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For people with diabetes, keeping blood glucose (sugar) at safe levels is paramount. With much of a newly diagnosed person’s focus often on shifting from eating unhealthy food to more healthy choices, beverages can be easily overlooked. Among the top drinks a person with diabetes should avoid, a common denominator exists: sugar. Soda and sweet tea might seem like obvious culprits, but other drinks can pack a sugary punch as well.
A single serving of many sugary drinks can contain the same amount of sugar as a plate of food. So, someone with diabetes could get 45 to 60 grams of sugar from a 20-ounce bottle of sweet tea but wouldn’t get other nutrients otherwise gained from a balanced meal.
“Ideally, people with diabetes shouldn’t get sugars from beverages,” said Priscilla Benavides, a registered dietitian and health educator with the Texas A&M Coastal Bend Health Education Center. “This is because you can easily get more than a meal’s worth of sugar from one drink and not even know it.”
Benavides says sugar-laden beverages can raise blood sugar above the recommended target range because our bodies absorb liquids more quickly than most foods. She adds that excess sugar creates a problem for a person with diabetes “because sweet drinks are a fast-acting source of glucose that can lead to hyperglycemia when consumed.” Hyperglycemia is the medical term for high blood sugar and can cause serious complications, such as coma or death, if left untreated.
Depending on your meal plan, sugary beverages could take up a significant portion of “budgeted” calories. Excess calories, along with the excess sugar, from these drinks can quickly derail even the best meal plan.
The following lists the amount of sugar in the top drinks a person with diabetes should avoid and provides some healthier alternatives.
Sugar (per 20-ounce serving): about 51 to 77 grams
Alternative: Diet soda
Diet sodas are preferable to their more sugary counterparts. However, they aren’t a “magic bullet” for the diabetes-conscious person looking to cut back on sugar consumption. People who switch to diet soda might find themselves drinking more of it and not enough water.
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) says diet sodas can serve as a “short-term replacement” but “overall, people are encouraged to decrease both sweetened and nonnutritive-sweetened beverages and use other alternatives, with an emphasis on water intake.”
Beverage: Sweet tea
Sugar (per 20-ounce serving): about 26 to 50 grams for many store-bought brands
Alternative: Unsweetened tea with sugar-free sweetener
The varying amount of sugar in sweet tea makes it one of the top drinks a person with diabetes should avoid. The amount of sugar in sweet tea can be difficult to nail down because it can be made at home. Instead of using sugar, consider an artificial sweetener. However, remember that these sweeteners should be a short-term alternative. Also, many teas contain caffeine. Those with diabetes should keep an eye on their caffeine intake because the ADA has linked it to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and elevated blood sugar levels after a meal.
Beverage: Slush drinks
Sugar (per 20-ounce serving): about 83 grams
Alternative: You might not find a ready-made, less sugary substitute for slush drinks. However, recipes for homemade slush drinks are just an internet search away. Pay attention to the recipe you choose to ensure you’re not getting excess sugar. If you’re unsure, talk to a dietitian or consider a different alternative altogether.
Beverage: Iced coffee
Sugar (per 20-ounce serving): about 75 to 84 grams
Alternative: Light or “skinny” coffee; request substitute ingredients
Light or “skinny” iced coffee drinks may have less sugar, but they’re still more sugary than even most sweet teas. Substituting ingredients, such as non-fat milk or sugar-free syrup, can cut calories. Make sure you’re cutting back on sugar, too.
Beverage: Sports drinks
Sugar (per 20-ounce serving): About 34 grams
Alternative: Sugar-free or “zero” sports drinks, water
Sports drinks can be one of the top drinks a person with diabetes should avoid for several reasons. First, most of these electrolyte drinks don’t taste as sweet as a regular soda. Also, marketing for many major sports drink brands feature professional athletes, which could suggest that whatever a health-conscious competitor puts in their body is fine for everyday adults to drink. “Zero” drinks produced by beverage companies usually have less sugar. Be sure to keep an eye on other nutrients that are unfavorable in excess, such as sodium.
While sugar substitutes are generally healthier than what they’re replacing, Benavides says water is still the best beverage of all.
“Water is the gold standard of beverages,” Benavides said. “It has no calories, no carbs and goes with just about any meal.”
If you find yourself getting tired of plain water, try infusing it with some fruit or fresh mint. Infused water is virtually calorie-free because the nutrients from infused fruit is negligible. However, sugar, calories and fiber can still be consumed if you eat the fruit itself.
Benavides says a moderate approach is most effective when considering whether to have a sugary drink. “In a perfect world, people wouldn’t consume any added sugar,” she said. “But for most people, a more realistic approach to cutting back on sugar is moderation. Have that occasional indulgence, but don’t let it interfere with your overall plan to be healthier.”
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