The Worst Foods for Diabetics (Even Ones That Seem Healthy)

In 2015, over 9% of the American population had diabetes, and that number has only grown. Diabetes is a chronic disease that influences the body’s response to insulin. Once people get diagnosed with diabetes, their diet significantly changes.

Some foods that appear healthy are actually detrimental. Many contain hidden sugars, preservatives, and salts that can be hard to spot on the nutritional label. Read on for the worst foods for diabetics.

Dried Fruit Is Not As Safe As Fresh Fruit

Dried fruit is displayed and sold at a market in Israel.
Michael Jacobs/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images
Michael Jacobs/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images

Diabetics can eat certain fruits, as they are part of a healthy diet. But they should avoid dried fruit because they are highly concentrated forms of whole fruit. “In these concentrated forms, everything goes up,” says nutritionist Rupali Datta. “The sugar levels, the glycemic index.”

Because dried fruits are smaller than fresh ones, people tend to eat more. For instance, a cup of fresh grapes has 27 carbs, but a cup of raisins has 115 carbs. Diabetics are far more likely to receive a blood sugar spike from dried fruits.

Replace White Bread With Wheat Bread

A woman holds two slices of white bread.
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Natasha Breen/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Despite what some people believe, people with diabetes can eat bread. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) encourages it–but only if you eat whole grain bread in moderation. Because of its high glycemic index, white bread raises peoples’ risk of diabetes, according to research in Diabetes Care.

Registered dietitian Susan Weiner says that whole-grain bread has higher fiber, which improves your glycemic response. Because white bread does not have that fiber, it’s more likely to spike blood sugar. You can buy whole-grain options for your favorite breads, including sourdough and rye.

How Diet Soda Is Just As Bad As Regular Soda

A bottle of diet cola sits on a restaurant table.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Most people know that soda doesn’t fit into a diabetic diet. But did you know that diet soda carries risks as well? Research by the American Diabetes Association found a consistent link between diet drinks and diabetes. Participants who drank it daily had a 67% higher chance of type 2 diabetes, high blood sugar levels, belly fat, and metabolic syndrome.

Another study in Clinical and Experimental Ophthalmology linked diet soda to a higher risk of diabetic retinopathy. This damages the blood vessels around the eyes and may cause diabetics to go blind. Do yourself a favor and avoid diet sodas.

Avoid Most Artificial Sweeteners

Packets of Splenda lie on a table.
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Although artificial sweeteners advertise themselves as “diabetic-friendly,” researchers are finding the opposite. In 2018, researchers discovered that artificial sweeteners contribute to diabetes and obesity more than most people think. They affect your blood glucose and blood vessels in a way that only harms your insulin.

The good news: some artificial sweeteners are safe for diabetics. Stevia and tagatose have not harmed blood glucose levels in studies. If you have questions, talk to a doctor or nutritionist about choosing the healthiest artificial sweeteners.

Drop Low-Fat Milk; Go High-Fat

Reduced fat milk cartons are stacked on a grocery store shelf.
Richard Levine/Corbis via Getty Images
Richard Levine/Corbis via Getty Images

Health experts have debated over the best type of milk for decades. Although diabetes researchers once recommended a low-fat diet, this is no longer the case. Low-fat milks supply less fat but replace it with sugar. Registered dietitian Nicole Anziani says that this can spike your blood sugar.

Plus, high-fat milks may reduce peoples’ chances of diabetes. In 2014, Swedish researchers connected high-fat dairy to a lower risk of diabetes. They can also help people with pre-diabetes. Other studies have called high-fat milk “neutral” in the development of diabetes, but low-fat milks aren’t as healthy.

Flavored Yogurt Isn’t As Healthy As Plain Yogurt

Fruit-flavored yogurt is served in a bowl with sliced banana on top.
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In 2015, a meta-analysis in PLoS ONE concluded that yogurt is healthy for diabetes. But this review only focused on whole, unsweetened yogurt. Flavored and fruit-filled yogurts are packed with added sugars, according to registered dietitian Despina Hyde Gandhi.

