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Let’s talk about diabetes and food

Each month, Sweet Life co-founder Bridget McNulty talks about something personal when it comes to diabetes… This month she tackles diabetes and food.

diabetes and food

Diabetes and food

Diabetes and food. Is there a subject more likely to start people arguing? I don’t think so… (Maybe politics? Religion? Money? I think diabetes and food wins.) When we started Sweet Life 11 years ago, we decided we wouldn’t be prescriptive about food. We would offer all the options, and let people decide for themselves, because everyone is different. And that’s worked, mostly, until now.

Food is emotional

Because the truth is that the way we feel about food is emotional. Very emotional. I think of the South Africans with Diabetes community as super supportive, but I can tell you that the most vicious comments we’ve ever had have been about food.

We once posted a guide to fruit portions, and people lost their minds (our approach: some people with diabetes can eat fruit, for others it spikes your blood sugar. You make the decision that’s best for you.) Banting was another one that had people completely divided (our approach: there are simple ways to eat low carb, and everyone – with or without diabetes – should cut out refined carbs). And then there’s the processed food debate. And that’s what really got us thinking…

Sweet Life’s diabetes and food advice

At its core, Sweet Life is two people: me and Pitsi Dipela, our lovely project manager (who is a registered dietician). We developed the Healthy Food Guide together, and we’ve been talking about food a lot, lately. It turns out that although we’ve always thought it’s best to offer all the options and let people decide, we also recognise that diabetes is such an overwhelming condition, and we all have too many decisions to make. Every day! So some simple advice would be helpful.

It also turns out that we know exactly what that advice is.

Sweet Life’s diabetes and food advice is simple:
Eat whole foods. Lots of green vegetables.
Cut down on carbs. Remove refined carbs.
Enjoy your food!

Lived experience

I’ve been living with diabetes for 15 years, and this is how I eat. By extension, this is how I believe people with diabetes should eat. The details will differ, of course – we all have different preferences, lifestyles, cultures, family situations and needs. But we believe – Sweet Life believes – that people with diabetes don’t need special diabetes-friendly foods.

Our 5 Food Rules:

  1. Eat whole foods
    Food that is good for your body and your diabetes shouldn’t come in a package or with a long list of ingredients you don’t understand. It should be as close to natural as possible – as unprocessed as possible.

  2. Lots of green vegetables
    Vegetables are amazing things, and should fill half your plate at lunch and dinner. Green vegetables means don’t fill half your plate with butternut or potatoes or starchy vegetables that will spike your blood sugar. Any non-starchy vegetables are great (no matter what colour they are!)

  3. Cut down on carbs
    We don’t believe in a strict no-carb diet, but it’s clear that carbs are what spike blood sugar, so you have to find the balance that is right for you. If your family is eating spaghetti bolognaise for dinner, eat more vegetables and less (or no) pasta. Try a bunless burger with lots of sides instead of a burger on a bun. If you can cut the carbs out of a meal without ruining the meal, do it.

  4. Remove refined carbs
    This is life advice, even more than diabetes advice. Refined carbs – white bread, white rice, doughnuts, cookies, cakes, vetkoek, chips, pizza, sweets and so on – are junk food. You know this! They don’t make you feel well. As far as possible, remove them from your daily diet.

    If it’s a special occasion and you want a piece of cake, why not bake it at home? Then you know exactly what goes into it, you can control the amount of sugar (top tip: you can cut 1/3 of the sugar from baked goods without it making any difference) and you can choose the portion size.

  5. Enjoy your food!
    We really believe in this one. Diabetes is a chronic condition, which means it’s forever. You can’t be on a diet forever, so you have to find ways to make eating healthy delicious – and enjoyable. Figure out what that means for you, and work it into your daily diet. For me, it’s fruit and dark chocolate. I eat them both in moderation, but I happily and often eat them. I can do without bread and chips and I don’t like sweets, but don’t be taking away my fruit and chocolate!


    Of course, enjoying your food means making exceptions now and again, too. We’re not robots! The most important thing is to keep portions in mind when you’re making exceptions, so you don’t have a crazy blood sugar spike.

What do you think?

Every person with diabetes is different. What works for you when it comes to diabetes and food? I really would love to know… Please comment here or on Facebook or Instagram, and let’s figure this out together.

What to read next?

How to interpret food labels for diabetics: How do you know if a product is going to be good or bad for your blood sugar? Once you understand what to look for on food labels, you’ll be able to choose the right products to help control your blood sugar.

Eat healthy for diabetes: The one article you need to read about diabetes and diet.

Free Healthy Food Guide: how to eat healthy with diabetes or to lose weight: This Healthy Food Guide shows you exactly which foods to choose (and which to avoid), as well as sharing which portions to eat.

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Sweet Life is a registered NPO/PBO (220-984) with a single goal: to improve diabetes in South Africa. We are funded by sponsorships and donations from aligned companies and organisations who believe in our work. We only share information that we believe benefits our community. While some of this information is linked to specific brands, it is not an official endorsement of that brand. We believe in empowering people with diabetes to make the best decisions they can, to live a healthy, happy life with diabetes.