When you have diabetes, your food choices can have a big impact on your blood glucose levels. It can be overwhelming to decipher which foods are beneficial and which might not be the best to include regularly for optimal blood sugar control.
To add to the potential confusion, many specific diets have been touted as being the best for diabetes. People have different opinions on what types of foods they think are best to include in a diet for diabetes.
There is a misconception about eating fruit when you have diabetes. Fruit contains natural sugar. This is why some people might be wary of eating it for fear of raising blood sugar levels too much. This is an unfortunate misconception because fruit is a nutritious food containing vitamins, minerals, and inflammation-fighting antioxidants.
Fruit isn’t off-limits for those with diabetes. It is an excellent food choice and is superior to processed sweetened foods that people commonly eat. Fruit contains natural sugar but also contains fiber and other beneficial nutrients. Understanding how fruit impacts blood sugar levels and balancing it with the other types of foods eaten day-to-day is the most important aspect of helping to control diabetes through diet.
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Watermelon and diabetes
There are over 50 different types of watermelon, a flowering fruit originally domesticated in Africa.
The most common type of watermelon has high water content and composes of juicy red flesh, red or white watermelon seeds, and a hard green rind. This type of watermelon contains 11 grams of carbohydrates per one cup of diced melon. Of those 11 grams of carbohydrates, 9 grams come from sugar.
When you have diabetes, your body doesn’t produce enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels in a healthy range. Or your cells don’t respond to insulin the way they should.
Carbohydrates from foods like watermelon break down into sugar in the bloodstream. This is why we usually focus on carbohydrates and sugars the most when managing blood sugar through diet. If you consume large amounts of carbohydrates, blood sugar levels might rise too high as the body tries to release enough insulin to lower blood sugar.
Watermelon is actually used to treat diabetes in Nigeria, prompting studies to determine its possible efficacy at treating diabetes. A study on rats with diabetes found watermelon juice might have antidiabetic properties through inhibiting enzymes that break down carbohydrates. However, there aren’t enough studies on humans about the potential antidiabetic properties of watermelon.
Bitter melon is a member of the same family of plants that watermelon belongs to. Countries like Asia use bitter melon to treat diabetes. Several animal and biochemical studies suggest the benefits of bitter melon on improving blood sugar and reducing insulin resistance. However, there aren’t enough well-designed studies on humans to conclude if bitter melon effectively improves the outcomes in people with diabetes.
The American Diabetes Association doesn’t recommend a specific carbohydrate level for people with diabetes because individual needs vary. For perspective, the average American consumes around 250 grams of carbohydrates per day. And this might be too high for people with diabetes.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for carbohydrates is 130 grams per day. This is the lower end of the range we require to provide enough glucose (sugar) to vital organs such as the brain.
If you have diabetes, it doesn’t mean that you have to forgo the naturally sweet treat of juicy watermelon. Eating a diet low in added sugar and rich in plant-based foods such as watermelon can improve health outcomes, such as reducing heart disease risk. Diets high in fresh fruit associate with a significantly lower risk of diabetes.
Eating too much of any food, even healthy foods like fruit, can raise blood sugars. This is why portion size and the overall balance of different foods throughout the day are important to help keep blood sugar levels managed and other lifestyle factors like physical activity.
For instance, if you ate a carbohydrate-rich lunch like a burger on a thick bun with a side of fries, you might want to wait to have watermelon for a snack a few hours later once your blood sugar levels have come down after lunch.
On the other hand, eating a chicken salad for lunch wouldn’t raise blood sugars much, so enjoying watermelon with a lower carbohydrate meal wouldn’t raise blood sugars as much as with the meal of the burger and fries.
Health benefits of watermelon for diabetes
Low glycemic load
The glycemic index (GI) is a value that measures how much a food raises blood sugar. It’s based on a number from 0-100. Foods are usually described as low (GI of 55 or less), medium (56-69), or high (GI of 70+) glycemic index based on the number. The lower the glycemic index, the more slowly it raises blood sugar levels. Using this scale, pure glucose would have a glycemic index of 100.
The glycemic index has been recommended as a useful tool in determining a healthy eating pattern for those with diabetes. By focusing on foods that don’t raise blood sugar levels as significantly, people with diabetes may find that their blood sugar levels are more stable when focusing on low GI foods.
Another term associated with the glycemic index is the glycemic load. The glycemic load considers how much food is eaten, as well as its carbohydrate content. The formula to determine glycemic load is [glycemic index value × carbohydrate per serving]/100). Foods with a glycemic load less than 10 are considered to have a low glycemic load. And those with a glycemic load greater than 10 are considered to have a high glycemic load.
