A person with diabetes may feel like their food choices are totally restricted. It’s true that you have to pay more attention to what you eat when you have diabetes. But that doesn’t mean you have to keep track of every single calorie and carb that you eat. Surprisingly, there are certain foods, called “free” foods, that can add flexibility to your meal plan.
What is a Free Food?
A free food is any food or drink that has less than 20 calories per serving and less than 5 grams of carbohydrates. They are different from sugar-free foods, which may still contain a significant amount of carbohydrates. Free foods do not affect your blood glucose levels. You can include free foods in your meal plan to help feel full without adding more carbs or calories. Free foods can be used to give spice and flavor to foods and be substituted for high-calorie foods that could jeopardize your diabetes management goals.
Free foods are included in the ADA (American Diabetes Association) Exchange Lists, a tool that’s used for diabetes meal planning. Here’s a list of free foods from ADA that can be part of any diabetes meal plan. The items without a serving size can be used in unlimited amounts. Other items that have a serving size are “free” as long as you eat no more than 2-3 servings per day.
Broth and Drinks
- Bouillon** or broth without fat
- Bouillon, low sodium
- Carbonated drinks, sugar-free (cola, ginger-ale, etc.)
- Carbonated water
- Club soda
- Cocoa powder, unsweetened (1 tbsp.)
- Drink mixes, sugar-free
- Tonic water, sugar-free
- Cranberries, unsweetened (1/2 cup)
- Rhubarb, unsweetened (1/2 cup)
Vegetables (raw, 1 cup)
- Chinese cabbage*
- Green onion
- Hot peppers
- Candy, hard, sugar-free
- Gelatin, sugar-free
- Gum, sugar-free
- Jam/jelly, sugar-free (less than 20 cal/2 tsp.)
- Pancake syrup, sugar-free (1-2 tbsp.)
- Sugar substitutes (saccharin, aspartame)
- Whipped topping (2 tbsp.)
- Catsup (1 tbsp.)
- Pickles** dill, unsweetened
- Salad dressing, low-calorie (2 tbsp.)
- Taco sauces (3 tbsp.)
*3 or more grams of fiber per serving
** 400 mg or more of sodium per serving
The Bottom Line
If you are trying to lose weight, better manage your blood sugar levels, or just avoid high-calorie foods, add free foods to your diet. They can help you feel full without feeling deprived of food choices. Read labels to make sure you are getting a truly free food. And sit back and relax, have a bowl of crisp romaine topped with mushrooms, cucumbers and salad dressing, sip a glass of cool ice tea, and enjoy.
Sejal is a registered dietitian, a certified diabetes educator and she holds a masters degree in nutrition and health. Sejal was the project coordinator for the Veteran’s Administrations (VA) national weight loss program and previously worked for the VA hospital in Tampa, FL as a Spinal Cord Injury dietitian.
Sejal has had numerous clinical and community education experiences, including pediatric and intensive care nutrition support. She has also had the opportunity to teach nutrition courses at the community college level to students interested in pursuing health professions. One of her favorite areas of education is diabetes management.