Diabetes: Free Foods – Diabetes Self-Management

Eating with diabetes is often thought to be one of the hardest parts about having the condition. Not only do you need to pay attention to carbohydrates, portions, and timing, but it can seem like everything you eat affects your blood sugars. (And eating is just part of what you need to do to take care of yourself — there’s checking blood sugar, taking medication, staying active, checking your feet, and keeping up with all of your diabetes-related appointments, too!). There’s a lot to learn when it comes to meal planning; part of the learning process is to find out how different foods affect your blood sugar and how you can keep everything “balanced” so that you stay in your target range as often as possible.

Diabetes: free foods

They say the best things in life are free. When it comes to eating with diabetes, the good news is that there really are foods you can eat that have little to no effect on your blood sugars. These are called “free foods” and chances are, you may be eating them already!

Here’s the definition of a “free food:” A food or a drink that has fewer than 20 calories and 5 grams of carbohydrate per serving. Many of these free foods don’t specify a serving size, either, meaning that you can eat or drink them without worrying about the portion. Free foods are great for adding flavor and filling you up at meals or at snack time without blowing your carb budget or packing on the pounds.

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Are free foods too good to be true?

Some free foods come with a bit of a catch: you still need to be a bit careful with how much you eat. Remember that a free food has less than 20 calories and no more than 5 grams of carb per serving. If you stick with a specified portion, all is good. If you go above and beyond, those calories and carbs will add up. Here are a few examples of these types of foods:

  • Reduced-fat mayonnaise: 1 teaspoon
  • Fat-free cream cheese: 1 tablespoon
  • Honey mustard: 1 tablespoon
  • Ketchup: 1 tablespoon
  • No-sugar-added jam: 2 teaspoons
  • Barbecue sauce: 2 teaspoons
  • Low-fat salad dressing: 1 tablespoon
  • Salsa: 1/4 cup
  • Reduced-fat sour cream: 1 tablespoon
  • Light whipped topping: 2 tablespoons
  • Parmesan cheese: 1 tablespoon
  • Cranberries: 1/2 cup
  • Taco sauce: 1 tablespoon
  • Bread and butter pickles: 2 slices
  • Yogurt, any type: 2 tablespoons

Many of the foods in the above list are used as condiments, which makes it easy to go a little overboard with them. Fat-free foods, in particular, can give the impression that they don’t really “count” so it’s OK to use more. But remember, don’t be fooled: Eating too much of these “free” foods may affect your blood sugar and possibly your waistline. Three tablespoons of ketchup, for example, weigh in at about 44 calories and 11 grams of carb. To play it safe, aim to eat no more than 2 to 3 servings of this group of free foods per day.

Is anything really “free”?

If it’s any consolation, there are a few foods and beverages that you can consume pretty much to your heart’s content. These items are so low in calories and carbs that they have very little effect on your weight or your blood sugars. Here are a few to add to your shopping list:

  • Coffee (without cream, milk, or sugar)
  • Tea, any flavor (without cream, milk, or sugar)
  • Water: plain, seltzer, mineral
  • Club soda
  • Diet soda
  • Diet tonic water
  • Sugar-free drinks
  • Unsweetened cocoa powder
  • Gelatin (plain or sugar-free)
  • Sugar-free popsicles
  • Sugar substitutes (aspartame, sucralose, stevia-based sweeteners, saccharin, monk fruit extract)
  • Herbs and spices
  • Garlic
  • Vinegar
  • Lemon juice
  • Extracts (vanilla, almond, peppermint)
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Hot pepper sauce
  • Horseradish
  • Bouillon and broth
  • Salad greens
  • Nonstick cooking spray
  • Sugar-free gum

Read the label

As you make your way through the grocery store, take some time to check out the Nutrition Facts labels on food products. An important rule of thumb is to always check the serving size, and then look at the Total Carbohydrate grams (for reference, a slice of bread has about 15 grams of carb). Keep in mind that some of the terms you see on the front of a package or a bottle can be deceiving. A good example of this is the term “sugar-free.” According to the FDA, a sugar-free food must contain less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. It does not mean that the item is a “free” food, nor does it mean that the item is carbohydrate-free or calorie-free. Many sugar-free foods are sweetened with nonnutritive sweeteners and/or sugar alcohols, but plenty of sugar-free foods have calories, carbs and fat. For example, one Voortman Sugar-Free Chocolate Chip Cookie contains:

  • 80 calories
  • 5 grams of fat
  • 13 grams of carbohydrate
  • 1 gram of protein

Definitely not a free food! The bottom line: Always read the Nutrition Facts label for the serving size and grams of total carbohydrate, whether or not the food is labeled as being “sugar-free.”

Free food snack ideas

Free foods can be a good choice as a snack if you get hungry between meals or after dinner and you need to go easy on the carbs. Some examples from the Choose Your Foods Food Lists for Diabetes by the American Diabetes Association and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics are:

  • 1/2 cup raw celery, carrots, cucumber, broccoli, or tomato
  • 1/4 cup blueberries or blackberries
  • 1/3 cup melon
  • 3/4 cup no-fat-added popcorn
  • 8 pistachios
  • 4 black olives

Want to learn more about eating well? Read “Strategies for Healthy Eating,” “Improving Your Recipes: One Step at a Time,” and “Easy Ways to Eat Better.”