Here's good news for people with diabetes trying to reconcile a sweet tooth or adventurous palate with a healthy diet. "No food is off-limits for people with diabetes," says Angela Ginn, RD, a certified diabetes educator (CDE), and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "Once diagnosed, people make assumptions-like they can never eat anything with sugar ever again, but that's one of the biggest misconceptions."
The trick to incorporating your favorite foods into a diabetes-friendly diet is portion control, adds Tami Ross, RD, CDE, incoming president-elect of the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Here are five foods you can keep on your menu, plus tips for how to enjoy them the healthy way.
No, it did not cause your diabetes, but about 15 to 20 years ago, doctors did tell people with diabetes to avoid sugar completely, explains Ross, author of What Do I Eat Now?: A Step-by-Step Guide to Eating Right with Type 2 Diabetes. But research has since shown that it's the total amount of carbohydrates you eat that affects blood glucose more than a particular type of carb, like sugar or starch. So yes, you can still eat pumpkin pie and honey and your favorite ice cream and even the sprinkles on top-just probably not all in one sitting, and in much smaller servings than you're used to.
Eat it healthy: "As a rule of thumb, there's a certain amount of carbohydrates people with diabetes can have per meal-for women, it's about 45 to 60 g, for men, 60 to 75 g," says Ross. If you want to have something sweet after dinner, reduce the amount of sugar in your main meal. For example, you might lose the carb-heavy corn for a less starchy vegetable so you can have some ice cream afterward, says Ginn. Pay attention to the portion sizes of your desserts: A half-cup of vanilla ice cream has about 15 g carbs-a healthy amount. Two store-bought peanut butter cookies contain about 16 g carbs, and so do about six chocolate kisses; but one normal-size piece of chocolate cake has more than 70 g, so only have a sliver.
People always ask about bananas and oranges-probably because they are among the sweetest fruits, says Ginn. Fruit does contain naturally-occurring sugars, but it's also loaded with vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which are vital to your health. Plus, your body doesn't see the carbohydrates in fruit any differently than the carbs it gets from dairy or whole grains, adds Ginn-and you wouldn't cut milk and whole wheat from your diet, right?
Eat it healthy: Current dietary guidelines recommend everyone, including people with diabetes, eat 1½ to 2 total cups of fruit per day. Fresh, frozen with no added sugar, or canned fruit in light syrup or 100% fruit juice are all good options, but make sure you get the portions right: one small orange or ½ of a large banana has about 15 g of carbs; ½ cup of frozen or canned fruit has about the same amount. Dried fruit and fruit juice are also okay, but you can't consume as much so they may not be as filling: just 2 tablespoons of the dried raisins or cherries and 1/3 to a ½ cup of fruit juice each have 15 g of carbs.
It gets a bad rap because people eat too much of it, says Ross. They also eat the wrong kind: Government guidelines suggest at least half of the grains you eat in a day should be whole to help protect your heart, maintain your weight, and provide your body with essential nutrients, like fiber, B vitamins, and minerals. Whole wheat pasta actually contains the same amount of carbs as the white, refined versions, says Ross, but the fiber in the whole grain may impact blood glucose levels less and it causes the food to move through the digestive tract more slowly than refined grains, so you feel fuller longer.
Eat it healthy: Make pasta a side dish instead of a centerpiece to your meal, and take the time to really measure out the right amount: 1/3 cup of cooked pasta contains about 15 g. Lower-carb pastas are another option, if you want to eat a little more. "My favorite is Dreamfields pasta," says Ross-it has only 5 g of digestible carbs in about a cup (go to dreamfieldsfoods.com to find it in stores near you).
Starchy foods are one of the main sources of carbohydrates in our diet, which is why most people with diabetes try to avoid them. But starchy vegetables are also great sources of nutrients. People worry about potatoes in particular, says Ginn, but they're packed in vitamin C, potassium, and fiber, and as part of a meal that includes non-starchy veggies, like lettuce or green beans, you can eat them guilt-free. Other starchy veggies include corn, peas, and butternut squash.
Eat it healthy: Have your potato baked or boiled, instead of French and fried, and limit your portion to ½ cup, which is about half the size of your fist. To boost flavor, top it with salsa or Greek yogurt instead of calorie-laden butter and sour cream.
Forget eating less, this is one food you can actually enjoy lots of. People skip carrots because of their natural sweetness, but the fiber in them helps slow the rise of blood sugar, explains Ginn. And in general, non-starchy veggies-like carrots, broccoli, asparagus, and tomatoes-pack less total carbohydrates than their starchy cousins.
Eat it healthy: One cup of raw or cooked carrots only contains 12 g of carbs-enough said? If not, consider that most of the carbohydrates in non-starchy vegetables are fiber so unless you eat more than 1 cup of cooked or 2 cups of raw at one time, those carbs may not even count against your meal. What about ready-to-eat veggies? Canned or frozen vegetables are fine, but look for ones that say low sodium or no salt added on the label; and skip any veggie concoctions that come in sauces-they are generally higher in fat and salt.