When your doctor first tells you that you have diabetes, your immediate thought is likely to be, “Oh, no more sugar for me!” Quite understandable, because we are conditioned by our interactions with the people in our family and friends circle that have diabetes, who at some point have asked for “sugarless” tea or coffee or refused sweets during festivals or social functions.
It is commonly believed that people with diabetes should keep away from sugar. But there is a “Conditions apply” clause that not many of us know about, and your doctor may not tell you this if they are worried about your compliance with a healthy diet.
You don’t need to give up sugar completely:
Yes, that’s right! People with diabetes can eat sugar and sugar-containing foods, provided – this is important – they account for the number of calories that this will add to a given meal. (1)
Dr. Vatsala Kashi, a physician, adds a note of caution: “For people with diabetes, it is a tradeoff between good health and high sugar. There is no stock answer to whether someone can eat sugar or not; it has to be customised for each person based on age, duration of diabetes, complications, if any, the person’s lifestyle, any coexisting anxiety or depression and so on.”
People with diabetes are generally advised against eating sugar for two reasons:
- Having sugar means consuming calories, and having more calories means putting on weight. Being overweight or obese can increase insulin resistance (cells rejecting insulin), thereby affecting the body’s regulation of blood sugar, and can also increase the risk for diabetic complications such as heart disease or stroke. (2)
- Consuming processed sugar leads to rapid absorption of sugar in the blood and thus rapid spikes in blood sugar levels.
To address these concerns, make sure you rigorously monitor the amount of sugar you consume. Cut down gradually on your regular quantity of sugar. For example, if you’re used to two teaspoons of sugar in your tea, bring it down to one. If you use 3 cups of sugar to make your besan laddoo, see if just 2 will suffice. And as much as possible, keep bringing the sugar levels down, to say half a spoon or half a cup.
Ensure that you increase your level of physical activity and exercise daily to combat any sugar intake. Walk for 40 minutes instead of 20 to make sure your body is burning more calories.
Do a trial period, wherein you adjust your sugar intake and monitor your blood sugar regularly. Use the information you collect to decide what combination works best to keep your blood glucose levels in check.
Or, try sugar substitutes
If you’d rather stick to the “No sugar for me” camp, there are several sugar substitutes that you could explore. Sugar substitutes are food additives that impart a sweet taste like sugar but are far lower in calorie content. Honey and stevia are natural sugar substitutes; others like saccharin, sucralose, aspartame and acesulfame potassium are artificial sweeteners approved by the American Diabetes Association. (3) But these also have to be taken in extreme moderation, as their long-term and unchecked use can create other unwanted problems. (4)
Table sugar is not the only thing you need to worry about:
With all the hype around plain table sugar, we often forget of dangers lurking elsewhere. Any carbohydrate you eat – bread, rice, pasta, biscuits, chocolate, fruits, sweetened soft drinks, juices – will increase your blood sugar levels. Make sure you watch how much of these you’re consuming. Some foods have hidden sugars – think tomato ketchup, ready-to-eat foods, pasta sauces – which are just as bad for your diabetes. (2)
Sometimes, people on anti-diabetic medication, especially those on insulin, think they can get away with eating sugar and sweet foods if they learn to “fix” their blood glucose levels by adjusting the dose of their medicines. But this can have dangerous consequences and is best avoided. (3) Instead, make the effort to eat healthier and exercise more regularly and with time, you’ll find it easier to keep your blood sugars at a level that helps to improve your overall health.
Dr. Vatsala Kashi (M. D.), is a consultant physician at Ramakrishna Nursing Home, Bengaluru.
Photo courtesy: Shutterstock
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease. Carbohydrate counting and diabetes. Available online at
- Diabetes UK. Myth: Sugar causes diabetes. Available online at https://www.diabetes.org.uk/guide-to-diabetes/enjoy-food/eating-with-diabetes/diabetes-food-myths/myth-sugar-causes-diabetes
- WebMD. 10 Diabetes Diet Myths. Available online at