Although most dairy products have a low glycemic index, add-ons such as granola, syrups, and fruit raise the index. Buy plain, non-flavored yogurt and include fresh fruits and nuts to flavor it yourself. Registered dietitian Heather Cunningham recommends checking the label for less than 20 grams of carbs and no added sugars.

The Downside Of Canned Fruits And Vegetables

Canned vegetables are stacked and on display.
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Canned fruits and vegetables are a subject of debate in diabetic diets. On the one hand, research in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine noted that canned produce has the same nutritional value as fresh produce. On the other hand, canned fruits and vegetables have more sugar and salt, respectively.

Canned fruit has added sugars as preservatives, while canned vegetables have more sodium. Plus, cans contain bisphenol A (BPA). In 2015, researchers linked BPA to higher rates of type 2 diabetes. You’ll have to decide whether the convenience of canned foods is worth the risk.

The Worst Meat For Diabetics: Processed Meats

Pastrami sits on slices of white bread.
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Diabetics can eat meat, but they should avoid processed meats. In 2010, Harvard researchers reported that processed meats raise your risk of type 2 diabetes by 19%. The high sodium and chemical preservatives harm people with diabetes.

In this study, fresh red meat did not worsen diabetes; only processed beef did. An Israeli study found that processed meats increase insulin resistance and the risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Theses risks heighten with the number of meats that you eat. If you dish out small portions, you may remain healthy.

Skip Lattes, Cappuccinos, And Other Coffee Drinks

A woman holds a to-go cup of cappuccino.
Rob Kim/Getty Images for iHeartRadio
Rob Kim/Getty Images for iHeartRadio

Drinking coffee doesn’t raise peoples’ risk of diabetes. But for diabetics, caffeine can destabilize blood sugar. According to a 2008 study, 250 mg of caffeine increases your blood sugar by 8%. For those with insulin sensitivity, this is something you want to avoid.

Coffees with milk, cream, and syrup are worse for diabetics, says Diabetes UK. Even small sizes of these drinks contain over ten teaspoons of sugar. The best option for diabetics is to drink black coffee and enjoy decaffeinated coffee whenever possible.

Some Cheeses Work, But Not High-Salt Cheeses

A melon-chili salad is topped with feta cheese.
Brianna Soukup/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Brianna Soukup/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Cheese can help a diabetic diet. In The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a study found that cheese can lower peoples’ chances of type 2 diabetes. But not all cheeses are created equal. Some have much higher sodium than others. For instance, mozzarella has four milligrams of salt per ounce, while feta has 316 milligrams per ounce.

Some cheeses also have more nutrients than others. Parmesan and Monterey Jack are high in protein, while Provolone offers more calcium than others. Search for low-sodium varieties whenever possible, and always check the label.

You Shouldn’t Eat Most Fast Food Meals

A McDonald's employee hands a customer a to-go bag through the drive-thru.
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Although diabetics can eat fast food, most of it doesn’t help their condition. “[Fast-food meals] high in sodium, carbs, and unhealthy saturated fat,” explains Sandra Arevalo, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Many meals with fries and a soda have over 1,000 calories.

Fortunately, many fast-food restaurants now offer salads and low-carb sandwiches. The American Diabetes Association provides some tips for eating out. Get the smallest sized lunch; replace soda with water; swap the side of fries or share it with someone else.

Never Choose Fat-Free Salad Dressings

A woman pours salad dressing from a bottle onto a salad.
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People with diabetes may pick up “light” or fat-free salad dressings to be healthier. But these dressings do the opposite. Full-fat dressings contain healthy fats that help the body to absorb nutrients. Integrative medicine physician Irina Todorov says that olive oil and vinegar aid people with diabetes and pre-diabetes.

Small studies assert that salad dressings can improve glucose levels. In the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers wrote that salad dressing helps blood glucose levels. If you buy low-fat salad dressing, you’ll miss out on those benefits.

