Type 2 Diabetes
Many foods, even healthy ones, can increase blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. But you don’t have to nix them entirely. Learn how to approach these foods for better blood-sugar control.
ByK. Aleisha FettersMedically Reviewed byLynn Grieger, RDN, CDCES
Foods and drinks high in refined carbs can throw blood sugar levels soaring.
If you have type 2 diabetes, you know the importance of counting carbohydrates for blood-sugar control. But it’s not just the number of carbs in a given food that determines how that food will affect your blood sugar levels.
“While all carb-rich foods convert to sugar in our body, a food’s fiber, protein, and fat content all influence the impact of that food on blood-sugar levels,” says Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDCES, who’s based in Los Angeles. All these are factors play a role in setting a food’s glycemic index, a ranking of how drastically it raises blood sugar levels compared to straight glucose, which has a GI of 100. Low GI-foods score 55 or lower while anything 70 and up is considered a high GI food, per the Mayo Clinic.
“While GI offers an idea of how a food impacts the body, it’s not the whole story, which is where glycemic load (GL) comes in,” says Sara Thomas, PhD, RDN, a research scientist and dietitian specializing in diabetes at the healthcare company Abbott. “GL is an equation that considers the portion size of a food, as well as the GI. A food’s GL equals its GI value divided by 100 and multiplied by the total grams of carbohydrate,” a definition supported by researchers at the University of Sydney, who pioneered research on GL.
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Fortunately, if you have type 2 diabetes, you don’t need to whip out a calculator or start searching the internet for the glycemic load of every food out there.
Simply understanding the concept of glycemic load is incredibly useful when approaching foods that do tend to increase blood sugar levels. “Glycemic load shows that all foods can truly fit within a diet when you’re keeping an eye toward moderation and portion size,” Dr. Thomas says. Plus, as she explains, most foods aren’t eaten in isolation, so even if you have a high GL food on your hands, eating it alongside foods that contain plenty of healthful fats, fiber, and lean protein can dramatically lessen any potential blood sugar swings.
Here, experts share six top foods that that tend to spike blood sugar levels — and how to moderate your approach to then for more stable blood sugar levels.
White Grains, Which Are a Refined Source of Carbs
White grain-containing foods, such as white bread, pasta, and rice, are all examples of refined carbohydrate sources, meaning they have had much of their fiber removed during processing, according to the American Heart Association. “Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that has many benefits,” Thomas says. “It’s not digested by the body, so it influences gut health and may slow digestion, which may help blood sugar levels.” It also helps you feel fuller longer, to reduce the likelihood of overeating, which can negatively affect blood sugar.
When possible, opt for whole grains, such as whole-grain bread, whole-wheat pasta, and brown rice, which are rich in blood-sugar-regulating fiber. Quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and hulled barley, are also great whole grain options, she says. (Popular pearled barley is a refined, not a whole, grain.)
However, you still can include small amounts of white grains in your diet with the right approach. Try pairing them with lean meats, healthy fats, and other relatively low-carb sources of fiber, such as nonstarchy vegetables, to make white-carb-containing meals friendlier on your blood sugar, Sheth says. For example, 1/3 cup of cooked white pasta counts as a single serving, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). Portioning it alongside a chicken breast and broccoli sautéed in olive oil makes a balanced meal that will keep blood sugar levels steady, the ADA recommends.
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8 Whole Grains That Can Help Prevent Or Manage Type 2 Diabetes
Replacing refined, simple sugars with more complex sources is an important step in managing type 2 diabetes. Complex carbohydrates leads to better blood sugar management compared with refined grains, according to the American Heart Association.
Sugar-Sweetened Drinks, Which Lack Key Nutrients
“It’s really hard to control blood sugar if you’re drinking sweetened beverages,” says Rasa Kazlauskaite, MD, associate professor of endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. She explains that, apart from containing heavy amounts of sugar, drinks like soda, sweetened iced tea, and even fruit juice contain virtually no protein, fat, or fiber. What’s more, these drinks don’t actually aid satiety, she says. and most people would prefer to actually gain some fullness out of anything that’s going to raise their blood sugar.
