If you’re living with diabetes, it might seem like sugar and desserts should be forbidden – after all, they are typically loaded with carbohydrates. The good news is, as long as you plan and choose sweet treats mindfully, you can have your cake and eat it too.
“The myths among many people is that desserts are off-limits if you are a diabetic, but they are not; you just have to work them into your eating plan with your physician or diabetes educator,” said Jackie Mills, a registered dietitian and author of “The Big Book of Diabetic Desserts.”
That may mean cutting back on carbohydrates elsewhere in your meal. For example, a dietitian might recommend that a person with diabetes limit their carbs to 30 to 45 grams per meal. To meet those limits, a small dessert might replace other carb-rich foods, like mashed potatoes, bread or rice, Mills explained.
It’s also smart to consume your carbs cautiously and not waste them on other less satisfying treats. “If you are spending your carbs on a packaged, processed bag of cookies, is that a wise choice?” Mills asked.
Saving rich, indulgent desserts for special occasions like holidays or birthdays, when treats are not only savored but shared among friends and family, can be meaningful. “Think about the quality of dessert, how much satisfaction you will get from it and the sharing concept of it,” Mills said. In other words, sharing desserts can symbolize happy memories shared, in addition to offering portion control.
Diabetic sweet treats
If you’re craving a daily sweet treat, you might enjoy a piece of fresh fruit, a luscious dried date or a small handful of dried cherries or cranberries. “The sweetness is less potent than a dessert; plus you are getting the nutrients, antioxidants and fiber from those foods,” Mills said.
For a more substantial snack, you might opt for a healthy fat and fruit combo, like a protein-rich Greek yogurt topped with fresh fruit, cinnamon and chopped walnuts; a cup of berries with slivered almonds on top; or apple and banana slices with a nut or seed butter spread. Adding a small amount of fat to carbs can help prevent blood sugar from spiking and crashing.
If you enjoy higher-fat treats, try downsizing your dessert. Bite-size portions of rich desserts can give you the indulgence you crave while keeping carbs in check. This is key, because as portion size increases, your blood sugar level and calories will increase, as well. Think one small cookie, one mini-muffin or one truffle.
“Petit fours are in that category, too,” Mills said. Stocking up on pans for mini treats can help. “I just got a mini doughnut pan, and it makes the cutest desserts. It’s probably four bites, so you can bake a regular cake batter in it and have automatic portion control,” she said.
Enjoying a mini-muffin with fruit instead of a frosted cupcake can mean the difference between having something sweet and satisfying versus going overboard, Mills explained. Other foods swaps she recommends for cutting carbs include a tiny square of bittersweet chocolate instead of a brownie, a chocolate-dipped strawberry in place of strawberry shortcake or a slice of angel food cake piece instead of a slice of frosted layer cake. Angel food cake has less sugar than most cakes because it’s whipped up with egg whites and is airier than regular cake, Mills explained.
Baking desserts for diabetics
If you’re baking desserts, Jackie Newgent, a registered dietitian, culinary nutritionist and author of “The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook,” recommends using wholesome plant-based ingredients such as whole grains, nuts and whole fruit, including avocado. These ingredients may provide an anti-inflammatory effect while boosting the nutrient-richness of one’s diet, according to Newgent.
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“Since there is an association between inflammation and high blood sugar and diabetes-related complications, including foods that offer anti-inflammatory properties is a key part of a diabetes eating plan,” Newgent said.
For instance, enjoy an avocado-based pudding, like Newgent’s dark chocolate-raspberry pudding (below), or serve a fresh or grilled seasonal peach half as a base for a Greek yogurt sundae (see “just peachy bowls” below).
And a note on artificial sweeteners: While oftentimes you can replace up to half of the sugar in a recipe with a sugar substitute, Mills cautions that using non-caloric sweeteners comes with drawbacks. “If you choose to bake with artificial sweeteners, you lose some volume in a cake; it doesn’t brown as well, it gets stale faster … and things made with flour end up tougher, as sugar is a tenderizer. You’re not just getting the sweetness of sugar but other attributes when you bake with it,” she said.
Diabetes dessert recipes
Dark chocolate-raspberry pudding
Serves 2, serving size: about ½ cup
Prep time: 10 minutes (plus chilling time), cooking time: 0 minutes
1 large fully ripened Hass avocado, peeled and pitted
3 tablespoons no-sugar-added raspberry or black raspberry jam
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon plus ⅛ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon raspberry-flavored red wine vinegar or aged balsamic vinegar
6 fresh or thawed frozen raspberries
1. Place the avocado, jam, cocoa powder, vanilla extract, salt and vinegar in a food processor or the bowl of an electric mixer. Blend until smooth and fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping the sides as needed.
2. Transfer the pudding to small dessert dishes. Chill for at least 1 hour to allow flavors to mingle, top with the raspberries and serve.
Choices/exchanges: 1 carbohydrate, 2 fat
Per eerving: calories 170, calories from fat 100, total fat 11g, saturated fat 2g, trans fat 0g, cholesterol 0mg, sodium 450mg, potassium 435mg, total carbohydrate 20g, dietary fiber 8g, sugars 9g, protein 2g, phosphorus 80mg
Recipe reprinted with permission from “The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook, 2nd edition,” by Jackie Newgent, published by the American Diabetes Association.
Just peachy bowls
Serves 4, serving size: 1 bowl
Prep time: 8 minutes, cooking time: 0 minutes (if using pre-toasted or roasted nuts)
1 cup fat-free plain Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon honey or coconut nectar
¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large fully ripened peaches, halved, pits and stems removed
2 tablespoons natural sliced almonds, pan-toasted, or roasted pistachios
20 small fresh mint leaves
1. In a small bowl, stir together the yogurt, honey and vanilla.
2. Place each peach half onto a small plate, cut side up. Top each half with the yogurt mixture, almonds and mint, and serve.
Choices/exchanges: 1 fruit, ½ fat-free milk
Per serving: calories 90, calories from fat 20, total fat 2g, saturated fat 0g, trans fat 0g, cholesterol 5mg, sodium 20mg, potassium 270mg, total carbohydrate 13g, dietary fiber 2g, sugars 10g, protein 7g, phosphorus 20mg
Recipe reprinted with permission from “The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook,” 2nd edition, by Jackie Newgent, published by the American Diabetes Association.