget that the riper a banana is, the more carbs it has – giving ripe bananas a higher GI level.
So, bananas will raise blood glucose/blood sugar fairly quickly. But, again, as long as you’re aware of this, and are able to medicate, then this isn’t an issue.
There are certain situations when you might want to raise blood glucose. For example: does exercise lower blood sugar? Yes, sometimes – and a banana could come in handy with some activities.
Even Time Magazine has written about whether Bananas are “worth” the carbs. (Verdict: yes.) Bananas are a source of potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin B6, amongst other nutrients. A food item that’s good for anyone is definitely important when thinking about what food for diabetes!
Chocolate is a fairly broad term, which could mean anything from chocolate cake, to easter eggs, to hot chocolate – all with tremendously variable amounts of carbs.
By and large, though, chocolate is often very sweet with large amounts of sugar. This is one the classic foodstuffs we’re told to avoid for various reasons. One of these reasons is that it includes saturated fats, which build up in the arteries.
Clearly, the high sugar content will make blood glucose rise. Still, it is possible to eat chocolate (bearing in mind what food for diabetes is manageable).
Balance means having a balance of food that you enjoy – it’s not the end of the world if you eat your favourite chocolate bar once in a while.
In fact, it can be important to carry around some chocolate (often milk chocolate since it has more sugar) or other high-carb snack in case a person is insulin-dependent. Injecting insulin can lead to blood glucose that’s too low (hypoglycemia).
When looking into how to fix low blood sugar, the standard method is using the rule of 15, involving eating 15g of fast-acting carbs. This can include a few squares of chocolate.
The quintessential carb, bread is a staple in many traditional diets. Is it good? Is it bad?
I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily either. As with any carb-rich food, you just need it in balance – enough to give you the energy you need, but not so much that you start piling on the pounds.
It should be noted, though, that wholegrain bread contains more complex carbs (the ones with more nutrients and fibre). So, if you do go for bread (which you absolutely can do with diabetes), try to aim for the wholegrain loaves.
By now, you really will have understood my point that people with diabetes can eat the same as those without diabetes. It’s all about how food affects blood glucose levels, and blood glucose levels usually rise in the same way for people without diabetes.
There is no food that magically cures a chronic condition but there are food items that can make life for a person with diabetes easier!
And making life easier also means not feeling guilty about the less-so-healthy food that you might eat sometimes. As with everything, it comes once again back to balance.