Diabetes Awareness Month: Foods to ditch if you want to watch your sugar intake

Having a balanced diet can help people with diabetes manage their condition and reduce their risk of health-related complications.

A healthy diet is critical with the spread of Covid-19. Experts reveal that people with diabetes are more at risk for serious complications from the illness. For that reason, you will want to do everything you can to ensure you’re in good health. This means knowing what to eat and what not to eat.

With November being Diabetes Awareness Month and the 14th being World Diabetes Day, we looked into the foods to ditch if you have diabetes.

Diabetes is a disease that affects more than 10% of South Africans and is among the leading causes of mortality in South Africa. The statistics are steadily increasing. This is no surprise considering the rising obesity levels in South Africa as well as socio-economic and environmental factors, and unhealthy lifestyle and food choices.

Registered dietitian, Yuri Bhaga says through knowing how to manage and treat the condition as people with diabetes, they can live a long and healthy life. She says it is important that individuals with diabetes understand the condition and adhere to medical advice.

“One of the most important management strategies is diet. Unfortunately, misinformation is abundant, with every diet claiming it is better than the next to help manage diabetes, but there is no one size fits all. People with diabetes do not have to ditch sugar altogether, there are some foods which should be consumed more mindfully than others,” says Bhaga.

Bhaga shares some examples of such foods.

Sugary drinks and beverages

Looking at sugar-sweetened beverages, (any non-alcoholic drink which has added sugar), they are high in sugars and low in nutritional value and can cause a spike in blood sugar levels. Examples are cool drinks, flavoured waters, cordials, fruit concentrate combinations, and energy drinks. Consumption of these should be avoided or limited and consumed in moderation.

There is still the misconception that fruit juice is healthier so many people will swap to 100% fruit juice. And while it does not have any added sugar, it is still very high in natural sugar and can cause an equally large spike in sugar levels. As such fruit juice should also be limited and diluted when consumed.

A good alternative is pure water or naturally infused water using mint, herbs, citrus, and other fruit, or home-made iced tea.

Sweets, chocolates, and Ice-creams

Everyone loves a sweet treat, dessert, or ice-cream occasionally, and just because someone has diabetes doesn’t mean they have to cut these luxuries out.

Overconsumption of these even in non-diabetics could pose long-term health risks, due to excess calories, sugar, refined carbohydrates, and poor nutritional value. For an individual with diabetes, this will mean irregular blood sugars and spikes and pose difficulty in managing diabetes if overly consumed.

The best practice would be to limit and enjoy in moderation and to opt for healthier whole food options which also contain fibre, such as fruits, to satisfy the sweet tooth. Home-made desserts that are lower in added sugars can also be made.

Recently, there is a much wider range of diabetic-friendly products, which can be used as an alternative.

Refined carbohydrates

When it comes to carbohydrates, what is most important is the correct portion and the quality of the carbohydrate. It is important to focus on getting in the right carbohydrates, also known as complex carbs – which are low GI, and minimally refined – as these will be digested more slowly and result in a more sustained and gradual release of sugar.

These include whole grains, such as wholewheat bread and pasta, brown rice and pap, oats, and bran cereals. Legumes, nuts, and non-starchy veg also contribute as complex carbohydrates.

The types of carbohydrates to limit are known as refined carbohydrates and include white bread, white rice, biscuits, pastries, certain breakfast cereals, white flour, and some desserts.

Saturated fats

When talking about diabetes we often only think about sugar. However, it is also important for people living with diabetes to make sure they are limiting their fat intake, more specifically their saturated fats, which are those which increase the risk for heart disease. This is because people with diabetes have an increased risk of developing heart disease.

Some research has shown that diets high in saturated fat may lead to worsening insulin resistance over time. It is important to choose foods that have been prepared healthily.

For example, not deep-fried or foods prepared with lots of cream and butter. This means, takeout, processed meats, fried foods, pre-packaged meals, and high saturated fat cheeses, sauces, and dairy all need to be limited to now and again.


Everyone should consume alcohol in moderation and especially individuals living with diabetes. Depending on the individual’s condition perhaps no drinking at all would be suggested by their health-care practitioner. With drinks of choice, added sugar in the drink or mixers can cause blood sugar levels to fluctuate. Alcohol may also influence certain diabetes medications.

Drinking too much or too fast can be life-threatening, thus when consuming alcohol, it is important not to do it on an empty stomach and to consume alcohol slowly in limited quantities.

If possible, drinking should be avoided or limited to certain occasions, and if drinking, to choose drinks with lower sugar and carbohydrate content such as dry beers, or wine, liquor plain, or with sugar-free mixers.

Naturally occurring sugars and sweeteners

The body cannot distinguish between sugars. Using honey will not be any better than using sugar. It is best to limit the use or gradually eliminate it. The same logic applies to natural sugars in fruit. Eating ten fruits will not be better than eating a slab of chocolate.

While the fruit is a better choice overall, as it has more fibre and nutritional benefit, and thus will be broken down more slowly, the natural sugars in excess amounts will still cause a spike in sugar levels. So it is important to consume these in moderation.