If you live with type 2 diabetes, you know that one of the most important steps you can take to manage the disease is to keep tabs on your nutrition. More specifically, you'll need to stay on top of your total carbohydrate intake (which includes sugar). Limiting the amount of carb-rich foods you eat can help manage your blood sugar and help prevent sending it on an inflammation-spiking roller coaster.
While quite a few tools can help you nail down your nutrition — think: the glycemic index, continuous glucose monitors (CGMs), and food-tracking apps — it's difficult to pinpoint exactly how much sugar you should cap your intake each day. Everyone is different, and only your healthcare provider, like your doctor or dietitian, can give you recommendations tailored to your specific needs based on factors like your overall health, budget, and lifestyle.
Sugar and Diabetes
When it comes to sugars (a type of carb), people living with diabetes can't live with them and can't live without them. You can pretty much say that diabetes and sugar have a complicated relationship. Our bodies, whether we have diabetes or not, need the sugar glucose to function as it's the brain's primary source of energy. But that's no invitation to add more glucose to your diet; the body can produce glucose by breaking down most things you eat, especially carbohydrates.1
Now, let's get to where the issue lies. Insulin is a hormone that moves all the sugar in the bloodstream into your cells to use as energy. When you have diabetes, your pancreas can't produce enough insulin, or your cells don't respond to the insulin efficiently and can't use the sugar as fuel, a condition known as insulin resistance. Either scenario results in all that sugar remaining in your bloodstream; that's a problem because excess sugar can lead to blood vessel and nerve damage, which increases your risk of health problems, including heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure. That's why people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes might inject insulin to help regulate their blood sugar and manage the condition.2,3
Too much added sugar too often can cause rapid spikes in your blood glucose levels, which requires your body to produce more insulin, eventually leading to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. But sugar isn't the only contributing factor: Smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, and obesity can all contribute to developing the disease.
How Much Sugar Can People With Type 2 Diabetes Eat?
Living with diabetes isn't synonymous with forgoing fruits, grains, dairy, or even dessert. After all, sugar is the brain and body's main energy source and can certainly fit into a diabetes-friendly diet in moderation. Moderation is the keyword here.
While there aren't any guidelines for how much sugar a diabetic can consume daily, there are recommendations for the general population. The American Heart Association recommends the following limits for added sugar per day:
- Men: 36 grams (equivalent to 150 calories or nine teaspoons' worth)
- Women: 25 grams (equivalent to 100 calories or six teaspoons' worth)
However, other government agencies are more lax. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends getting no more than 10% of your total daily calories from added sugar, which comes out to 50 grams of added sugar (equivalent to 200 calories or 12 teaspoons' worth) on a 2,000-calorie diet. For reference, a typical 12-ounce can of sugar-sweetened soda has more than 30 grams of sugar.4,5
Remember that these guidelines only make recommendations for added sugar, not natural or total sugars, and many nutrient-dense whole foods you want to include in your diet, such as fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, contain natural sugars.
While we know that people with diabetes need to keep total sugar intake low, there aren't specific guidelines for how much diabetics should aim for each day. Everyone is different, and how one food affects your blood glucose levels can differ from another person's reaction. That's why it's so important to work with your diabetes care team to figure out the best way to keep your blood sugar levels in a healthy range.
What About Carbohydrates?
When you eat or drink something with carbs, your body breaks it down into glucose for energy. Even if you have diabetes, your body still needs carbs for energy. However, you'll have to be mindful of the amount and the type of carbs you eat. Consuming too many carbs can cause your blood sugar to spike (hyperglycemia).
On the other hand, not getting enough carbs or calories can lead to low blood sugar or hypoglycemia, which comes with its symptoms, such as fatigue, nervousness, fast heartbeat, and confusion.
Sugar, starches, and fiber are the three main types of carbs found in food. In general, you'll want to eat more blood sugar-balancing fiber and limit the amount of sugar and starches you take in. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends eating lots of non-starchy veggies — such as zucchini, leafy greens, cucumbers, broccoli, and green beans — because they're high in fiber and low in total carbs. Aim to eat starchy carbohydrates such as whole-wheat products, starchy veggies, and fruits in moderation, according to the ADA. And you'll want to avoid refined carbohydrates and added sugar, so foods such as white bread, white rice, sugary cereal, cake, cookies, candy, chips, soda, and fruit juice.
