If you have diabetes, it can seem like everyone has advice for you. "Eat this." "Don't eat that." "Always have a snack before bed." "Never eat after 8 p.m."
Wow! As both a registered dietitian nutritionist and a certified diabetes educator, I see many overwhelmed and confused patients with diabetes, and I'm happy to take the role of diabetes myth-buster. Today, I'll clear up four smart-sounding but misguided recommendations.
Diabetes Myth #1: You Can't Eat Fruit
While it's true that fruit contains carbohydrates, and carbs raise blood sugar, it's not true that carbs or fruit are bad for people with diabetes. Even with their natural sugars, fruits nourish your body with fiber, vitamins, minerals and a host of health-boosting phytochemicals. These are the same compounds you need for good health and to prevent common complications of diabetes.
What to do: Enjoy a variety of fruits in reasonable portions. Learn the carb counts of your favorite ones and count them in your total allotment for your meal or snack. If you don't already have a meal plan tailored to your health needs and food preferences, schedule an appointment with a registered dietitian nutritionist who is also a certified diabetes educator.
Diabetes Myth #2: If It's Sugar-Free, Eat Up
Sugar-free cookies, cakes and ice cream are popular, but they aren't necessarily low in calories or even low in carbohydrates. And, they can have a big impact on your diabetes management! Carbs other than sugar — such as the flour and sugar alcohols in sugar-free desserts — affect your blood sugar levels, too.
What to do: Scrutinize the Nutrition Facts panel on the package to look for total carbohydrates. Again, count this toward your carbohydrate goal for that meal or snack. Pay attention to calories, too — those are what pack on the pounds.
Diabetes Myth #3: You Must Eat Snacks
Eating snacks when you aren't hungry might be one of the reasons you're not slimming down and seeing healthier blood sugar numbers. Years ago, when there were very few diabetes medications available, snacks were necessary to prevent blood sugar from dropping too low between meals. That's no longer the case because we have so many newer medications that don't cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
What to do: Check with your health care provider to learn if your medications require you to snack. If you're at risk for hypoglycemia, but you prefer not to snack often, ask if there are other treatment options. On the other hand, if you like a between-meal nosh, be sure to take that as an opportunity to fill in nutritional gaps. Ask yourself what you haven't eaten enough of today. I'll guess fruits and vegetables is the answer. Nuts and low-fat yogurt or cheese are other good choices.
Diabetes Myth #4: Want a Big Dinner Tonight? Just Eat Light the Rest of the Day
Who doesn't want a big celebratory meal now and again? Before you had diabetes, you might have been able to get away with skimping on breakfast and lunch to save up for a big plate of pasta or other favorite meal later in the day. But, these days, the amount you eat — especially the amount of carbohydrates you eat — matters at every meal.
What to do: Instead of adding extra carbohydrates to your meal, which will just raise your blood sugar, swap one carb-rich food for another. I even occasionally prefer my patients with diabetes forgo fruits, whole grains and other healthful carb-rich foods so they can enjoy a small slice of birthday cake. By the way, the key words in that last sentence were "occasionally" (meaning, don't do this often) and "small" (meaning, a reasonable slice of cake).
Still unsure? Take time to meet with an expert. Find a registered dietitian nutritionist who is also a certified diabetes educator.