When you or someone you care for has diabetes, it can be overwhelming to make food choices that will support healthy blood sugar levels.
Nutrition is an essential aspect of diabetes management, yet there is a lot of conflicting information on how nutrition impacts diabetes.
Adding to that confusion is the fact that nutrition recommendations tend to change over time as new research emerges.
So how are you to know how to take care of yourself through a healthy diet?
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Dates and diabetes
Dates are a fruit of the date palm tree found in tropical areas of the world. They are often used as a sweetener but can also be eaten on their own. Dates contain natural sugar, which is why those with diabetes may question whether or not they are good to include in a diabetes diet.
Almost all the dates in Western countries (where there are no date trees) are dried. A serving of 6-7 dried pitted dates contains 30 grams of carbohydrates. Of these 30 grams, 3 grams come from fiber and 27 grams come from natural sugars.
Because of their natural sweetness, dates are often used as a more natural sugar source instead of more refined sugars such as sucrose (table sugar) and corn syrups. They also act as an excellent binder in baked goods due to their sticky texture.
Carbohydrates turn into blood glucose (sugar) when digested, which is why they’re an important aspect of a meal plan for people with diabetes.
Fiber is a carbohydrate, but it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels because the body doesn’t absorb it. Sugar is a carbohydrate and can occur naturally (such as in fruit like dates). Or it can be refined and added to foods, such as the sugar added to some dried fruit.
There is no set standard for a level of carbohydrates that people with diabetes should eat per day. Carbohydrate needs and preferences vary among many factors, which is why there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” recommendation.
However, those who count carbohydrates as a method to help control blood sugars often aim for 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per meal and 15-30 grams of carbohydrates per snack.
One study found that people with diabetes who ate three dates per day for 16 weeks had an improvement in cholesterol without any significant changes in body weight or hemoglobin A1c compared to the group that didn’t receive dates, which suggests that including dates may be beneficial for those with diabetes.
Low glycemic index
The glycemic index (GI) can measure how much a food raises blood sugar. The GI is based on a number from 0-100; foods are classified as either low (GI of 55 or less), medium (56-69), or high (GI of 70+) glycemic index based on the number.
Lower glycemic index foods tend to raise blood sugar levels more slowly and steadily. Whereas high glycemic index foods may cause blood glucose spikes because it raises blood sugar quickly. Using the glycemic index scale, pure glucose would have a glycemic index of 100.
The glycemic index is a recommended, helpful tool in determining a healthy eating pattern for those with diabetes. By focusing on foods that don’t raise blood sugar levels as quickly, those with diabetes may find their blood sugar levels more stable.
One serving of 6-7 dates provides three grams of fiber. Women should aim to eat at 21-25 grams of fiber per day and men 30-38 grams of fiber per day. Yet most people fall short of this recommended amount.
Raw dates have a glycemic index of 42, making them a low glycemic index food. This means that dates would raise blood sugar more slowly than other sweeteners like honey or table sugar.
However, the benefits of dates for people with diabetes vary significantly on the portion size. In other words, eating a large portion of dates would likely still cause a blood sugar spike because it’s a source of sugar.
Fiber has many health benefits, including a positive impact on gastrointestinal health, heart health, weight management, blood sugar levels, and the reduced risk of certain cancers. Focusing on high-fiber foods may be especially helpful for those with diabetes for several reasons.
High-fiber foods have a lower net carbohydrate content, which is the amount of carbohydrates that impact blood sugar; lower amounts of net carbohydrates mean less of a blood sugar spike. Fiber also slows digestion, which can promote a more steady rise in blood sugar levels after eating.
Dates contain antioxidants such as carotenoids and flavonoids. Antioxidants help fight free radicals, which can damage cells and cause inflammation and cancer. People with diabetes tend to have more inflammation, yet the reason for this isn’t entirely understood. Eating foods rich in antioxidants may help to reduce overall inflammation levels and reduce the risk of diseases caused by inflammation.
Dates are also rich in minerals such as potassium, selenium, copper, and magnesium. Potassium is especially helpful in promoting healthy blood pressure levels by relaxing blood vessel walls.
People with diabetes are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, so consuming adequate amounts of potassium-rich foods is one way to help promote healthy blood pressure levels. What’s even more interesting is that potassium intake can also reduce the risk of a stroke regardless of blood pressure levels.
The main drawback of dates for diabetes is that they are rich in sugar. While it’s more beneficial to eat sugar that occurs naturally in foods versus foods that have sugar added, natural sugar can still cause blood sugar levels to rise. Too much of anything, even healthy food, can cause health issues.
You may be tempted to reach for dates to sweeten foods because they’re a better alternative to refined sugars. This may lead to eating more sugar overall and therefore causing blood sugar spikes. While dates are a lower glycemic option for sweeteners, they still contain sugar and you should eat them in moderation and as a part of a well-balanced diet.
Potential added sugars
Some dates are processed with added sugars, which further increases their sugar content. Added sugars aren’t beneficial to health. And they can cause more intense blood sugar spikes since these simple sugars break down into glucose very quickly.
Approximately up to 74% of processed foods contain added sugar. Added sugar has many names, which can make it difficult to spot. The new nutrition facts label now has a line for added sugars, making it easier to identify. But some labels still don’t contain a line for added sugars. Therefore, to see if there are any added sugars, it’s vital you check the nutrition facts ingredient label.
If you have diabetes and want to buy dried dates, check the ingredients label to ensure there aren’t added sugars. For example, some dried chopped dates contain 8 grams of added sugar per serving. This is 16% of the daily recommended amount (50 grams of added sugar or less per day). Dried dates should be the only ingredients, and possibly a preservative or freshness enhancer.
Fresh vs. Dried
Most dates available in stores are dried. However, tropical areas that grow date palm trees will have access to fresh dates. If there is a choice between fresh and dried dates, choose fresh dates.
Dried fruit is more concentrated in sugar since the water is removed. This means that dried dates will raise blood sugar more than fresh dates in equal-weighted amounts. Think of raisins as an example. It’s easy to quickly eat a handful of raisins, but that’s the equivalent of a much larger portion of fresh grapes sugar-wise.
Should people with diabetes eat dates?
The bottom line is there aren’t any foods that people with diabetes need to avoid altogether. Some foods are more beneficial to health than others, but it doesn’t make less nutritious foods “bad.”
Dates are a good alternative to higher glycemic index sweeteners and refined sugars. Not only do dates provide sweetness. But they have other benefits such as providing dietary fiber, important minerals, and cancer-fighting antioxidants.
Eating many dates regularly likely won’t help people with diabetes reach their blood sugar targets. You should consume dates in moderation and combine them with foods that don’t raise blood sugar, such as protein and fat sources.
For example, making a smoothie with plain unsweetened Greek yogurt, dates, and a splash of milk or non-dairy milk will help balance the natural sugar content of the dates with blood-sugar-stabilizing protein.
Dates are low glycemic index fruit. While people often use them as a sweetener, you can also enjoy them independently. Dates are rich in natural sugar, fiber, minerals, and antioxidants.
People with diabetes should enjoy dates in moderation. But keep in mind that they contain sugars, which can raise blood sugar if you eat it in large enough quantities.
Eating dates as a part of an overall balanced diet for diabetes promoting individual blood sugar targets is a good – and sweet – idea!