6 Snacking Rules You Must Follow If You Have Diabetes

Snacks are critical for healthy eating with diabetes. Here, nutritionists reveal how to nosh healthfully.

When you’re feeling a little peckish, you want to settle that rumbling tummy and not worry about carbs, calories, or blood sugar spikes. Snacks are a critical part of meal planning for diabetes—they can help you get important nutrients, prevent low blood sugar, and prevent those hangry mood swings. But you do have to put a little thought into your snack choices when you’re managing diabetes. Here are key tips from dietitians:

1. Pair up your food

Always pair a carbohydrate with either a protein or a fat to help anchor the carb and blunt the spike in blood sugar, says Deborah Malkoff-Cohen, RD, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator in New York City. “Carbs start digesting in your mouth with salivary amylase the minute you start chewing. Protein primarily digests in the stomach via stomach acids, and most of fat digestion occurs in the small intestine with the help of bile and pancreatic enzymes,” says Malkoff-Cohen explains. “By adding a protein and/or fat to your carb choice, you’re helping to delay the digestion of the carb,” says Malkoff-Cohen. “Think of it as the weighted anchor on a balloon arrangement; without that anchor, the balloons would fly away. So would your blood sugar if you ate a cracker without some cheese or avocado to anchor those carbs!”

2. Consider the role of your meds

Meal and snack planning is a key component in preventing blood sugar lows, but the specific medications you take to treat type 2 diabetes can factor in to your game plan as well. For example, mealtime Humalog/Novolog are medications whose dosages change based on carb counting. “This is where snacking becomes important,” says Malkoff-Cohen. “If this estimation was off and the dose [of the medication] was too much for what you ate at the previous meal, you risk going low a few hours after the meal,” says Malkoff-Cohen.

Other oral medications prescribed for type 2 diabetes can trigger low blood sugar if you skip meals or snacks. For example, sulfonylureas stimulate the pancreas to release more insulin over time after a meal and several hours that follow. “If a patient misses a meal or a snack, they run the risk of going low and experiencing a hypoglycemic event,” says Malkoff-Cohen.

Another medicine class, meglitinides, increases the amount of insulin produced by the pancreas immediately following a meal, which will lower blood sugar. When you’re prescribed a new medication, be sure to ask your doctor how it can impact your eating/snacking schedule.

3. Stock up on snacks wherever you are

Whether you’re a desk jockey chained to your office computer or on the road all day in and out of your car, don’t be caught off guard when your tummy is growling or low blood sugar symptoms need your immediate attention. “Spend some time on Sundays bagging up a bunch of snacks,” suggests Ginny K. Mirenzi, RD, CDE, education coordinator for the University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center's Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology. “I like one ounce of nuts in a baggie, one ounce of crackers in a baggie.”

For those times when everyone in the office is devouring cake for a coworker’s birthday, plan ahead by stashing lower-carb treats in your desk—like an ounce of dark chocolate or a tablespoon of semi-sweet chocolate chips with a few almonds, Mirenzi suggests. If you have a long commute home from work, plan your day accordingly. “When you’re packing lunch, add a balanced snack to eat in the car.” How you eat is important too. Slow down and savor the textures and flavors. (Here’s why eating slowly is really good for your health.) If you can help it, never eat snacks from a jumbo bag, a habit that encourages overeating. Portion your snacks out and challenge yourself to munch on just one piece of at a time.

4. Snack before you sweat

Don’t skip a snack before exercising. Exercise—whether cardio or strength training—naturally lowers your blood glucose levels, so you need sustenance beforehand to avoid hypoglycemia during exercise. Talk to your doctor about hitting the right blood glucose targets for your body and exercise plan.

5. Remember, "sugar-free" doesn't mean carb-free

“Food manufacturers may use a sugar substitute, but the food can still made with ingredients like flour, milk, or fruit that count toward your carb allowance,” says Malkoff-Cohen.

6. Know when carbs are just plain off-limits

Sometimes your snack should strictly be a non-carbohydrate food, per your doctor’s advice. “If a person is on mealtime insulin, the insulin covers the meal, but if a person grabs a snack in between, there is no insulin there working to cover those carbs, so they end up with an elevated blood sugar before the next meal,” says Mirenzi.

For more nutrition tips, don't miss these healthy snacks for diabetes that nutritionists want you to eat. And check out this diabetes diet advice that everyone should follow.