Diabetes is a chronic disease that causes higher than normal levels of sugar in the blood. High blood sugar can cause damage to the body in many ways, including negative impacts on your cardiovascular and nervous systems. It is important to practice healthy lifestyle behaviors consistently to prevent or delay future complications associated with diabetes. Healthy lifestyle behaviors include eating a balanced, nutritious diet to keep blood sugar levels within a healthy range. Everything we eat or drink during the day, including meal timing and portion sizes, contributes to fluctuations in blood sugar levels.
The American Diabetes Association recommends that people with diabetes eat balanced meals consisting of carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats every 4-5 hours to keep blood sugar levels stable throughout the day. Incorporating a few snacks between meals may help people with diabetes stay consistent with the recommended eating schedule. Snacking often has a bad reputation, especially when associated with diabetes or weight loss, but it can be a helpful tool to regulate blood sugar levels. For a person with diabetes, it is recommended to keep snacks within 5-30 grams of carbohydrates versus the 30-60 grams of carbohydrates recommended for meals. Carbohydrates raise your blood sugar the most and fastest; therefore, special attention should be given to the amount of carbohydrates in snacks and meals. The recommended carbohydrate portions for snacks provide enough glucose, or fuel, for the body to function properly until its next meal without raising blood glucose levels too high.
Snacking should be used as a tool for people with diabetes to better control blood glucose levels. Eat regular meals in moderation and use snacking when necessary to prevent low blood glucose levels or spikes in blood glucose from over-consuming when hungry. Listen to your body, pay attention to what and how much you are eating, and track your blood glucose levels throughout the day. Use this information to help guide your choices when it comes to snacking. Your eating patterns may look different day-to-day depending on your body’s needs.
Three questions to ask yourself when considering a snack:
Are you truly hungry? Keep in mind that snacks add extra calories. Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is an important lifestyle behavior that can help you better manage diabetes. If weight loss or maintenance is one of your goals, plan for those extra snack calories by trimming calories elsewhere in the day.
Do you need extra fuel for physical activity? Physical activity will generally cause a decrease in blood sugar levels as movement requires fuel. Your body’s preferred source of fuel, or energy, is carbohydrates, which break down into glucose in your body. The more you move throughout the day, the more glucose is burned. This can be helpful for reducing high blood glucose levels in someone with diabetes. However, physical activity could burn too much glucose in the blood, resulting in potentially dangerous low blood glucose levels. If you are planning on working out for an extended period (> 30 minutes), it is recommended to have a snack beforehand to keep blood glucose levels in a healthy range.
Do you need extra carbohydrates to keep blood glucose levels in range? In some situations, having a balanced snack can help someone with diabetes keep blood glucose levels in their recommended range. In addition to physical activity, some medications, especially insulin, work to lower blood glucose within the body, which may put you at a higher risk for low blood glucose levels. Snacking can help raise low blood glucose or maintain blood glucose within the recommended range.
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, then it may be time for a snack. Now, you need to determine appropriate foods that will help you build a balanced snack for better blood glucose control.
Select snacks with 3 things in mind:
- Select snacks that promote in-range blood glucose levels by combining a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats. Carbohydrates provide your body with the fuel it needs to function properly. Protein helps slow down the digestion of carbohydrates, which means your snack will not spike your blood glucose. Healthy fats keep you satisfied and full longer.
- Snacks are a great opportunity to fit in non-starchy vegetables or fruit. Non-starchy vegetables are those which contain smaller amounts of carbohydrate. Non-starchy vegetables typically contain 5g or less of carbohydrate per 100g of weight. Non-starchy vegetables are great for your health and blood glucose management as they provide essential nutrients without raising your blood glucose too much. Examples of non-starchy vegetables include spinach, broccoli, lettuce, cucumber, tomato, carrot, and much more.
- Snacks should be easy to prepare, satisfying, and tasty! Take time to identify foods you enjoy that will also nourish and fuel your body. Every person has different tastes and preferences; make your snack choices work best for your health and blood glucose management goals without sacrificing enjoyment. In general, look for unprocessed foods with low levels of fat, sugar, and sodium that have high levels of nutrients and fiber.
Looking for easy, low-cost, and healthy snack recipes you can make at home? Check out Diabetes Food Hub and our diabetes-friendly snack videos for inspiration!
Diabetes Food Hub: https://www.diabetesfoodhub.org/articles/25-simple-snack-ideas.html
Diabetes Friendly Snack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95h6Vs1g0fk
Una merienda saludable para la diabetes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JyurBZ5HF8I
- American Diabetes Association. (2023). What Can I Eat? American Diabetes Association. Retrieved from: http://main.diabetes.org/dorg/PDFs/awareness-programs/hhm/what_can_i_eat-smart_snacks-American_Diabetes_Association.pdf
- Association of Diabetes Care and Education Specialists. (2021). Healthy Snacking for People with Diabetes. Association of Diabetes Care and Education Specialists. Retrieved from: https://www.diabeteseducator.org/docs/default-source/living-with-diabetes/tip-sheets/healthy-snacking-tip-sheet_final.pdf
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023). Diabetes Meal Planning. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/managing/eat-well/meal-plan-method.html
- Diabetes Food Hub Team. (2020). 25 Simple Snack Ideas. Diabetes Food Hub. Retrieved from: https://www.diabetesfoodhub.org/articles/25-simple-snack-ideas.html
- Ross, T. (2020). To Snack, or Not to Snack. Diabetes Food Hub. Retrieved from: https://www.diabetesfoodhub.org/articles/healthy-snacking-with-diabetes-tips-and-recipes.html