Making Snacks Work for You If You Have Diabetes

For those of us with Type 2 diabetes, there are two main things we can do to improve our lives: They are exercise and weight loss.

For exercise, anything we do to become more active will count. But for weight loss there are too many diet options. It can be confusing. It does not help that everyone with a diet to sell tends to make inflated claims to get our attention — and our money.


One of the few ideas that appeals to me involves using snacks to stave off hunger. As I try to eat fewer calories, getting hungry every few hours makes losing weight a challenge.

Some research has been done on the use of something known as thermogenesis, or turning energy into heat, as a weight-loss aid. Here’s the way it seems to work: Eating and digesting food burns calories. Roughly 10% of your daily energy is spent digesting and storing the food you eat. Eating certain types of foods appears to trigger thermogenesis and raise metabolism, increasing the number of calories your body burns throughout the day.

According to the research, digesting protein uses the most energy of all foods. The energy burn, or thermogenesis, can also be higher if you have revved up your metabolism early with breakfast and some exercise.

A calorie is simply a unit of energy. Using energy to create heat is called thermogenesis. Being active uses the most, but you also burn calories while you sit at work or while you sleep, just not as many.

You’ve probably heard someone say he was burning calories by walking or swimming. The idea of using snacks to cause thermogenesis is that you can also increase metabolism and burn calories by eating certain foods.

But thermogenesis is not magic. If you have Type 2 diabetes, snacking involves planning ahead. If you simply snack, you will destroy your weight-loss plan. I know this from experience.

The snacks need to be low in calories, of course. They also need to be heavy on protein and light on carbohydrate, with some fat and fiber thrown in to keep blood sugar steady.

This is where the challenge comes in. A snack of between 90 and 150 calories would probably work to keep the calorie burn in gear. But finding foods with fiber, fat, and protein in that range is not easy.

There are no shortcuts here. Simply grabbing a low-fat snack or something sugar free will not work. “Low-fat” foods can be pure carbohydrate, and “sugar free” or “low sugar” is not the same thing as diabetes friendly. It is foods that have protein, fat, and fiber you want to look for.

Here are some smart snacks that I enjoy:

Nuts top my list, especially walnuts, pecans, and almonds. Almonds (and indeed all nuts) are high in magnesium, which some people with diabetes are short on. All nuts also contain fiber, protein, and healthful fats. It is the fat that makes them high calorie. For example, one almond has 7 calories, so count out how many you plan to eat in one snack. Small zip bags work well to parcel out your snacks.

Make your own trail mix with some nuts, low-sugar granola, and a few raisins. Measure out about 100 calories’ worth in each zip bag.

Peanut butter is 90–100 calories in a tablespoon. Put it on celery for a quick snack that will stick with you. Some brands of natural peanut butter have no added sugar but lots of staying power because of the protein and fat.

One half-cup of 2% cottage cheese is 105 calories. It goes well with slices of tomato or low-glycemic fruit.

If you like yogurt, try one half-cup of Greek yogurt with some fresh strawberries. One medium strawberry has 4 calories.

One large hard-boiled egg has 70 calories. With no carbohydrates and lots of good protein and fat, it staves off hunger but does not add to insulin needs.

Most string cheeses are about 80 calories. Pair one with a rye cracker. Wasa and Ryvita brands are made from rye grain, not wheat with a little rye added. Rye is one of the lowest glycemic whole grains.

Use some hummus (garbanzo beans, sesame seed paste, garlic, lemon juice, salt, and olive oil) on a rye cracker or a raw vegetable like broccoli, carrot, tomato, snap peas, or yellow bell pepper.

For a low-calorie snack in cold weather, I like a cup of warm vegetable soup. You can make your own with low-glycemic vegetables simmered in vegetable or chicken broth. A cup of chicken broth has only 40 calories.

Freezing grapes makes them a treat that can satisfy a sweet tooth. There are about 70 calories in 20 red seedless grapes. They have no fat but do have fiber and antioxidants.

A small apple has about 80 calories, a small orange has 45, and a small pear has 80. I love small plums at about 30 calories each. Fruits have natural sweetness and fiber, and all of them are full of antioxidants and vitamins.

If fresh cherries are in season, have some along with your string cheese. They are only 5 calories apiece, and they encourage your body to burn fat.

One Dove Promises Silky Smooth Dark Chocolate piece is 42 calories. Eat it with 4 or 5 almonds to get the satisfaction of a candy bar without guilt. Dark chocolate has antioxidants, and so do almonds.

If you want popcorn, air pop your own so you can avoid the things added to microwave popcorn. Spray a little real butter on top and you have something special. Air-popped popcorn is about 30 calories a cup, and it is a whole grain, so you are getting fiber too.

Do you see how you can make snacking work for you instead of against you? Just add your snack calories into your overall goal for each day.

If you plan to snack at night, you can eat without feeling bad about it. If snack attacks always hit you between lunch and suppertime, have something ready so you will not use the machines at work or raid the refrigerator at home.

Some people with diabetes do better sticking with three meals a day, which is great, but if you love to snack, you can snack smart. Use thermogenesis to help you reach your goals.