Dining while diabetic: avoiding hidden sugars

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The single most important aspect of eating out successfully is avoiding the hidden sugar in those foods you don't prepare yourself.

Dining while diabetic: avoiding hidden sugars

Particularly when your intentions are good, you don’t want to get busted for wrong eating. It’s seldom harder than when you’re eating out, especially if it’s at a celebratory event. And your chief adversary is sugar, often cleverly disguised.

In her incarnation as a TV chef, Julia Child famously quipped, after dropping an ingredient on the floor, “You’re always alone in your kitchen.” It’s true in a different way for conscientious diabetic cooks: you’re only truly safe when you’re doing your own cooking.

Eating out, the problems are exactly that you’re not alone. Other people are involved in every step of the process, and while they may harbor not a single bad intention toward you and your invisible friend diabetes, it’s up to you make the meal as safe as it is enjoyable. The person to involve at the start of the process is your physician, who may recommend a dietician, too.

There’s more to eating out than carrying sugar substitutes

There’s no reason not to enjoy any meal, including meals out with friends or family. To do it with a clean conscience—and good postprandial blood levels—the single most important thing is to watch out for, and then avoid, hidden sugar(s).

The two shortest routes to making foods delicious are sugar and fat. You can hardly blame restaurants for falling back on the same keep-’em-coming-back ingredients as the food processers. Remember that you can eat wisely, and well, almost anywhere.

How could a salad hurt?

Let us count the ways. As restaurant salads get fancier, the pitfalls multiply. It starts with ingredients. When you go beyond raw vegetables things get dicey. Proteins such as grilled meats or seafood are likely to have spent some time in a marinade, so sugars may lurk in anything but the leanest of fowl meats.

Then there are fruits. See a piece of fruit, particularly a dried one, and push it to the side for your own sake. A canned peach on a bed of lettuce with cottage cheese is no diabetic’s idea of a salad, and dried fruits keep their sugars hidden but concentrated.

The main problem, of course, is the dressing. The rule of thumb is always to ask for it “on the side,” so you can see what it is you’re pouring on the raw vegetables. If you’re using more than oil and (a simple) vinegar, you’re heading out into the tall weeds.

Any dressing through which light won't pass is likely to have, at the very least, high cholesterol ingredients and, more likely than not, some form of sugar. The closest you should get to a blue cheese dressing is actual crumbled blue cheese in the salad itself, and then you’re looking at fat and cholesterol and salt, never mind the protein advantage. The other standards—Thousand Island, French, Russian, Italian, soy sauce-plus—are, for the diabetic, closer to toxins.

And if the restaurant is likely to have poor quality olive oil and vinegar, you can bring your own salad dressing. Thanks to the miracle of packaging, and style trends that allow men as well as women to carry bags, you can import your own dressing, ideally without fanfare.

Ziplock plastic bags are not advisable for toting salad dressings, particularly for the fashion-conscious, but it’s easy to acquire strong, durable, re-usable small bottles for your own-made creations. A salad dressing that is more than one tablespoon each of oil and vinegar is probably headed for a salad that’s too big in the first place, and that amount is a small volume.

If you’re in charge of the ingredients, you can make a mild or flavor-intensive dressing. Try flavored (but not sweetened) vinegars, a good extra-virgin olive oil, a touch of sesame oil as an accent, small amounts of black or white sesame seeds, citrus rind, a hint of deep-flavored soy sauce. Just be prepared for everyone else wanting to try it. It’s okay to be sneaky to avoid sneakier hidden sugars.

Aren’t grilled meats the best?

Sure, and if they’re prepared well, they’re delicious. The question becomes, what, if anything, was the meat swimming in before the cook threw it on the barbie? Ask, and order accordingly.


At the most basic level, any sauce, on anything, is literally a cover-up. The better the ingredients, the less a sauced is needed—and, eventually, wanted. Go for the really good stuff, the so-called “plain” foods, where the real flavor lies.

Ketchup? There’s a reason it’s the most popular “sauce” around the world, and it’s the same reason obesity poses as great a threat as malnutrition: sugar. So, no.

What about dessert?

Prepare to decline politely. This side of a modest fruit plate, you’ve got questions to ask, and even then some. What fruit? You know fruits have fructose, which aren’t off limits unless your doctor says they are. But there are fruits and there are fruits. Melons and berries are on your side. Tropical fruits less so—particularly the great ones, like sugar-rich mango.

Most important, how undressed are the fruits? They should be peeled, of course, but the peel should not be replaced by any kind of sauce, or it’s likely to have sugar, alcohol, or both. If for any reason you need to punch up the flavor of a fruit, consider a (small) squeeze of (a real) lime.   

Let them eat cake

The hardest meals out are the celebratory ones, the ones that come with cake, often after a meal that is calculated to make guests overeat and joke about it. Your best option here, especially when there’s pressure to eat, is to have a healthy, modest meal beforehand and, at the celebration, graze selectively and lightly.

If it’s a party, the chances that anyone will even notice what you eat, or don’t, go down as the attendance goes up. If declining a dessert is considered an affront, don’t decline, just prepare to not eat it, either. Rather than feeling left out, think of yourself as a smart Marie Antoinette. Let them eat the cake.

Attitude is everything, as always

It starts with moving self-care to the top of the list of your priorities. Other changes in perception, then habit, follow naturally. Food is great, but a lot of foods are for other people. The plainer the food, the better its qualities. A meal out doesn’t have to be like a hazard at a golf course; aim for the green.

There are literally countless other strategies for dining out with self-injury, and future posts will look at many more of them, in detail. 

For further reading:







Type-2 Diabetes - A Survival Guide

Type-2 Diabetes - A Survival Guide

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