If you have diabetes, your healthcare provider has likely told you the importance of diet when it comes to managing your blood sugar. And if you’re not sure what foods to avoid, all you may have to do is listen to your body for clues.
Certain foods, particularly those rich in carbohydrates, can cause blood sugars to rise quickly. This can make you feel sluggish, cause high blood sugar, and even make you gain weight.
You may even be surprised to realize that some of the foods you consider healthy are on this list because of their high carb content, lack of fiber, and generally limited nutritional value.
Here’s a look at a few of them and why they should be avoided or eaten in moderation if you have diabetes.
Whole-wheat options are generally always better choices than refined-grain counterparts—but they do not translate to fewer carbohydrates.
Eating just one whole-wheat bagel is about the same as eating four to six slices bread. Whole-wheat bagels are very carbohydrate-dense and can raise blood sugar quickly.
They are also lacking in filling fiber and protein, which can leave you feeling hungry just an hour or two after eating.1
There are healthier breakfast options that can have a positive impact on your diabetes. Studies suggest a larger, higher-protein, higher-fat breakfast may help reduce hemoglobin A1C, your average blood sugar over the last three months.2
If you really want a bagel, scoop the bread out from the middle and top it with a few scrambled eggs and a vegetable of your choice.2 This will at least cut back the calories and carbs, while adding some fiber and protein.
Dried fruit, particularly when covered with yogurt, chocolate, or otherwise sweetened, is loaded with sugar—even in very small portions. Additionally, because dried fruit is condensed, a serving is very small. For example, one serving of raisins is only 2 tablespoons.
It is important to know that dried fruits are not the recommended way to get your fruit intake for the day. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans notes that adults should consume approximately 2 servings of fruit each day with an emphasis on whole fruits.
Fresh 100% juice is also acceptable, but it can raise blood sugar more quickly than whole fruits, which have more fiber. It’s also much easier to rack up calories by drinking juice.3
The intent of margarine is to reduce saturated fat and calories. However, some margarine spreads are made with partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat).
It is important to avoid trans fat, because it acts similarly to saturated fat.4
When choosing a margarine, be sure to read the label. If it lists “hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil,” consider a different product.
Or avoid margarine altogether. Hummus, mashed avocado, and nut butters are heart-healthy fat alternatives that make for great spreads.
Fat-Free Salad Dressing and Low-Fat Peanut Butter
Thinking about purchasing low-fat peanut butter or fat-free salad dressing? You might want to think again.
Often, fat is replaced with sugar in these products and they may contain more carbohydrates than regular versions.
- Fat-free salad dressing: About 7 grams (g) carbohydrate in 2 Tablespoons
- Low-fat peanut butter: About 8 g carbohydrate in 1 Tablespoon
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans state that replacing total fat with overall carbohydrates does not lower cardiovascular disease risk. On the other hand, strong and consistent evidence shows that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat reduces the risk of heart-health events and related death.3
Foods that contain heart-healthy fat like nut butters and oil-based dressing are good for you in moderation and can have favorable effects on cholesterol.5
Sauces and Condiments
It’s not uncommon to dip, pour, and smear condiments and sauces on sandwiches, bread, and other food items without factoring them into your carbohydrate and calorie count for the day.
Sauces and condiments tend to contain a large amount of sodium, carbohydrates, fat, and calories—even in small portions. This is often due to the fact that flour and sugar are added for texture or flavor.
Estimated nutrition facts for these popular condiments and sauces:
- Gravy: About 6 g of carbohydrates in 1/2 cup serving
- Barbecue sauce: About 9 g of carbohydrate in 2 tablespoons
- Ketchup: About 4 g of carbohydrate in 1 tablespoon
- Salsa: About 3 g of carbohydrate in 1 tablespoon
- Tomato sauce: About 7 g carbohydrate in 1/2 cup
This can add up quickly. The best way to keep track of your intake is to always read labels when choosing these products. When possible, avoid packaged or canned sauces or gravies, since these foods tend to be high in sodium, which can increase blood pressure.6
Sugar-Free or No-Added-Sugar Foods
Many people assume that sugar-free and no-sugar-added food items will not affect their blood sugar. This isn’t always the case.
Sugar-free and no-sugar-added foods can still contain carbohydrates, especially if they contain milk or flour. Make sure to always read the labels and consume these foods in moderation.
For a sense of carbs in some common sugar-free foods:
- Sugar-free pudding snack: About 13 g carbohydrate
- Sugar-free maple syrup: About 12 g carbohydrate in 1/4 cup
- Sugar-free jelly: About 5 g carbohydrate in 1 tablespoon
- Sugar-free candy bar (chocolate): About 18 g carbohydrate depending on bar
- No-sugar-added ice cream: About 13 g carbohydrate in 1/2 cup
Battered and Fried Foods
Fried food items such as chicken nuggets, eggplant Parmesan, and chicken wings are breaded or dipped in flour before cooking. Flour and breading are starches and contain added carbohydrates.7
For example, a 3-ounce breaded chicken cutlet has about 10 grams of carbohydrate.
You can indulge from time to time, but note the carbohydrate content of those foods and aim to keep your portions manageable.
Also keep in mind that these types of foods are rich in calories and saturated fat, which can cause weight gain and elevated cholesterol.
This one may seem like a no-brainer, but sweetened beverages, including juices, sodas, and flavored coffees, can increase blood sugars quickly.
For people with diabetes, sweetened beverages can serve a purpose when blood sugar is low. But on a daily basis, these types of beverages should be avoided.8
One of the simplest ways to lose weight, improve blood sugar control, and reduce triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood) is to avoid these types of beverages.
It’s also a good idea to read labels of other caloric beverages, such as flavored milk alternatives and coffee drinks. Some beverages may contain hidden carbohydrates from added sweeteners. Here a few to watch out for:
- Low-fat latte: About 15 g carbohydrate in 12 oz
- Vanilla soy milk: About 10 g carbohydrate in 1 cup 9
- Coconut water: About 9 g carbohydrate in 8 oz
White Bread, Rice, and Pasta
Refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, white pasta, and white rice, are starches that have undergone processing to remove the bran and germ of the grain. This strips them of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
These foods can cause big blood sugar spikes yet yield little to no nutritional value.10
Instead of choosing refined grains, it is better to choose whole grains. In fact, research has shown that choosing whole grains instead of refined grains can reduce the risk of heart disease, decrease blood pressure, and aid in weight loss.11
The fiber found in whole grains slows down the speed at which blood sugars rise. Whole grains also contain more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.