Diabetes nutrition focuses on healthy foods, but sweets aren't necessarily off-limits. Here's how to include sweets in your meal plan.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Diabetes nutrition focuses on healthy foods. But you can eat sweets once in a while without feeling guilty or significantly interfering with your blood sugar control. The key to diabetes nutrition is moderation.

For years, people with diabetes were warned to avoid sweets. But what researchers understand about diabetes nutrition has changed.

  • Total carbohydrates are what counts. It was once assumed that honey, candy and other sweets would raise your blood sugar level faster and higher than would fruits, vegetables or "starchy" foods, such as potatoes, pasta or whole-grain bread. But this isn't true, as long as the sweets are eaten with a meal and balanced with other foods in your meal plan.

    Although different types of carbohydrates affect your blood sugar level differently, it's the total amount of carbohydrates that really matters.

  • But don't overdo empty calories. Of course, it's still best to consider sweets as only a small part of your eating. Candy, cookies and other sweets have few vitamins and minerals and are often high in fat and calories. You'll get more empty calories — calories without essential nutrients — when you eat sweets.

Sweets count as carbohydrates in your meal plan. The trick is substituting small portions of sweets for other carbohydrates — such as bread, tortillas, rice, crackers, cereal, fruit, juice, milk, yogurt or potatoes — in your meals. To allow room for sweets as part of a meal, you have two options:

  • Replace some of the carbohydrates in your meal with a sweet.
  • Swap a high-carb-containing food in your meal for something with fewer carbohydrates and eat the remaining carbohydrates in your meal plan as a sweet.

Let's say your dinner is a grilled chicken breast, a medium potato, a slice of whole-grain bread, a vegetable salad and fresh fruit. If you'd like a small frosted cupcake after your meal, look for ways to keep the total carbohydrate count in the meal the same.

Perhaps you trade your bread and fruit for the cupcake. Or replace the potato with a low-carbohydrate vegetable such as broccoli, then have the small cupcake.

To keep the total carbohydrate count the same when making trades, read food labels for the total carbohydrate count. This count includes starch, fiber, sugar and sugar alcohols — a type of reduced-calorie sweetener — and tells you how much carbohydrate is in one serving of the food. Consult your dietitian if you have questions.

Sugar substitutes can provide the sweetness of sugar without the unwanted calories. Using them in place of sugar can help you cut calories and stick to a healthy meal plan.

Artificial sweeteners

Examples of artificial sweeteners include:

  1. Acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One)
  2. Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet)
  3. Saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet'N Low)
  4. Sucralose (Splenda)

Be aware, however, that you need to consider the calories and carbohydrates, which can affect your blood-sugar level, in baked goods and other products made with artificial sweeteners.

Sugar alcohols

Another type of reduced-calorie sweetener is sugar alcohol. Sugar alcohols are often used in sugar-free candies, chewing gum and desserts. Check product labels for words such as "isomalt," "maltitol," "mannitol," "sorbitol" and "xylitol."

Foods with sugar alcohols have no or fewer calories and have less of an effect on blood sugar than other carbohydrates do. However, foods with sugar alcohols, like foods with other artificial sweeteners, can contain large amounts of calories, carbohydrates and fats, so read labels carefully. Also, sugar alcohols can cause diarrhea in some people.

Naturally derived sweeteners

Naturally derived sweeteners, stevia (Truvia, PureVia) and agave nectar, offer other sweetening options. Keep in mind that the sugar-to-sweetener ratio is different for each product, so you might need to experiment until you find the taste you like.

Also, agave nectar contains calories and carbohydrates, so don't use it to help you lose weight. But because it has a lower glycemic index than sugar, it won't affect your glucose level as much as sugar does.

Diabetes nutrition doesn't have to mean no sweets. If you're craving them, ask a registered dietitian to help you include your favorite treats in your meal plan. A dietitian can also help you reduce the amount of sugar and fat in your favorite recipes. Moderation is key.

Don't be surprised if your tastes change as you adopt healthier eating habits. Food that you once loved might seem too sweet — and healthy substitutes, such as baked apples and grilled pineapple, might become your new favorites.

Oct. 14, 2016