Can You Really Eat All the Sugar You Want?

Despite research showing that people with diabetes are able to control their blood sugars better when they limit their intake of all sources of refined (high-GI) carbohydrates, most health-care professionals have relaxed their stand on sugar consumption (particularly if you have type 1 diabetes or take insulin for every meal). This is because research has shown that some “simple” sugars (such as table sugar, aka sucrose, a disaccharide composed of two simpler sugars–a glucose molecule and a fructose one–both of which are monosaccharides) are actually metabolized more slowly and have a lower GI value than certain “complex” carbohydrates (including starches like white potatoes). They advise you to focus instead on counting and limiting the total grams of carbohydrates from any source that you eat, both at any given meal and over the course of a day.

While the GI value of white potatoes does exceed that of sucrose, I still think that this stance is giving people the wrong idea about the potential effect that certain carbohydrates can have on your diabetes control. Let me give you a personal example. For me, by far the worst thing about getting diabetes at the age of four was not the shots I had to get, but rather being forced to abandon my favorite cereal, sugary Froot Loops. Back in the “dark ages” when I got diabetes (1968), the health-care providers’ mantra was, “You can’t eat any sugar.” Back then, people even thought that eating too much sugar was the cause of type 2 diabetes.

Nowadays, although in accordance with this more modern-day stance on sugar intake I would once again be allowed unrestricted access to my formerly beloved Froot Loops, you couldn’t pay me enough to eat them (well, not unless I needed to treat a low blood sugar level). Why? Well, in spite of not really liking the taste anymore, I choose not to eat that cereal because its high GI value would invariably cause me to chase my sugars down with much higher doses of insulin than I ever take in the morning for an equivalent amount of carbohydrate from my habitual oatmeal-and-fresh-fruit breakfast. To me, Froot Loops cereal (and most other breakfast cereals, for that matter) is just not worth the inevitable spike in my blood glucose and the extra insulin I’d have to take to try to control it.

If you have type 2 diabetes, your body just won’t be able to supply that extra insulin quickly enough. So, would I ever advise you to substitute a sugary food in place of a more slowly absorbed one with equivalent carbohydrates? Never. Such substitutions also ignore the satiety factor–the fact that you’ll feel fuller and more satisfied after a high-fiber breakfast of oatmeal and fruit than you ever would after eating a sugary cereal. (I’d also advise you against eating instant oatmeal instead of the old-fashioned kind because the former contains a lot more sugar, which will sabotage your attempts to effectively control your BG levels.) If any carbs in the morning cause a spike in your blood glucose levels, then stick to a lower-carb breakfast for a better start to your day.

Next week, I’ll discuss the importance of Glycemic Load.

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