Most Cereal Bars Aren’t Healthy

A woman picks up cereal bars from a plate.
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Although cereal bars are gradually becoming healthier, some are still similar to candy bars. According to Diabetes UK, cereal bars contain healthy complex carbs and simple carbs. Simple carbohydrates include fructose and glucose, which transform into sugar in your body. You don’t want a sugar-filled cereal bar to spike your blood glucose.

Some of the more popular cereal bar brands–Nature Valley, Cliff, Quaker Oats–have too much sugar and fat for diabetics. A spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Torey Armul, recommends eating nuts and fruit instead of a cereal bar.

French Fries, The Least Healthy Side Dish

Potato slices sizzle in a fryer and become French fries.
Christoph Soeder/picture alliance via Getty Images
Christoph Soeder/picture alliance via Getty Images

Potatoes themselves are high in carbs, but this gets worse after they’re fried. Vegetable oils in frying fill fries with trans fats, and they’re all simple carbs. Both will raise your blood sugar and keep it elevated for a long time, says registered dietitian Lori Zanini. She calls it “a tough combination for diabetics.”

A small serving of fries has 33 grams of carbohydrates and a high glycemic index. The body could handle French fries if they had more fiber, but they don’t. Avoid French fries if you have diabetes.

Orange Juice Has More Sugar Than Fruit

A woman drinks orange juice.
Christian Vierig/Getty Images
Christian Vierig/Getty Images

Diabetes professionals have debated the safety of orange juice. On the one hand, most juices have a high amount of carbs, calories, and sugar. Registered dietitian and nutritionist Lynn Grieger does not recommend these juices for type 2 diabetes.

On the other hand, 100% orange juice has more fruit than added sugars. In 2019, a study in Nutrients asserted that orange juice has the same positive effect on insulin as whole oranges. If you drink orange juice, do so in moderation and buy a low-sugar variety.

Don’t Trust Energy Drinks

Red bull is poured into a cup next to a laptop.
@enginakyurt/Unsplash
@enginakyurt/Unsplash

With high levels of sugar and caffeine, energy drinks are a bombshell for diabetics. In 2015, researchers reported that energy drinks spike insulin and blood sugar, even in teenagers. One beverage can raise your blood glucose by up to 30%.

Scientists from the University of Calgary, Canada, say that energy drinks increase your risk of metabolic syndrome, even in children. To make matters worse, many energy drink companies don’t reveal all of their ingredients. Many people don’t know what they’re drinking. Stay safe rather than sorry and avoid energy drinks.

Potato Chips Are Addictive

A woman eats potato chips.
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Potato chips aren’t the worst snack, but they aren’t the best, either. Most of the time, they are fried and salted. Too much salt can raise your blood pressure, and diabetics should avoid it, says Diabetes UK. Another risk with potato chips, according to Diabetes Self-Management, is that most people eat more than one serving.

Chips are easy to over-indulge. Research in the Journal of Nutrition reports that high-sodium foods make us want to eat more. In short, potato chips are addictive. The National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse recommends eating baked chips in moderation.

Most Sports Drinks Aren’t Diabetes-Friendly

Shelves of sports drinks are for sale at a supermarket.
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Packed with electrolytes, sodium and minerals, sports drinks are designed to rehydrate you quickly. But people with diabetes should double-check the label. According to ADW Diabetes, most sports drinks contain high levels of carbs, sodium, and caffeine–all of which diabetics should avoid.

That said, you can find some diabetes-approved electrolyte drinks on the market. Look for ones with a low glycemic index, zero sugar, and low caffeine. Many popular brands, such as Gatorade and Powerade Zero, are not fit for people with diabetes. If you’re concerned, talk to your doctor.

Pre-Packaged Baked Goods Don’t Help Diabetes

Miniature pastries are packaged and sold to-go.
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Despite what some people think, diabetics can eat some baked goods. But pre-packaged pastries and sweets are often more dangerous than freshly-baked ones. These have more sugar from preservatives. They are also made with refined carbohydrates.

Registered dietitian Amy Kimberlain, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that refined carbs transform into sugar inside the body. This produces more insulin, which diabetics don’t need more of. There are plenty of diabetic-friendly pastries out there, but avoid the pre-packaged ones unless you know that you can eat them.