While for the most part the best course of action is to entirely avoid sweetened caloric drinks, a small serving of these beverages can be helpful in quickly raising blood sugar when people are struggling with acute hypoglycemia, Dr. Kazlauskaite notes. Start with ½ cup and see how you blood sugar changes before having any more.
If you don’t have low blood sugar and are simply craving something sweet, you can scratch the itch with a sugar-free seltzer. Still, your main beverage of choice should be water. If you have trouble putting away water without the flavor, try adding pieces of freshly sliced fruit to your water bottle, Kazlauskaite says.
Fast Food, Which Is an Unexpected Sugar-Bomb
Sure, no one is calling fast food a health food, but we tend to think about hamburgers and french fries being high in only calories and fat. The truth is, fast food items tend to also be high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, too. Some popular drive-thru burgers actually contain as much as a candy bar. For example, a McDonald’s double quarter pounder with cheese contains 10 grams (g) of sugar and 43 g of carbs, compared with a 2-ounce Snickers bar’s 29 g of sugar and 35 g of carbs, per the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
When fast food is the only option, remember that buns, breading, condiments, fries, and soda tend to all be very high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, so keep the number of these foods that you order to a minimum, Sheth says. If you get a breaded chicken sandwich, try a small, light-on-the-dressing salad for your side. And say "no thanks" to the soda.
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Fruit, Which Can Send Blood Sugar Soaring When Overeaten
Yes, it’s true that fruit can spike blood sugar levels, but that’s no reason to strip it from your diet entirely. After all, fruit is rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, all of which are great for your health and management of type 2 diabetes, Thomas says.
Your approach: Make sure that you count any fruit consumed as a carb, with one tennis-ball-sized piece of fruit counting as one serving, she says. Opt for whole fresh or frozen options when possible because they’re unprocessed and don’t come with the addition of any sugars. If you prefer canned, make sure the fruit is packed in water, not sugary syrup. Last, even if you do manage to find dried fruits that don’t contain added sugar, know they will still drastically spike your blood sugar. That’s because these fruits have been dehydrated, meaning they contain just as much sugar as a whole fruit, but in a single bite, she says. For example, according to the USDA, while a whole apricot has just over 3 g of sugar, only 2 tbsp of dried apricots has that same amount.
Starchy Vegetables, Which in Large Amounts Can Destabilize Blood Sugar
Oh, the poor potato — and, along with it, other starchy vegetables like peas and corn. These foods pack a greater quantity of carbs compared with nonstarchy vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and lettuce. “But, make sure you don’t cut out starchy vegetables entirely. They still provide good nutrients, and some can even be higher in fiber than nonstarchy vegetables,” Thomas says. For instance, 1 medium white potato contains 2.38 g of fiber (or about 8.5 percent of the daily value). A cup of cauliflower? 1.02 g for about 3.6 percent of the DV, per the USDA.
When planning meals that contain starchy vegetables, just make sure to count that starchy food as a carb, and then pair it with low-GL foods such as lean proteins and healthy fats, she says. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a serving of winter squash is 1 cup. Eat it topped with some shredded chicken and cheese. Easy peasy.
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Nondairy Milk, Which Can Surprisingly Be High in Sugar
Even dairy milk counts as a carb, but it’s a carb with a low GI, according to Harvard Medical School. That’s not always true for nondairy milks, with the currently trending oat milk being very high in sugar, says Thomas, noting that rice milk tends to be the highest in sugar. In fact, according to Harvard Medical School, it comes with a GI of 86 — 86 percent as high as straight glucose.
As far as milk substitutes go, unsweetened soy tends to be the least likely to spike your blood sugar, thanks to lower sugar levels and higher protein levels. Nutrition information varies by brand, so be sure to read the label. As an example, 1 cup of Silk unsweetened soy milk contains 1 g of sugar (no added sugar) and 7 g of protein.
Additional reporting by Beth W. Orenstein.