Watermelon has a glycemic index of 71 but a low glycemic load of 2 per 100-gram serving. This means that watermelon is a good choice to eat in moderation for people with diabetes.
Watermelon is rich in lycopene, a type of antioxidant. There aren’t many foods naturally rich in lycopene, one of the major benefits of watermelon. Antioxidants such as lycopene help to fight cell damage and help reduce the risk of certain types of cancers and heart disease. There is also evidence suggesting that lycopene may help reduce the risk of diabetic retinopathy, a complication that can negatively affect vision in those with diabetes.
Potassium is a mineral that can help relax blood vessels and promote healthy blood pressure levels. People with diabetes are more likely to suffer from hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart disease, so eating potassium-rich foods is a great idea to promote heart health. Two wedges of watermelon provide around 14% of the recommended daily amount of potassium. Potassium can lower blood pressure in people with hypertension, which lowers the risk of stroke, heart attack, and other cardiovascular emergencies. What’s even more interesting is that potassium intake can also reduce the risk of a stroke regardless of blood pressure levels.
One cup of watermelon provides over 20% of the daily amount of vitamin C, a vitamin that acts as an antioxidant and can help promote a healthy immune system. People with diabetes are more prone to infections and illness, so supporting the immune system is very important.
It’s no surprise watermelon is primarily made of water, hence the name. Eating water-rich foods like watermelon counts towards your daily fluid intake, which can help prevent dehydration and improve overall health!
Other melons like honeydew and muskmelon have similar nutritional profiles to watermelon. One cup of cantaloupe contains over 100% of the daily requirement of vitamin A, making it a richer source of vitamin A than regular watermelon. Vitamin A may play a larger role in diabetes than previously thought. A link has been found between vitamin A deficiency and the development of type 2 diabetes. So eating adequate amounts of vitamin A may be beneficial for people with existing diabetes as well.
Other low-sugar fruits for diabetes
One cup of sliced strawberries contains eight grams of sugar and over three grams of fiber. Strawberries are an excellent vitamin C source and contain antioxidants and other compounds known to help fight inflammation and cell damage. Like watermelon, strawberries are a good source of potassium as well as folic acid.
Folic acid is vital for women of childbearing age because it helps prevent early birth defects during pregnancy. Many of these birth defects can occur in the first few weeks of pregnancy before a woman might not even know she’s pregnant. Because of this, doctors recommend all women who could possibly become pregnant to consume 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily.
One-half of a grapefruit contains only eight grams of sugar while packing a hefty dose of vitamin C and providing two grams of fiber. Grapefruit consumption links with higher intakes of vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, dietary fiber, and improved diet quality.
Apples are higher in sugar than some fruit with 19 grams of sugar per medium apple. However, they are very high in fiber, with around 4.5 grams in the same serving. Apples’ high fiber content lowers their net carbohydrate content, the number of carbohydrates that impact blood sugar levels. You can find the net carbohydrates by subtracting the grams of fiber from the total carbohydrate count.
Fiber is subtracted from total carbohydrates because it doesn’t raise blood sugar since it can’t be digested. Therefore, choosing higher-fiber foods will lower net carbohydrate totals, which is one strategy for promoting healthy blood sugar levels. On the other hand, apple juice doesn’t contain any fiber, making it higher in net carbs. Choosing fruit that is whole and intact with the skin and seeds helps preserve its fiber content.
One cup of raspberries contains eight grams of sugar and an impressive eight grams of fiber. A high-fiber diet can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of certain gastrointestinal disorders. People with diabetes are prone to diabetic dyslipidemia, a term for having high levels of bad cholesterol and low levels of good cholesterol. Eating fiber-rich foods as a part of a heart-healthy lifestyle may promote more healthy cholesterol levels.
One cup of blackberries provides eight grams of fiber with only seven grams of sugar. They are also rich in vitamin C, which may help lower blood sugar and cholesterol in people with diabetes.
Even though it’s not sweet or often thought of as fruit, avocados are botanically considered a fruit. Avocados are rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and contain lots of fiber; one avocado contains 13 grams of fiber! Replacing saturated fat (such as fat from meats and dairy) with unsaturated fats from plant-based foods may improve diabetic dyslipidemia. Avocados are also rich in potassium, which is beneficial for blood pressure, as mentioned earlier.
There are misconceptions about eating fruit when you have diabetes due to its natural sugar content. However, fruit contains nutrients and health benefits. So people with diabetes shouldn’t avoid it.
Being mindful of the portion size of fruit and aiming for a balance with other food groups is the most important aspect of managing diabetes through diet.
Due to its numerous health benefits, people with diabetes should enjoy watermelon, since it’s a healthy choice and a sweet alternative to foods with added sugar.