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.