Smart Snacking Tips
Healthy snacking with diabetes is possible. Here’s how to do it right
Snacking gets a bad reputation, but maybe it shouldn’t. Snacks can help bridge hunger between meals, prevent hypoglycemia and overnight lows, and provide fuel for exercise. But if you have diabetes, snacking isn’t quite as simple as grabbing a bag of chips or popcorn.
“Like most things related to diabetes management, snacking should be individualized and can even vary from day to day,” says Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, author of Prediabetes: A Complete Guide: Your Lifestyle Reset to Stop Prediabetes and Other Chronic Illnesses. When discussing how snacking fits into your eating plan, you and your health care team will want to take into consideration factors such as what medications you take, when you’re eating, and your activity levels.
If you’re looking for a snacking strategy designed for your unique needs, these tips can help.
Snacking and the Scale
Wondering if between-meal eating helps or hinders weight loss? A study published in 2014 in Diabetologia provides some helpful clues. Researchers placed 54 volunteers with type 2 diabetes on a low-calorie diet made up of six mini meals per day. After three months, they fed the volunteers the exact same diet, but this time split it into only two meals a day. While the dieters lost weight (and lowered their fasting blood glucose) on both plans, they dropped 50 percent more weight and trimmed their waistlines nearly three times as much when they ate only twice daily. While researchers aren’t sure exactly why, they suspect that digesting larger meals requires more energy than digesting smaller ones.
Keep in mind that this is only one study, so eating two meals a day might not be realistic—or even healthy—for you, depending on your personal blood glucose response. You might experience dangerous lows. Or you may struggle with between-meal hunger. If either of those apply to you, more frequent (but smaller) meals may fit your lifestyle better.
If you worry that eating too often is hampering your weight-loss efforts, take a look at what you’re eating. Choose low-calorie, fiber-rich veggies like cherry tomatoes, snap peas, mini bell peppers, cauliflower, and carrots.
If You Snack to: Fuel Your Workout
Most people with diabetes don’t need extra fuel while they exercise unless they’re taking insulin or type 2 drugs in the sulfonylurea or meglitinide classes. For those people, exercise can sometimes drive blood glucose too low.
“That can be tricky because individual snack needs vary from day to day based on your physical activity levels,” says Jackie Newgent, RDN, author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook: The Whole Food Approach to Great Taste and Healthy Eating. “So it’s especially important to make sure that your snacks are planned to match your daily energy needs.”
Depending on your medication regimen and how long and hard you work out, you may need a carb-based snack before, during, and even afterward. To find out for sure, check your blood glucose before, during, and after your workout.
But before you even get that far, talk with your dietitian or certified diabetes educator to determine exactly how much carbohydrate you’ll require.
If You Snack to: Beat Hunger
Between-meal nibbles satisfy hunger, but what about all those extra calories and carbs?
Nutritionally speaking, snacks are a mixed bag. They can be filled with good-for-you ingredients or packed with unhealthful fats, sugar, sodium, and processed carbs. The trick to making sure yours are healthy is planning.
On the most basic level, figuring out what you’ll graze on ahead of time helps cut down on impulse eating. That means you’ll be more likely to nosh on a handful of almonds and less likely to succumb to a bag of chips.
“The key to snacking with diabetes is to balance your carb intake with a little bit of healthy fat and adequate protein, such as a tennis ball–sized apple with a tablespoon of nut butter,” says Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Why does protein matter? It’s digested slowly, so it helps you feel full. Some experts even recommend skipping between-meal carbs completely in favor of protein. Of course, which foods you choose will depend on your blood glucose level at snack time. If you’re hungry and your blood glucose is normal to high, you may want to skip the carbs. “If my patients aren’t at risk of hypoglycemia and are eating balanced meals with adequate health-boosting carbohydrate-rich foods, I don’t think they need carbohydrates at snack time,” says Weisenberger. “If they’re hungry and blood glucose is elevated, I recommend low-carb snacks, such as a small handful of nuts, a hard-boiled egg, or a little cottage cheese with sliced veggies.”
But if your blood glucose is on the low side of normal when your stomach starts to grumble, be sure your snack includes some carbs. And if you’re hypoglycemic and hungry? Treat the low with fast-acting glucose, then eat a snack once your blood glucose has risen.
If You Snack to: Prevent Overnight Blood Glucose Dips
Overnight lows can have many causes, such as an afternoon workout or a later-than-usual meal requiring a late dose of rapid-acting insulin. Because overnight low blood glucose (hypoglycemia) can be dangerous, speak with your health care team to sleuth out why you’re going low.
If you don’t take a medication that puts you at risk for hypoglycemia, you probably don’t need to snack before bed. But if you’re on insulin or a drug in the sulfonylurea or meglitinide class, you and your health care team may decide a bedtime snack can help prevent lows.
Make sure it’s small enough that it doesn’t interfere with your sleep and that its carbs fit into your daily eating plan. A cup of unsweetened yogurt or a small piece of fruit is a good option. If you take insulin, you may want to nibble on food designed specifically to prevent low blood glucose while you sleep, such as an Extend Nutrition bar.
If You Snack to: Avoid Lows
Hypoglycemia can be scary. But if you’re snacking to keep your blood glucose from falling, you could unwittingly be eating too many carbs and calories. That can wreak havoc on both your blood glucose and weight-loss goals. “Contrary to common belief, for most people with diabetes, snacks are not required for blood sugar management,” says Weisenberger.
Rather than nibbling more often, Weisenberger suggests revisiting your medication and blood glucose monitoring regimen with your health care provider. Using insulin or taking type 2 oral medications in the sulfonylurea class, which prompt the pancreas to make more insulin, increases the risk of hypoglycemia. “People taking these drugs should measure their blood glucose levels more frequently,” she says. If you’re experiencing frequent lows, your health care provider may need to adjust your insulin dose or, if you have type 2, switch you to a medication that’s less likely to cause hypoglycemia.
5 Low-Carb Snacks to Help You Stay Full
“Snacks can be grab-and-go foods, but they don’t have to be,” says Jackie Newgent, RDN, author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook: The Whole Food Approach to Great Taste and Healthy Eating. “They can also be mini-sized meals or even fancy hors d’oeuvres.” These tasty bites will help you stay satisfied—and away from the vending machine—for 15 grams of carbohydrate or less.
- 1/4 cup guacamole with 1 sliced red bell pepper
- 3 Tbsp homemade trail mix (1 Tbsp each of pumpkin seeds, chopped nuts, and raisins)
- 1 cup plain nonfat Greek yogurt with 1/4 sliced cucumber and fresh mint
- 3/4 cup lentil soup
- 2 mini Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate bars dipped in 1 Tbsp peanut butter
Want more snacking recipes? Check try these, from Diabetes Food Hub: