Diabetes is a chronic disease that has reached epidemic proportions among adults and children worldwide.
Uncontrolled diabetes has many serious consequences, including heart disease, kidney disease, blindness, and other complications.
Prediabetes has also been linked to these conditions.
Importantly, eating certain foods can raise your blood sugar and insulin levels and promote inflammation, which may increase your risk of disease.
This article lists 11 foods and drinks that people with diabetes or prediabetes should avoid.
Why does carb intake matter for people with diabetes?
Carbs, protein, and fat are the macronutrients that provide your body with energy.
Among them, carbs have the greatest effect on your blood sugar by far. This is because they’re broken down into sugar, or glucose, and absorbed into your bloodstream.
Carbs include starches, sugar, and fiber. However, fiber isn’t digested and instead absorbed by your body in the same way other carbs are, so it doesn’t raise your blood sugar.
Subtracting fiber from the total carbs in a portion of food will give you its digestible or net carb content. For instance, if a cup of mixed vegetables contains 10 grams of carbs and 4 grams of fiber, its net carb count is 6 grams.
When people with diabetes consume too many carbs at a time, their blood sugar levels can rise to dangerously high levels.
Over time, high levels can damage your body’s nerves and blood vessels, which may set the stage for heart disease, kidney disease, and other serious health conditions.
Maintaining a low carb intake can help prevent blood sugar spikes and greatly reduce the risk of diabetes complications.
Therefore, it’s important to avoid the foods and drinks listed below.
1. Sugar-sweetened beverages
Sugary beverages are the worst drink choice for someone with diabetes.
First, they’re very high in carbs, with a 12-ounce (354-mL) can of cola providing 38.5 grams.
The same amount of sweetened iced tea and lemonade each contain almost 45 grams of carbs exclusively from sugar.
In addition, these drinks are loaded with fructose, which is strongly linked to insulin resistance and diabetes. Indeed, studies suggest that consuming sugar-sweetened beverages may increase the risk of diabetes-related conditions like fatty liver disease.
What’s more, the high fructose levels in sugary drinks may lead to metabolic changes that promote belly fat and potentially harmful cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
In separate studies in adults with overweight and obesity, consuming 25% of calories from high fructose beverages on a weight-maintaining diet led to increased insulin resistance and belly fat, lower metabolic rate, and worse heart health markers.
To help control blood sugar levels and prevent disease risk, consume water, club soda, or unsweetened iced tea instead of sugary beverages.
Summary: Sodas and sweet drinks are high in carbs, which increase blood sugar. Also, their high fructose content has been linked to insulin resistance and an increased risk of obesity, fatty liver, and other diseases.
2. Trans fats
Artificial trans fats are extremely unhealthy.
They’re created by adding hydrogen to unsaturated fatty acids to make them more stable.
Trans fats are found in margarine, peanut butter, spreads, creamers, and frozen dinners. Furthermore, food manufacturers often add them to crackers, muffins, and other baked goods to help extend a product’s shelf life.
Although trans fats don’t directly raise blood sugar levels, they’ve been linked to increased inflammation, insulin resistance, and belly fat, as well as lower levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and impaired arterial function.
Suggested read: 13 easy ways to reduce your carbohydrate intake
While more research is needed to gain a clearer understanding of the relationship between trans fats and insulin resistance, the links mentioned above are especially concerning for people with diabetes, as they’re at an increased risk of heart disease.
Artificial trans fats have been outlawed in most countries, and in 2018 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of partially hydrogenated oil — the major source of artificial trans fat in the food supply — in most processed foods.
This doesn’t mean that all foods in the United States are now free of artificial trans fats. Manufacturers aren’t required to list trans fats on the nutrition facts labels if a product contains under 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.
It’s best to avoid any product that contains the words “partially hydrogenated” in its ingredient list.
Summary: Trans fats are unsaturated fats that have been chemically altered to increase their stability. They’ve been linked to inflammation, insulin resistance, increased belly fat, and heart disease.
3. White bread, rice, and pasta
White bread, rice, and pasta are high-carb, processed foods.
Eating bread, bagels, and other refined-flour foods have been shown to significantly increase blood sugar levels in people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
This response isn’t exclusive to products made with refined white flour. In one study, gluten-free pasta was also shown to raise blood sugar, with rice-based types having the greatest effect.
Another study found that high-carb foods not only raised blood sugar but also decreased brain function in people with type 2 diabetes and mental deficits.
These processed foods contain little fiber. Fiber helps slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream.
In other research, replacing these low fiber foods with high fiber foods was shown to significantly reduce blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. Moreover, people with diabetes experienced reductions in cholesterol.
Suggested read: Daily fat intake: How much fat should you eat per day?
Increased fiber consumption also improved gut microbiota, which may have led to improved insulin resistance.
Summary: White bread, pasta, and rice are high in carbs yet low in fiber. This combination can result in high blood sugar levels. Alternatively, choosing high-fiber, whole foods may help reduce blood sugar response.
4. Fruit-flavored yogurt
Plain yogurt can be a good option for people with diabetes. However, fruit-flavored varieties are a very different story.
Flavored yogurts are typically made from nonfat or low-fat milk and loaded with carbs and sugar.
A 1-cup (245-gram) serving of fruit-flavored yogurt may contain almost 31 grams of sugar, meaning nearly 61% of its calories come from sugar.
Many people consider frozen yogurt to be a healthy alternative to ice cream. However, it can contain just as much or even more sugar than ice cream.
Rather than choosing high sugar yogurts that can spike your blood sugar and insulin, opt for plain, whole milk yogurt that contains no sugar and may be beneficial for your appetite, weight control, and gut health.
Summary: Fruit-flavored yogurts are usually low in fat but high in sugar, which can lead to higher blood sugar and insulin levels. Plain, whole milk yogurt is a better choice for diabetes control and overall health.
5. Sweetened breakfast cereals
Eating cereal can be one of the worst ways to start your day if you have diabetes.
Despite the health claims on their boxes, most cereals are highly processed and contain far more carbs than many people realize.
In addition, they provide very little protein, a nutrient that can help you feel full and satisfied while keeping your blood sugar levels stable during the day.
Even some “healthy” breakfast cereals aren’t good choices for those with diabetes.
For instance, just a 1/2-cup serving (about 56 grams) of granola contains 44 grams of carbs, while Grape Nuts contain 47 grams. What’s more, each provides no more than 7 grams of protein per serving.
To keep blood sugar and hunger under control, skip most cereals and choose a protein-based low-carb breakfast instead.
Summary: Many breakfast kinds of cereal are high in carbs but low in protein. A high protein, low carb breakfast is the best option for diabetes and appetite control.
6. Flavored coffee drinks
Coffee has been linked to several health benefits, including a reduced risk of diabetes.
However, flavored coffee drinks should be viewed as liquid desserts rather than healthy beverages.
Studies have shown your brain doesn’t process liquid and solid foods similarly. When you drink calories, you don’t compensate by eating less later, potentially leading to weight gain.
Flavored coffee drinks are also loaded with carbs.
For instance, a 16-ounce (473-mL) Caramel Frappuccino from Starbucks contains 57 grams of carbs, and the same size as the Blonde Vanilla Latte contains 30 grams of carbs.
To keep your blood sugar under control and prevent weight gain, choose plain coffee or espresso with a tablespoon of heavy cream or half-and-half.
Summary: Flavored coffee drinks are very high in liquid carbs, which can raise blood sugar levels and fail to satisfy your hunger.
7. Honey, agave nectar, and maple syrup
People with diabetes often try to minimize their intake of white table sugar, as well as treats like candy, cookies, and pie.
However, other forms of sugar can also cause blood sugar spikes. These include brown sugar and “natural” sugars such as honey, agave nectar, and maple syrup.
Although these sweeteners aren’t highly processed, they contain at least as many carbs as white sugar. Most contain even more.
Below are the carb counts of a 1-tablespoon serving of popular sweeteners:
- white sugar: 12.6 grams
- honey: 17.3 grams
- agave nectar: 16 grams
- maple syrup: 13.4 grams
In one study, people with prediabetes experienced similar increases in blood sugar, insulin, and inflammatory markers regardless of whether they consumed 1.7 ounces (50 grams) of white sugar or honey.
Your best strategy is to avoid all forms of sugar and use natural low-carb sweeteners instead.
