Type 2 diabetes affects around 415 million people around the world. When not properly managed, type 2 diabetes can pose significant health risks, including an increased risk of heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and death.
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) reports that there is strong evidence to support the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of nutrition therapy as part of the medical management of diabetes. Nutritional therapy aims to help people with diabetes maintain their glycemic targets, achieve their weight management goals, and improve their cardiovascular risk factors (including high blood pressure) and overall quality of life.
Importantly, nutritional therapy is not a one-size-fits-all solution and should be tailored to suit an individual’s lifestyle, medical history, health goals, and socioeconomic environment. Put simply, how much sugar a person with diabetes can have varies from individual to individual. What matters is that they eat a balanced and healthy diet, and in most cases, keep track of their total carbohydrate intake.
How Much Sugar Can People With Diabetes Have?
The World Health Organization recommends that all adults (not specifically those with diabetes) limit their consumption of added or free sugars to 5-10% of their total calorie intake. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans also recommends limiting added sugar intake to a maximum of 10% of total calories. However, these guidelines are not specific to people with diabetes and refer to added sugars only, not natural sugars present in many foods, including fresh fruits, dairy, starches, and some vegetables.
Keeping blood sugar levels in a healthy range is important for every person, but for someone with diabetes, maintaining target blood sugar levels is even more critical. Over time, unstable blood sugar levels in people with diabetes can lead to serious health problems, including hyperglycemia, nerve, kidney, and heart damage.
Though monitoring sugar intake is important, there is no overarching guideline for the broad spectrum of people affected by diabetes. Instead, the ADA recommends that people with diabetes work with their healthcare providers to create individualized eating plans that take into account their current eating patterns, preferences, and metabolic goals.
Do Carbs Count?
Yes, carbs count. When we talk about sugar, especially in the context of diabetes, most people immediately think of candy, cakes, cookies, and other sweet treats or desserts. Though these foods can be especially high in sugar, there are other carbohydrates that contain sugar that are important to keep track of when you have diabetes.
There are three different types of carbohydrates:
- Sugars: These include natural sugars found in fruit and milk as well as added sugars found in candy, soft drinks, and other packaged foods.
- Staches: Sugar from starches can be found in foods like wheat, oats, and starchy vegetables like corn, potatoes, or lentils.
- Fiber: The component found in plant-based foods that isn’t digested by the body.
Importantly, both sugars and starches raise your blood sugar when they’re consumed, but fiber doesn’t.
People with diabetes should monitor their total carbohydrate intake, not just their intake of added sugars. Though different types of carbs can affect your blood sugar levels differently, monitoring your total intake will help you maintain your target blood sugar levels throughout the day.
Should People With Diabetes Eat Sugar?
It’s important for people with diabetes to eat a healthy and balanced diet, which includes foods that contain sugars, like fruit, dairy foods, grains, beans, and starchy vegetables. It’s best for everyone—whether they have diabetes or not—to limit their intake of foods with added sugars.
Why Limiting Sugar Is Important for Managing Diabetes
People with type 2 diabetes have difficulty producing or responding normally to insulin, which makes it harder for their body to keep blood sugar levels within a normal range. Monitoring your sugar intake helps keep your blood sugar levels within an optimal range (as defined by your healthcare provider).
Tips to Limit Sugar Intake
There are several strategies for healthy eating for people with diabetes, including:
- The Plate Method: At every meal, divide a nine-inch plate into three sections: half of your plate should contain non-starchy vegetables (like spinach, kale, or tomatoes), one quarter of your plate should contain lean protein (like chicken or fish), and the final quarter should contain grains or starchy vegetables (like rice or potatoes).
- The Glycemic Index (GI): This measures how quickly foods can cause your blood sugar to rise when eaten. Using the GI can help you prioritize foods that do not cause blood sugar spikes.
No two people’s health and health goals are the same. The best and most effective way to limit your sugar intake in a sustainable way is to work with your healthcare provider and/or a registered dietitian to ensure you’re eating an optimized diet for you and your body.
Managing Diabetes With K Health
Working with a primary care provider whom you trust is an important step in managing your diabetes. At K Health, you can connect with a virtual primary care provider to manage your diabetes. If you’ve never been diagnosed with diabetes but are experiencing new symptoms, including frequent urination, increased hunger, or increased thirst, you can reach out to a provider at K Health to discuss diabetes testing.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Carb Counting. (2022.)
Diabetes Diet, Eating, & Physical Activity. (2016.)
Diabetes, Hypertension, and Cardiovascular Disease: Clinical Insights and Vascular Mechanisms. (2018.)
Nutrition Therapy for Adults With Diabetes or Prediabetes: A Consensus Report. (2019.)
Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes—2019, Abridged for Primary Care Providers. (2019.)
What is the appropriate upper limit for added sugars consumption? (2017.)