Diabetes Forecast

10 Tips on How and When to Splurge

A diabetes-friendly diet need not mean constant deprivation

By Tracey Neithercott , , ,


When you're trying to eat healthfully, the call of a craving can seem as loud as a foghorn. "Look, over there," it shouts. "It's a perfectly moist, perfectly decorated, perfectly sugary slice of cake." If you have diabetes, you might resist. Maybe you've sworn off junk food. Maybe you think that a diabetes meal plan should be strict: fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy—and no wiggle room.

For some people, that's doable. But others find that deprivation only leads to cravings that get stronger and stronger until it's 2 a.m. and you've just polished off a pint of rocky road. That's why the American Diabetes Association suggests that eating plans allow for the occasional indulgence. The trick, of course, is to walk the fine line between deprivation and overdoing it.

"People with diabetes should definitely treat themselves," says Elisabetta Politi, RD, MPH, LDN, CDE, nutrition director at the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center. "When people abstain from food, they may be able to sustain it for two to three weeks, but then they go back to their normal diet."

So how do you indulge without gorging? Here are the experts' top tips.

1. Splurge infrequently.

By its very definition, a treat is something out of the ordinary. Which is to say: Indulging with every meal doesn't count. Some people need daily treats to stay motivated, and that's OK. But less frequent indulgences are still ideal. "If someone tells me they really need something on a daily basis, I say, "Can you try it every other day?" " says Politi.

That said, treat frequency varies based on the individual. Some people maintain a healthy diet by indulging once a month—others even less often. But a good rule of thumb is to pack 90 percent of your diet with healthful foods, leaving the other 10 percent for treats. That works out to about twice-weekly splurges, says Patricia Davidson, DCN, MS, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator in New Jersey and adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University.

2. Make moderation your mantra.

All treats are fair game, even on a diabetes-friendly diet, as long as you mind your portion sizes. If you have type 2 diabetes and control your blood glucose with oral medication, gorging on carbohydrate-rich foods can send your blood glucose soaring. And though people with type 1 diabetes or those with type 2 who are on mealtime insulin can prevent such spikes by covering carbohydrate grams with insulin, it's not a good habit to get into.

Too-large portions contribute to weight gain—whether you have diabetes or not. And overindulging and then covering the carbs with insulin can lead to a blood glucose roller coaster, says Davidson. That's because the large amounts of glucose in your meal may hit your bloodstream faster than the insulin you inject. The result: soaring blood glucose after you eat with a risk for hypoglycemia (low blood glucose) later.

3. Barter with yourself.

Be smart about allocating treats. Instead of adding carbohydrates to your meal, make a trade."If you're going to eat a dessert, then consider that part of the carb [allotment] of the meal," says Davidson. The same goes for savory indulgences: Skip the garlic bread if you plan to eat pasta.

4. Pick quality over quantity.

A cheat is a cheat, right? Well, not necessarily, says Politi. If you're trying to lose weight, it's a smart idea to indulge in foods that, while not exactly healthy, aren't straight-up junk. Craving something sweet? Politi suggests nibbling on a square or two of dark chocolate instead of brownies. Dying for dinner rolls? Make them yourself with whole-grain flour instead of opening a can of the processed stuff.

5. Exercise often.

Aside from improving your overall health (and that includes your mental well-being), exercise is a great way to keep your blood glucose in line. Because physical activity forces your body to use glucose for energy and helps your body use insulin more effectively, your blood glucose levels can drop as you work up a sweat. Plus, working out can improve insulin sensitivity. It's an important counterbalance to whatever carbs and calories you may be indulging in.

6. Make peace with food.

You often hear how some foods are good while others are bad, and to an extent that's true. (No matter how you look at 'em, cherries will always be healthy while cherry-flavored jelly beans? Not so much.) But categorizing foods as "good" and "evil" won't do you any good when it comes to maintaining a healthy diet. Tacking labels on what you eat can backfire, causing you to crave the foods you've classified as forbidden. "If you don't think food is "good" or "bad," you tend not to have strong feelings about the food," Politi says. Remember, no food is inherently evil if you splurge only on occasion and keep portion size in check.

7. Don't eat treats on an empty stomach.

As tempting as it may be to reward yourself with a special between-meals snack, try to avoid indulging on an empty stomach. "When people are hungry and they eat something, it tastes that much better and they might want to eat more," says Sarah Mirkin, RD, a Beverly Hills, Calif., dietitian. Plus, a carbohydrate-heavy treat eaten on an empty stomach will cause your blood glucose to rise much faster than if you ate the same treat alongside protein and healthy fats. So have that garlic bread with your chicken dinner, not as a snack before the meal.

8. Don't stockpile "carbohydrate credits."

Carbs are not poker chips. You can't save up your allotment, then redeem it all in one lump sum without risking a spike in blood glucose. If your eating plan allows for 45 grams of carbohydrate per meal, you can't save uneaten carb "credits" from breakfast and lunch to allow for an extra carb-heavy treat after dinner. "You still need to eat your healthy, balanced meal. Don't eliminate something earlier in the day because you know there's going to be birthday cake later in the day," says Davidson. "If you save up, you start losing track of the balance of your meal plan." If you use sulfonylureas or mealtime insulin without adjusting for the carb grams you eat, stockpiling carb credits can lead to hypoglycemia after low-carb meals and high blood glucose when you indulge.

9. Keep junk out of the house.

For some people, moderation is mission impossible in the face of their favorite foods. If that's a problem for you, don't keep goodies at home, says Politi. So instead of storing pints of ice cream in your freezer, buy a cone at an ice cream shop. But if you're going to treat yourself while out to dinner, pay attention to serving size. Portions at most restaurants can be more than twice what is recommended.

10. Plan for treats.

Anyone who's ever tried to stick to a strict diet knows well the feeling of guilt that can come with spontaneous splurges. "The key for not feeling guilty is planning," says Politi. Before you indulge, determine when you'll do it, what you'll have, and how much you plan to eat. In setting aside a time for a treat, you're essentially granting yourself permission to indulge—and eliminating post-treat shame.


Say goodbye to portion distortion with helpful tips.


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