Amy Campbell, CDE, is a registered dietitian and the author of several books about diabetes, including 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet and Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning.

Diabetes meal planning is very much a system of checks and balances. Counting carb grams, controlling portions, balancing your intake of carb, protein, and fat, keeping an eye on calories . . . you practically have to be an accountant to keep everything straight, and this is all on top of checking your blood sugars, and dosing up the right amount of insulin or taking your diabetes pills. There’s much to learn when it comes to meal planning; in addition to all of these checks and balances, you eventually find out how different foods affect your own blood sugar and how you can keep everything on an even keel so that you stay in your target range as often as possible.

Diabetes "freebies"

Have you ever heard the saying, “the best things in life are free”? Or perhaps you subscribe to this saying: “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Whatever your motto, the good news is that there really are foods you can eat that have no (or at least little) impact on your blood sugar. They’re typically called “free foods” and chances are you’re already familiar with at least a few of them.

Here’s the definition of a free food: a food or a drink that has fewer than 20 calories and five grams of carbohydrate per serving. Free foods are a great way to add flavor and fill you up, either at meals or at snack time, without blowing your carb budget or packing on the pounds.

What's the catch?

Something to realize about these free foods: while some can truly be eaten without worrying about portions, others—well, you need to be a bit more careful about how much you eat. Those foods are indeed free as long as you eat only a certain amount. But if you’re not careful with your portions, the calories, carbs, and/or fat can quickly start to add up. Here are a few examples of foods that are free within limits:

  • Reduced-fat mayonnaise: 1 teaspoon
  • Fat-free cream cheese: 1 tablespoon
  • Honey mustard: 1 tablespoon
  • No-sugar-added jam: 2 teaspoons
  • Barbecue sauce: 2 teaspoons
  • Low-fat salad dressing: 1 tablespoon
  • Salsa: ¼ cup
  • Reduced-fat sour cream: 1 tablespoon
  • Light whipped topping: 2 tablespoons
  • Parmesan cheese: 1 tablespoon
  • Cranberries: ½ cup
  • Taco sauce: 1 tablespoon
  • Bread and butter pickles: 2 slices

As you can see, many of these free foods are condiments. It’s easy to be overly generous with portions for some of them, such as fat-free cream cheese or reduced-fat mayonnaise, for example. But don’t be fooled: eating too much of these free foods may affect your blood sugar and possibly your waistline. Aim to eat no more than two or three servings of this group of free foods per day.

Are any food really free?

If it’s any consolation, there are a few foods and beverages that are so low in calories and carbs that they really have little effect on your weight or your blood sugars. Exciting? Here are a few to add to your shopping list:

  • Coffee (without cream, milk or sugar)
  • Tea, any flavor (without cream, milk or sugar)
  • Water: plain, seltzer, mineral
  • Club soda
  • Diet soda
  • Diet tonic water
  • Sugar-free drinks
  • Cocoa powder
  • Gelatin (plain or sugar free)
  • Sugar-free popsicles
  • Sugar substitutes (aspartame, sucralose, stevia-based sweeteners, saccharin)
  • Herbs and spices
  • Garlic
  • Vinegar
  • Lemon juice
  • Extracts (vanilla, almond, peppermint)
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Hot pepper sauce
  • Horseradish
  • Bouillon and broth
  • Salad greens
  • Nonstick cooking spray
  • Sugar-free gum

Read the label

As you roam the aisles of the supermarket, spend a little time looking at the Nutrition Facts label on food items. Keep in mind that some of the terms you see on the front of a package or a bottle can be deceiving. A good example of this is the term “sugar-free.” According to the FDA, a sugar-free food must contain less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. It does not mean that the item is a free food, nor does it mean that the item is carbohydrate-free or calorie-free. Many sugar-free foods are sweetened with nonnutritive sweeteners and/or sugar alcohols. And plenty of sugar-free foods are still packed with calories, fat, and carbs. A good example of this is Russell Stover’s Sugar-Free Peanut Butter Cups: one serving (just two pieces) has 160 calories, 17 grams of carb, 12 grams of fat, and six grams of saturated fat.

The bottom line: Always read the Nutrition Facts label for the serving size and grams of total carbohydrate.