Oatmeal Is Healthy, But Flavored Oatmeal Isn’t

Boxes of flavored oatmeal packets sit on a supermarket shelf.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On its own, oatmeal makes a healthy meal for diabetics. But instant oatmeal with added flavors ruins all the benefits. Registered dietitian Leah Kaufmam warns people with diabetes to steer clear of flavored oatmeals, such as “Maple Brown Sugar.”

These flavors usually have sweeteners, preservatives, and added sugars that harm peoples’ blood sugar levels. You can eat instant oatmeal, but choose the unsweetened variety. Flavor it yourself with fresh fruits, nut butter, and diabetic-friendly artificial sweeteners. Raw oatmeal contains healthy fiber and grains for a diabetic diet.

Good Muffins Vs. Bad Muffins

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Unsplash/Verstappen Photography
Unsplash/Verstappen Photography

Another grab-on-the-go item that diabetics should avoid are muffins. While whole-grain options contain essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber, muffins made of white flour are simply bad news.

If you can’t imagine a morning without a muffin, choose one made of whole grain, which studies show may help lower the risk of glucose tolerance worsening in diabetics, according to a 2012 study by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Fruit Smoothies Can Cause Spikes In Blood Sugar

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Unsplash/Artem Beliaikin
Unsplash/Artem Beliaikin

A fruit smoothie may sound like a healthy and refreshing option for a snack or breakfast, but diabetics should be extra cautious, if not avoid them completely. That’s because the sugar and carbohydrate count in the blended drink climbs with every ingredient, and that’s bad for blood sugar.

Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN, says “Smoothies can be large whacks of carbs and sugar, especially if there’s no protein or healthy fat that acts similarly to fiber to slow digestion and prevent blood sugar from spiking.”

Avoid Char-Grilled Meat At The BBQ

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Unsplash/Luis Quintero
Unsplash/Luis Quintero

We’ve mentioned that processed meats can be harmful to diabetics– here’s another type of meat to avoid that may be surprising. Dietitians warn diabetics against eating meat that is char-grilled. Burnt meat is high in advanced glycation end products. This can cause insulin resistance while damaging cell receptors.

If your meat patty comes off the BBQ well-done, the American Diabetes Association recommends that diabetics remove the pieces that are blackened.

Country Fried Steak Is A Fat Bomb

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Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Some of the foods on this list are not blatantly harmful to diabetics, with perhaps just one component pushing the food or drink over the edge, like orange juice. But country fried steak is not one of them. This menu item, although loved by many, is full of red flags for a diabetic’s diet.

The white flour breading in country fried steak basically acts as glue in your intestines. And the steak it’s encasing is full of high-fat. Your health will thank you for avoiding this dish.

Enjoy The Smell, But Don’t Eat Cinnamon Rolls

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Unsplash/Fallon Michael
Unsplash/Fallon Michael

Le’ts be honest, the smell of cinnamon rolls wafting through the house in the morning is nothing but divine. It’s okay for everyone in the family to enjoy the smell and the moment, but diabetics should opt for a healthier alternative than filling their plate with a frosted cinnamon roll.

Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN, says, “Cinnamon rolls […] can contain more saturated fat and added sugars than people with diabetes should have in an entire day.”

Honey Is No Better Than Sugar

Containers of honey sit on a shelf in a store.
John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images
John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

Some people think that honey is safe for diabetics because it has a slightly lower glycemic index than sugar. But honey is hardly different from other added sweeteners. In 2014, research in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that honey raises peoples’ blood sugar 30 minutes after eating.

Dr. M. Regina Castro of Mayo Clinic says that there is no advantage substituting honey for sugar. You may receive some more nutrients than table sugar, but that’s about it. Like any added sugar, honey should be consumed in moderation.

Sugar-Free Coffee Creamers Aren’t The Solution

Containers of coffee cream sit on a grocery store.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Many know that sweet coffee drinks raise blood sugar, but what about coffee creamer? Can you use a sugar-free substitute? Registered dietitian and nutritionist Alison Massey says no. Sugar-free creamers contain artificial sweeteners that still harm blood glucose levels in diabetes.

