If you have diabetes, finding a sweet treat that’s safe to eat might feel impossible. We all know that it’s best to avoid cookies and pastries, which can cause a big spike in blood sugar. But if you discount fruit as well, you may rob yourself of powerful nutrients that provide excellent health benefits. Some fruits, like citrus and berries, may even help stabilize your blood glucose levels.
Fresh, whole fruit can and should be an important component of your diet, whether you have diabetes or not. Kris Sollid, Registered Dietician and Senior Director of Nutrition Communications at the International Food Council, believes you may be just fine eating whole fruits of any kind. “Most whole fruits are listed as ‘low’ or ‘medium’ on the glycemic index,” he tells Woman’s World. “In other words, most fruits will not spike blood glucose levels compared to other non-fibrous carbohydrates, especially when eaten in recommended quantities. This is mainly due to the fiber and the type of sugar found in whole fruits — fructose, which does not require insulin to be used for energy.”
Understanding the Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load
While most fruits are safe for you to eat, you shouldn’t ignore the glycemic index (GI). This tool still has an important role to play because it tells you how quickly foods with carbs can affect your blood sugar levels. Foods rank from 0 to 100, with 100 being the equivalent of pure glucose. A GI of 55 or below is considered low and a rating of 70 or above is high. A rating between 56 and 69 is moderate.
It’s also important to check your fruit’s glycemic load (GL). This measurement accounts for not just a food’s glycemic index, but also the grams of carbohydrates per serving. A GL reading of 0 to 10 is low, while a reading between 11 and 19 is moderate. A GL of 20 or above is high.
Most packaged foods include the glycemic index on the label. Plus, online resources like the University of Sydney’s “GI Search” allow you to search for a specific food and find its glycemic index and load.
Why You Should Pay Attention to Glycemic Load in Fruit
Harvard Health argues that the glycemic load gives you a more accurate idea of how high your blood sugar might rise after eating a food. For instance, you may think that watermelon is bad for diabetics because it has a glycemic index of 80. However, watermelon’s glycemic load is only 5 because it contains very little carbohydrates.
“Fruit is beneficial to health for many reasons and need not be avoided due to its sugar content,” Sollid says. “But the portions we eat [are] important to keep in mind. It’s also important to look at the bigger picture — the entire meal or snack. In addition to watching portion sizes, mixing lower GI foods (foods higher in fiber or fat typically have lower GI values) into a meal can help keep blood glucose more under control.” For example, pairing your fruit with cottage cheese and nuts can further reduce the risk that your blood sugar spikes.
In effect, nearly all of nature’s sweets can help you maintain a diabetes-friendly diet. Even better, some fruits can actively help stabilize your blood glucose levels over the long haul.
Berries can improve blood sugar control.
When it comes to heart-healthy, nutrient-rich foods, the humble berry is quite the powerhouse. Johns Hopkins Medicine states that berries are high in antioxidants, which reduce cell damage and inflammation in the body. Research shows that they may also help the body regulate blood glucose levels.
Blueberries, for instance, have a low glycemic index of 53 and a low glycemic load of 7.2, making them a very safe fruit for diabetics. According to a 2016 study from Antioxidants, blueberries may have an anti-diabetic effect by improving insulin resistance and sugar tolerance. Researchers believe that the polyphenols, or potent plant compounds in the berries, help tissues in the body absorb glucose so it doesn’t linger in the blood stream.
Raspberries and blackberries have similar benefits. In a 2019 trial published in Obesity, researchers found that one to two cups of frozen red raspberries paired with a high-carb meal significantly reduced insulin levels two hours after eating. Another study from 2018, which was published in Nutrients, found that blackberries promoted fat oxidation, or the breakdown of fatty acids. The study also showed that these fruits improved insulin sensitivity in overweight and obese patients.
Citrus fruits may improve insulin sensitivity.
Citrus fruits perform well in terms of the glycemic index and glycemic load. A medium-sized orange has a GI of 43 and a GL of 5, making it an easy fruit to add to your diet. A grapefruit has a GI of 25, and a half cup of chopped grapefruit has a GL of just 1.2. Nutritionists believe the high fiber content in both of these fruits keeps blood sugar spikes at bay.
In addition, research shows that the citrus fruits contain plenty of flavonoids, or plant compounds that fight oxidative stress. Flavonoids have anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic properties. In a 2020 systematic review published by Nutrients, researchers found that a wide variety of flavonoids in fruits like oranges and grapefruit promoted insulin sensitivity.
So, how much citrus fruit, berries, and other fruit should you eat? The Cleveland Clinic suggests that you follow U.S. dietary guidelines and aim for five servings of fruit and vegetables per day, even if you have diabetes or high blood sugar. Be sure to speak with your doctor if you want to create more precise guidelines for yourself. Hopefully, you can rest easy knowing that fruit is not the enemy.