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Managing Diabetes 2019

Do I need to cut out sugar if I have diabetes?

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Lorraine Kelly

Senior Registered Dietitian in Diabetes, Midlands Regional Hospital, Portlaoise
Secretary, Diabetes Interest Group, Irish Nutrition & Dietetic Institute

A sugar-free diet is not necessary for managing diabetes. In fact, dietary recommendations for sugar for a person with diabetes are the same as those for the rest of the population.


A healthy eating plan, as is recommended for the majority of the population, is also recommended for those with diabetes. This eating plan is high in fibre and vegetables, low in saturated fat, and low in free sugars.

Carbohydrates – our fuel source

Starchy carbohydrate foods, such as whole grain breads and cereals, potatoes, pasta, rice and noodles, are broken down into glucose (sugar) during digestion, and used by the body for energy. These foods also provide us with essential vitamins, minerals and fibre. Eating moderate amounts of starchy carbohydrates at mealtimes helps regulate blood glucose levels.

Foods containing natural sugars, such as fruit, milk and yoghurts, also provide us with fibre, vitamins and calcium, and are a healthy addition to our eating plan.

Less healthy sugars

Free sugars, such as those found in table sugar, honey, syrups, biscuits, cakes and sugar-sweetened drinks, are not essential, and these foods are low in nutrients. It is recommended that we all, whether we have diabetes or not, limit our intake of free sugars to a maximum of 5% of total energy per day[1]. This works out at 25g of free sugars for an average adult eating 2,000 kcals per day.

Sugar content of some common foods:

Food grams Sugar
1 teaspoon sugar 4g
3 Digestive-type biscuits 7.5g
100g baked beans 5g
40g corn flakes 3g

For those who like the sweet taste, but wish to reduce their sugar intake, artificial sweeteners are safe and can be used instead.

When free sugars are needed

Low blood glucose levels (hypoglycaemia or blood glucose less than 4mmol/l) may occur for those on certain diabetes medications. The fastest way to raise low blood glucose is to drink a liquid containing sugar. Fifteen grams of sugar is usually enough for an adult/teen of average build; younger children may need smaller quantities. 200ml of fruit juice or 150 – 200mls full-sugar fizzy drink, will provide approximately 15g of sugar.

Individual dietetic advice

Dietary advice from a CORU-registered dietitian is recommended for everybody with diabetes. This can be provided on an individual basis or through structured group education programmes in either primary care or the hospital setting.


[1] Diabetes UK Evidence Based Nutritional Guidelines for the Prevention and Management of Diabetes, March 2018

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