The best option for diabetes, Massey says, is plain half and half. It has a bit of fat, but that’s preferable to the high sugar in most coffee creamers. If you need some sweetness in your coffee, try a safe artificial sweetener such as Stevia.

Safe Vs. Unsafe Popcorn

A movie theater employee dishes popcorn into a bag.
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Medios y Media/Getty Images

By itself, popcorn is a safe diabetes snack. According to the USDA, popcorn has high fiber and a low glycemic index. The problem arises when people top popcorn with flavors. Salt, butter, caramel, and cheese can spike blood sugar and blood pressure.

Registered dietitian Jill Corleone of SF Gate recommends staying away from pre-packaged popcorn, which often contains too much sugar and salt. Look for air-popped popcorn or “light” versions. If you need a topping, use a diabetes-safe cheese or combine the popcorn with a safe snack like nuts.

Treat Nutella As Any Other Dessert

Jars of nutella sit on a store shelf.
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Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Nutella markets itself as a healthy alternative to most sweets because it is made with cocoa and hazelnut. But the Diabetic Health Clinic disagrees. Store-bought Nutella has as many added sugars (if not more) as other dessert foods. It also has quite a bit of fat from vegetable oils.

In Nutella, “sugar and palm oil are the first, and most prevalent, ingredients instead of hazelnuts, which can promote high blood sugar and inflammation,” explains registered dietitian Jenna Braddock. Other chocolate-hazelnut spreads likely have the same ingredients. However, you can make some diabetes-safe chocolate spreads at home.

Double-Check Your Chocolate Milk And Hot Chocolate

A cup of hot chocolate sits next to the chocolate mixture.
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Chocolate is not the diabetes death bomb that some people consider it to be. Diabetes UK says that cocoa powder has some health benefits for blood pressure levels. Technically, you can drink diabetes-safe chocolate milk. But many store-bought chocolate milk and hot chocolate mixes have too much sugar.

If you buy a high-sugar chocolate mix, you’ll receive too much carbs from the milk and a blood sugar spike. Instead of buying a mix from the store, make your own with raw cocoa powder and a diabetes-safe sweetener.

Cut Out Or Moderate Most Cereals

Cereal is served with a bowl of fruit, coffee, and juice.
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Breakfast cereals can be diabetes-friendly if they contain whole grains and fiber. Cereals with refined grains and high amounts of sugar are a recipe for disaster. Diabetes UK cautions diabetics against high-sugar cereals such as Frosties, which have a whopping 37 grams of sugar per serving.

Dietitian Palinski-Wade recommends whole-grain, low-sugar cereals. Brands with added fiber, such as bran, help the body process sugar and stabilize insulin levels. Some brands, such as Cheerios and Shredded Wheat, should be eaten in moderation. They may not have high sugar, but they have high carbs.

Jams And Jellies Are More Sugar Than Fruit

Two slices of toast are covered with jam and butter.
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Stefan Klein/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Fruit provides natural sugars that can benefit people with diabetes. However, jellies and jams are more sugar than fruit. They are preserved by heating sugar with fresh fruit, and one tablespoon of jam contains ten grams of sugar on average. If you spread jam on toast, you’ll add sugar to more refined sugars, says registered dietitian Nicole Anziani.

Don’t be fooled by the “no sugar” label, either. According to Diabetes UK, some brands will replace sucrose with fructose (another type of sugar), and call the jam “sugar-free.” If you want a diabetic jam or jelly, make one at home.

Diabetics Shouldn’t Attend Happy Hour

Empty wine glasses stand on a table.
David Silverman/Getty Images
David Silverman/Getty Images

Drinking with diabetes is tricky. On the one hand, the American Addiction Centers confirm that drinking contributes to diabetes. According to WebMD, moderate consumption raises your blood sugar. If you drink too much, your blood glucose will drop–which is incredibly dangerous for people with diabetes.