Summary: Honey, agave nectar, and maple syrup aren’t as processed as white table sugar, but they may have similar effects on blood sugar, insulin, and inflammatory markers.
8. Dried fruit
Fruit is a great source of several important vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C and potassium.
Suggested read: Refined sugar: Downsides, food sources, and how to avoid it
When fruit is dried, the process results in a loss of water that leads to even higher concentrations of these nutrients.
Unfortunately, its sugar content becomes more concentrated as well.
One cup (151 grams) of grapes contains 27.3 grams of carbs, including 1.4 grams of fiber. By contrast, 1 cup (145 grams) of raisins contains 115 grams of carbs, 5.4 of which come from fiber.
Therefore, raisins contain more than four times as many carbs as grapes do. Other types of dried fruit are similarly higher in carbs than their fresh counterparts.
If you have diabetes, you don’t have to give up fruit altogether. Sticking to low-sugar fruits, such as fresh berries or a small apple, can provide health benefits while keeping your blood sugar in the target range.
Summary: Dried fruits become more concentrated in sugar and may contain more than four times as many carbs as fresh fruits do. Avoid dried fruit and choose fruits low in sugar for optimal blood sugar control.
9. Packaged snack foods
Pretzels, crackers, and other packaged foods aren’t good snack choices.
They’re typically made with refined flour and provide few nutrients, although they have plenty of fast-digesting carbs that can rapidly raise blood sugar.
Here are the carb counts for a 1-ounce (28-gram) serving of some popular snacks:
- saltine crackers: 20.7 grams of carbs, including 0.78 grams of fiber
- pretzels: 22.5 grams of carbs, including 0.95 grams of fiber
- graham crackers: 21.7 grams of carbs, including 0.95 grams of fiber
Some of these foods may contain even more carbs than stated on their nutrition label. One study found that snack foods provide 7.7% more carbs, on average than the label states.
If you get hungry in between meals, it’s better to eat nuts or a few low-carb vegetables with an ounce of cheese.
Summary: Packaged snacks are typically highly processed foods made from refined flour, which can quickly raise your blood sugar levels.
10. Fruit juice
Although fruit juice is often considered a healthy beverage, its effects on blood sugar are similar to those of sodas and other sugary drinks.
Suggested read: The 7 healthiest types of bread to add to your diet
This goes for unsweetened 100% fruit juice, as well as types that contain added sugar. In some cases, fruit juice is even higher in sugar and carbs than soda.
For example, 8 ounces (250 mL) of soda and apple juice contain 22 and 24 grams of sugar, respectively. An equivalent serving of grape juice provides 35 grams of sugar.
Similar to sugar-sweetened beverages, fruit juice is loaded with fructose. Fructose drives insulin resistance, obesity, and heart disease.
A much better alternative is to enjoy a glass of water with a wedge of lemon, which provides less than 1 gram of carbs and is virtually calorie-free.
Summary: Fruit juices contain at least as much sugar as sodas. Their high fructose content can worsen insulin resistance, promote weight gain, and increase the risk of heart disease.
11. French fries
French fries are food you may want to steer clear of, especially if you have diabetes.
Potatoes themselves are relatively high in carbs. One medium potato contains 34.8 grams of carbs, 2.4 of which come from fiber.
However, once they’ve been peeled and fried in vegetable oil, potatoes may do more than spiking your blood sugar.
Deep-frying foods have been shown to produce high amounts of toxic compounds, such as advanced glycation end products (AGEs) and aldehydes. These compounds may promote inflammation and increase the risk of disease.
Indeed, several studies have linked frequently consuming french fries and other fried foods to heart disease and cancer.
If you don’t want to avoid potatoes altogether, eating a small serving of sweet potatoes is your best option.
Summary: In addition to being high in carbs that raise blood sugar levels, french fries are fried in unhealthy oils that may promote inflammation and increase the risk of heart disease and cancer.
The bottom line
Knowing which foods to avoid when you have diabetes can sometimes seem tough. However, following a few guidelines can make it easier.
Your main goals should include staying away from unhealthy fats, liquid sugars, processed grains, and other foods that contain refined carbs.
Avoiding foods that increase your blood sugar levels and drive insulin resistance can help keep you healthy and reduce your risk of future diabetes complications.