A bowl of blueberry ice cream on a white counter with fresh berries

By Louisa Foo, in consultation with Lee Lin Fong, Senior Dietitian. This article was first published in ONEHealth Magazine, 2016 Issue 8

Diabetes is not — as mistakenly perceived — caused by eating too much sugary food, but is a condition where the body can no longer “unlock” the energy from carbohydrates (including sugar), causing dangerous spikes and dips in blood sugar. This means that when it comes to choosing what to eat, diabetics need to control not only their intake of sugar but carbohydrates in general.

Carbohydrates refer to sugars, complex carbohydrates and fibre — all of which can be found in foods such as rice, bread, noodles, fruit and sweet foods. All these, not just sugar, count towards a diabetic’s carbohydrate quota for the day.

“Carbohydrates have the greatest impact on blood sugar levels, causing it to rise,” explained Lee Lin Fong, Senior Dietitian, JurongHealth. “In processed and packaged foods, carbohydrates may be labelled as starch, sugar, honey, sugar alcohol, polydextrose or maltodextrin,” she explained.

Even foods that are labelled “sugar-free” or “diabetic friendly” may still contain a substantial amount of other types of carbohydrates and have a significant impact on blood sugar level, she highlighted. “Thus, it is important to read the nutrition information panel and/or the ingredient list to make wiser choices.”

Related: Does Red Meat Cause Diabetes?

Balancing Act

Blueberries and blackberries displayed on a whiite plate against a blue stone background

If you are diabetic, identifying and knowing just how much carbohydrates you are eating is important because it means you can better maintain a good carbohydrate balance and even enjoy the occasional dessert.

A ‘diabetic-friendly’ dessert, said Ms Lee, should be one that is relatively low in carbohydrates and calories. Ideally, it should also be high in fibre. This includes frozen low-fat yoghurt with nuts, fresh fruit or even homemade low-sugar cookies.

This means you don’t have to give up dessert altogether, but carefully tweak your diet so you can still enjoy a sweet finale. Opt for brown instead of white rice, noodles or pasta and eat a little less than your usual serving. This means you can still “afford” to have a small slice of cake after your meal without going beyond your “carb quota”. Celebrating a special occasion with cake or ice cream? Halve your portion or share it with a friend.

Cut back on sugar by using low-calorie sweeteners, though keep in mind that depending on the sweetener, these also contain some carbohydrates. You can also curb sugar cravings by complying with your diabetes medication, eating regular balanced meals and getting regular exercise. Poor diabetes control causes saliva to turn sweet, dulling the ability to taste sweet foods and increasing sugar cravings. “Remember that sugar is not forbidden,” Ms Lee said, “Rather, focus on quantity, quality and frequency.”

Related: Your Guide to Healthy Eating for Managing Diabetes

Know Your Sugar Substitutes

Two spoons of brown and white sugar laid on a wooden table

Sugar Alcohol

  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol
  • Mannitol
  • Glycerol
  • Lactitol
  • Erythritol
  • Isomalt

Artificial Sweeteners

  • Aspartame
  • Sucralose
  • Saccharin
  • Acesulfame Potassium

These can be used to sweeten drinks or in cooking. However, keep in mind that these do not help reduce sugar cravings and should be consumed in limited amounts.

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