On the other hand, diabetics can safely drink in moderation, according to the American Diabetes Association. Women can have one serving and men can have two. A single serving is smaller than most people think: only 12 ounces of beer and five ounces of wine. If you’re going to drink, be careful

The Least Healthy Vegetable Oil For Diabetics

Bottles of vegetable oil are seen on sale.
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Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

When it comes to cooking oils, not all fats are created equal. Researchers at the University of California, Riverside, found the worst vegetable oil for diabetics: soybean oil. In animal studies, this oil increased body weight by 25%, far more than other cooking oils.

While buying cooking oils, watch out for a label that says “partially hydrogenated.” In 2017, scientists learned that these vegetable oils–corn, canola, and safflower–rob peoples’ motivation to exercise. The more fats people consumed, the less they partook in healthy, diabetes-fighting habits.

Saltine Crackers Are Not As Healthy As Other Snacks

Saltine crackers lie on a table with the box nearby.
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There are plenty of diabetic-friendly crackers out there, but saltines are not one of them. According to Diabetes Meal Plans, saltines are made with enriched flour. This is a type of refined grain that converts to sugar inside the body. For diabetes, you should buy whole wheat crackers.

Saltines also contain partially hydrogenated oils, including soybean and cottonseed oils. These oils increase inflammation in the body and cause people to gain weight. And we haven’t even touched upon the salt yet! If you want a safe cracker for diabetes, don’t choose saltines.

Frozen Dinners Raise The Risk Of Heart Attack

A man reads the nutrition label on a frozen dinner package.
Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images
Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images

When given the option, it’s always best to choose health over convenience. If you agree, it’s time to cross frozen dinners off your shopping list. Dieticians often stress the importance of diabetics monitoring their sugar intake, but don’t forget about foods packed with salt.

The preservatives and added flavors in frozen dinners send the salt levels skyrocketing. All this added sodium is harmful to diabetics, causing their blood pressure to rise and raise the risk of heart attack.

Gluten Free Doesn’t Always Mean Good

A person removes a gluten-free biscuit from a package.
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BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In recent years, “gluten-free” has nearly become synonymous with “healthy.” But consumers, especially diabetics, should be aware that foods labeled as “gluten-free” aren’t necessarily healthy, and the portion size can have you fooled into consuming more carbohydrates.

Because of the way they’re made, gluten-free foods are often more dense with carbohydrates and other ingredients that diabetics should avoid. If you do select a gluten-free food, take note of the portion size, and limit yourself accordingly.

Pretzels Aren’t Worth The Harm Done

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@f7photo/Unsplash
@f7photo/Unsplash

Pretzels are one of those foods that are also a favorite for some people. They’re an easy on-the-go snack that you might have found in your lunch pail. But now that we’re older and know better, it’s time to ditch the salty snack.

Even the naked eye can see that pretzels are packed with salt and sodium, and mainly consist of carbs. This flavor is not worth the harm to your heart when it comes to pretzels. The refined carbohydrates can cause blood sugar to spike with just one serving.

Bottled Tea Is Hiding Two Things

Several brands of bottled tea are on a grocery store shelf.
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Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Tea is bad?! Yes and no; hear us out. On its own, tea is beneficial to health, including diabetics. It’s the bottled tea that we need to keep a closer eye on. When picking up a refreshing drink on the go, take a minute to consider the label, and see the sugar count– some bottled teas are shockingly high in sugar.

Also, make note of the serving size. Some of these bottled teas come in oversized cans that can lead the consumer to finish the entire drink, rather than capping it and saving the rest for later.

Why Bagels Are Worse Than A Slice Of Bread

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Believe it or not, bagels do not have the same nutritional value as bread. Most bagels are made with refined grains and contain far more carbohydrates than regular bread. According to Dr. Matthew Freeby, a director of the Gonda Diabetes Center at UCLA, these carbs are a recipe for blood sugar spikes.

To put this into perspective, one bagel has the same amount of carbs as four to six slices of bread. Yikes! Even whole-grain bagels have a dangerously high amount of carbs for diabetics. Do yourself a favor, and eat bread instead.