The first thing I ever knew about type 2 diabetes was that it meant you got emergency candy. I knew this because my grandmother, whose own mother went blind from untreated diabetes, developed the disease in her 70s, and after her diagnosis there was always a candy bar (BarNone, for anyone who remembers those) on hand that not even visiting grandchildren were allowed to touch.
It was there, we were told, in case her blood sugar ever went too low, and to my 6-year-old mind, a disease whose cure was candy was even cooler than all the ice cream you could eat after a tonsillectomy.
Now, of course, our understanding of diabetes is much more advanced, and the idea of someone with the disease eating a full-size chocolate bar seems much more likely to inspire an emergency than prevent one.
Diabetes is a progressive illness in which your pancreas does not produce enough, or any, insulin, explains Sumi Tohan, associate director of nutrition for the American Diabetes Association. Insulin is a hormone whose main job is to transport glucose, the sugar that our cells use for energy. Not producing enough insulin means that instead of powering cells, sugar is just circulating in our bloodstream. Given that, “any spike in blood sugar can lead to long-term complications of diabetes,” Tohan says. And the things that spike blood glucose the highest are sugary and high-carbohydrate foods.
That doesn’t have to mean that the dessert table is completely off-limits, however. You can still satisfy a sweet tooth without negative health consequences if you’re mindful about how you indulge. “Desserts can certainly fit into a healthy diet,” Tohan says. Here’s how:
Balance sugar with protein or healthy fats
Sweets get a bad rap because they tend to be higher in sugar and carbs, and lower in other nutrients like protein and fiber. While pure sugar — including honey, agave and maple syrup — and refined carbs like white flour cause blood sugar to skyrocket, adding in other nutrients can slow the breakdown of glucose and blunt those effects. That’s why most fruits, which contain fiber, have less of an impact on blood sugar than say, a soda. So your first rule for eating dessert if you have diabetes is to seek out desserts that have some whole grains, protein or healthy fats — or a combination of all three — to balance the sugar and carbs.
Indulge on a schedule
By the same token, having dessert soon after a meal can help dilute the blood-sugar-spiking effects of eating sugary foods on their own, says Tohan. (Drinking water has the same effect, to a lesser degree.) If you know you’re going to have dessert, you can even skip the carbs on your plate and double up on vegetables or lean protein instead.
Try individual-size treats
Portion size is important as well. Try to keep desserts to around 200 calories or under, with carbohydrates in the 15- to 30-gram range, Tohan suggests. Sweets that come in individual servings, like ice cream bars vs an entire pint or half-gallon, can make such portioning more automatic.
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Consider new favorites
And don’t forget, dessert doesn’t have to be sweet. Laura Fuentes, author of Clean Treats for Everyone, says that in her native Spain, cheese or charcuterie boards are a typical way to end a meal that is both satisfying and low sugar.
The next time a craving hits, here are some suggestions that follow these guidelines and are way better than a candy bar.
Mini Cheese Board
Slice some cheese — Fuentes likes something sharp like aged white cheddar and something creamy like brie — and serve with roasted almonds and sliced green apple. “It gives your palate a little bit of everything,” she says.
For a low-sugar snack, you cannot beat some whole-milk ricotta cheese mixed with mini dark chocolate chips. Trust us, you will not miss the cookie.
Chocolate-Covered Banana Slices
A serving of Dole Dippers frozen chocolate-covered banana slices has around 13 grams of carbs and 3 grams of fiber. You can also make your own: Freeze banana slices, then dip them in melted dark chocolate and set them on parchment or wax paper to dry. You can also roll them in nuts, coconut flakes or other toppings. They will keep in an airtight container in the freezer for up to two weeks.
Greek Yogurt Parfait
Greek yogurt is creamy and packed with protein, and a versatile base for toppings. Use coconut flakes, fresh fruit, nuts, seeds, granola, crushed pretzels — or anything else to craft your go-to treat.
DIY PB Cups
Scoop small spoonfuls of natural peanut or almond butter (or any no-sugar-added nut butter you prefer) onto parchment and freeze for 5 to 10 minutes. Melt some chocolate (dark or milk) with a little coconut oil and spoon into the bottom of mini muffin liners. Add the nut butter and top with more chocolate. Freeze until you need a fix.
Chia seeds are a great source of healthy omega-3s, protein and fiber, and they have a pleasing gel-like texture when mixed with liquid. Stirring a tablespoon of seeds into nut milk with maple syrup or honey makes a tasty and easy snack. You can do the same thing with oats and let them sit in the refrigerator overnight, then add toppings and enjoy a cold whole-grain treat.
A Healthier Chocolate Dip
Mixing up a brownie or chocolate cake in a cup is a great way to control portions. Stir together 2 tablespoons each of flour, sugar, milk and vegetable oil with 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder. (You can also add flavored extracts: vanilla, peppermint, raspberry.) Then microwave for 30 seconds to 1 minute for an instant chocolate-y treat.