Although we know fruits and vegetables are good for us people with diabetes are often told they can’t eat fruits because they are too sweet or contain sugar. All fruits contain natural sugar, but also contain a good mix of vitamins, minerals and fibre.
Why are fruit and vegetables so good for us?
Eating fruits and vegetables is associated with lower risk of developing many health conditions including high blood pressure, heart diseases, strokes, obesity and certain cancers.
It’s even more important for people with diabetes to eat more fruits and vegetables as most of these conditions are more likely to affect them.
Fruits and vegetables have a good mix of soluble and insoluble fibre which is good for your bowels and general health – so it makes sense to eat more of them.
Should people with diabetes cut back on fruit because of sugar content?
Managing diabetes has to do with managing your long-term blood glucose, blood fats, blood pressure and your weight, and fruits and vegetables can play a positive role in all these.
The concern has been that because fruits contain sugar, it makes your blood glucose go up. In fact, most fruits have low to medium glycaemic index, so they do not lead to a sharp rise in your blood glucose levels compared to other carbohydrate-containing foods like white or wholemeal bread.
Portion size is very important when considering the biggest effect of fruits on your blood glucose levels after eating so let’s look at this in more detail.
A portion of fruit contains about 15-20g carbohydrate on average, which is similar to a slice of bread. To put things in perspective, just a can of cola contains 35g carb and a medium slice of chocolate cake contains 35g of carbs as well.
So, if you are looking to reduce your carb intake, with the aim to manage blood glucose levels, the advice is to reduce your intake of foods and drinks like ordinary fizzy drinks, cakes, biscuits, chocolate and other snacks.
When you have done that, you can then begin to look at reducing your portions of starchy foods starting with those that are highly processed and contain added fats, sugars and salt.
It is very unlikely that fruits are the main culprit for high blood glucose levels as there is a tendency to over-estimate consumption of foods that are perceived to be healthy like fruits and vegetables.
Our advice would be to keep a food diary to check how much fruits and veg you are eating. For most people, you don’t have to reduce the amount of fruits and vegetables you eat.
Should people with diabetes avoid fruit juice?
Fruit juices can be high in natural sugars and because they have less fibre than the whole fruits, they are not as beneficial.
Because you can get through a lot of juice within a relatively short period of time, compared to eating the actual fruit, you may end up loading up with a lot of carbs over that period. Depending on how your diabetes is managed, this can result in your blood glucose levels going up, and may affect your weight in the long term as well.
That is why you are better off eating the actual fruit and avoiding juices. If you want to drink fruit juice, limit it to a maximum of a small glass, once a day. Drinking more than that will only increase your blood glucose levels and make you gain weight.
If you drink juice with your a meal, look at how to reduce the carbohydrate in that meal. So, for example, if you usually have a couple of slices of bread with your breakfast, on the day that you decide to have a small glass of juice with your breakfast, you may be better off sacrificing one slice of bread to make room for the extra carbs from the juice. You don't need to do this every day, but it is an option. And it will stop you having to deal with high blood glucose levels as a result of the juice.
5-a-day: practical ways to reach the target.
Firstly, a portion of fruit and veg is roughly what can fit in your palm. For example:
- a medium size apple, pear or banana
- a handful of grapes
- 3 tablespoon of vegetables
- a bowl of salad
- 1 tablespoon of dried fruits
It is important to spread your intake through the day rather than having it all in one go.
For breakfast, try:
- Adding sliced banana to your cereal for breakfast and remember to reduce your usual amount of cereal to make room for the fruit.
- Adding mushrooms and tomatoes with your cooked breakfast.
- A fruit salad topped with no added sugar yogurt.
For lunch, have a healthy side salad, instead of crisps, with your sandwich and replace snacks with fruits and veg, for example, raisins and sultanas, fruit salads, raw vegetables, vegetable sticks, frozen berries.
For evening meals dish out the vegetables first like carrots, aubergines, broccoli, cabbages etc. and let that form the biggest part of the plate and add more vegetables to your casseroles, stews, soups etc.
What else do I need to know?
- Fruit and vegetables are better eaten raw as some nutrients are lost through cooking. Try steaming, poaching or microwaving rather than boiling in a lot of water if you prefer them cooked and add some spices and herbs if you find vegetables bland.
- Fruit and vegetables have different mix of nutrients, so it is important to have a range of fruits and veg to get more goodness. Challenge yourself to try a different fruit or veg whenever possible.
- Be careful with dried fruits – a portion is just a tablespoon – but it is easy to overdo it especially if you have the whole bowl in front of you.
- Avoid fruit juices and smoothies. If you have to, limit it to a maximum of 1 small glass a day.
- If you go for tinned fruits, choose one that is tinned in the natural juice rather than syrup – always read the label.