When you live with diabetes, keeping tabs on the carbs you consume is super important. Tracking your total carbs helps you eat balanced meals that'll help keep your blood glucose levels within range as well as help you calculate how much insulin to take.6
How to Limit Sugar Intake
Limiting your sugar consumption is a smart idea because it helps you avoid blood glucose spikes, keeping your levels steady and healthy. Avoiding highly refined processed and packaged foods, such as candy, pastries, soda, and other sugar-sweetened beverages, is a great place to start. Still, many other foods are sneaky sources of sugar, too. That's why it's so important to read nutrition facts labels.
A food's nutrition label will reveal how many total carbs it contains and carbs from sugar and fiber. Sticking to foods low in total carbs and added sugar can help keep blood glucose spikes at bay.
Sugar goes by many different names because there are so many different types. Sugar can come from fruits, syrup, malts, and other sources — and you might see it listed on food labels as seemingly healthy ingredients, such as coconut sugar, cane sugar, fruit juice, date syrup, agave, brown rice syrup, and others. Plus, anything ending with the suffix "-ose" is also a code word for sugar. Next time you're scanning food labels, look out for the following hidden terms on ingredient lists:7
- Anything ending with "ose," such as fructose, sucrose, dextrose, and maltose
- Table sugar
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Fruit juice
- Maple syrup
- Rice syrup
Tips for Lowering Sugar Intake
Now that you know what to look for on food labels, here are some simple ways to limit and control your sugar intake:
- Avoid sugary drinks like soda and instead go for plain water or flavored seltzer. You can enjoy artificially sweetened drinks in moderation
- Swap sugary condiments like barbecue sauce and ketchup for mustard or light mayo
- Buy plain yogurt instead of the sweetened varieties, and flavor it yourself with a handful of berries and nuts
- Use no-added-sugar jarred pasta sauce, or make homemade marinara without any added sugar
- Instead of making a PB&J, spread no-added-sugar on whole-grain toast and top it with berries
- If you use plant-based milk alternatives, make sure they don't contain any added sugar
- Skip the balsamic dressing on your salad and use apple cider vinegar instead
- Swap a fraction of the sugar called for in a recipe with an artificial sweetener of your choice
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Choosing low-carb, nutrient-dense foods and tracking your blood sugar levels are two of the most important things you can do to manage your diabetes and improve your health. But keeping tabs on your diet doesn't have to be difficult. With Signos' continuous glucose monitors (CGMs), you can easily track your daily foods and drinks and gain insights into what affects your blood glucose levels to tweak your meal plan and lifestyle. To learn even more about diabetes-related nutrition and healthy habits, check out Signos’ blog.
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Discover how to live well with diabetes with the help of Signos wearable CGM.
Frequently Asked Questions:
What are good sugar levels for type 2 diabetes?
The CDC recommends that your blood sugar target be 80 to 130 mg/dL before a meal and less than 180 mg/dL two hours after eating.
Are people with type 2 diabetes allowed any sugar?
Yes, people with type 2 diabetes can still have sugar, but they must factor it into their daily total carb intake. People with T2D should aim to limit their added sugar intake and instead get their carbs from fresh fruit, vegetables, and unsweetened, low-fat dairy products.
How many carbs and sugars should a diabetic have a day?
There aren't any guidelines on exactly how many grams of carbs and sugars people with type 2 diabetes can have each day. General dietary guidelines recommend getting no more than 10 percent of your total calories from added sugar. Still, people with diabetes might want to aim for less. When choosing carb-rich foods, ensure they're from whole foods or minimally processed foods with little added sugar.
How many carbs should a type 2 diabetic have per day?
There aren't any guidelines on exactly how many grams of carbs people with type 2 diabetes can have each day, but focusing on low-glycemic carbs with little to no added sugar is the best practice. Tracking your total carbs helps you eat balanced meals that'll help keep your blood glucose levels within range and help you calculate how much insulin to take.
Topics discussed in this article:
- NIH News in Health. (2017, September 8). Sweet Stuff. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2014/10/sweet-stuff
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, June 20). Diabetes and your heart. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/library/features/diabetes-and-heart.html
- Mayo Clinic. (2023, March 14). Type 2 diabetes. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/type-2-diabetes/symptoms-causes/syc-20351193
- American Heart Association. (2021, November 2). Added Sugars. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/added-sugars
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, November 28). Get the facts: Added sugars. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/data-statistics/added-sugars
- American Diabetes Association. (n.d.). Get smart of carbs. https://diabetes.org/healthy-living/recipes-nutrition/understanding-carbs
- University of California San Francisco. (n.d.). Hidden in plain sight. https://sugarscience.ucsf.edu/hidden-in-plain-sight/