Sure packaged foods are convenient, but certain ones may not be the best choice if you're trying to lower your blood sugar. Here's a dietitian's guide to choosing the right packaged foods for better blood sugar.

We all know that eating a diet consisting of mostly whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein is ideal when it comes to our health. Here's the thing—in reality most people don't have the time to prepare and cook all of their meals from scratch. This is where packaged foods come in handy. Within minutes you can have a tasty meal or snack without having to chop, cook or clean a thing. It's not surprising that more and more people are relying on packaged foods as meal replacements, but how does this impact our health?

While there are definitely more healthy options available these days, a lot of packaged foods are still highly processed and contain ingredients that may be harmful to our health if eaten often. Packaged foods also tend to lack essential nutrients that help prevent and manage chronic disease. So, if you have prediabetes and diabetes, it's even more important to be mindful about which packaged foods you choose to eat.

An illustration of a bag of groceries on a designed background
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Here's your guide to which packaged foods to avoid and healthy alternatives to grab when you have diabetes.

1. Salty crackers

From saltines to Swedish crispbreads, crackers are a popular snack food staple. They make a great vehicle for your favorite dip or slice of cheese, and are extremely portable and easy to eat on the go. But if you're trying to manage your blood sugar, you want to be mindful of the type of cracker you choose. Here's why:

Most crackers are made from refined flours that have been stripped of their fiber and other essential nutrients like B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium and antioxidant phytonutrients. Fiber is especially important for people with diabetes because it slows the absorption of carbohydrates from food, which in turn lowers blood sugar levels. Studies have also found that high fiber diets help minimize risk factors associated with type 2 diabetes, including lowering cholesterol levels, maintaining body weight, reducing inflammation and even reducing the risk of premature death.

Crackers are also a significant source of sodium, which can increase the risk for high blood pressure. Being mindful of your sodium intake is especially important for people with diabetes who also have an increased risk of kidney disease and cardiovascular disease.

What to buy instead:

While salty crackers made from refined flours are not the healthiest choice, you don't have to give crackers up completely if you have diabetes. Take a look at the nutrition labels of your crackers and choose options that are made with 100% whole grains. You can even find crackers made with nut flours like almond flour that are naturally lower in carbohydrates and higher in fiber. Crackers with whole nuts and seeds are also a great way to eat more healthy fats that decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease and help keep you full. Your cracker should have 3 to 5 grams of fiber and no more than 120 grams of sodium per serving.

2. White bread

People from countries around the world have been eating some variety of bread for centuries as part of a healthy and balanced diet. Unfortunately, store bought bread typically contains a long list of ingredients that may not be as good for your health. White bread in particular usually has added sugar, sodium and other preservatives. While these products have a longer shelf life, the addition of sugar, excess salt and other food additives may negatively impact our health.

As we now know, excess sodium can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease and kidney damage. Another big concern with white bread and blood sugar is the high carbohydrate content from refined flours and added sugars. White bread is what we call a high glycemic index food. The glycemic index is a rating system used to measure how quickly certain foods increase our blood sugar. High glycemic index foods like white bread, refined carbohydrates and sugar are metabolized quickly causing rapid increases in our blood glucose levels. Studies have linked high glycemic index diets with poorer glucose control and diabetes outcomes.

What to buy instead:

Thankfully, the bread aisle is looking more and more diverse these days and you can find a variety of bread options that are diabetes friendly. When deciding which bread to choose, take a look at the ingredients list and make sure the first ingredient is made from 100% whole grain flour. There are also a ton of naturally low carbohydrate bread products made from nut flours and other flour alternatives. Be sure to avoid products with added sugars, excess salt, and other preservatives. Finally, choose options with at least 3 grams of fiber and protein per serving.

3. Sweetened cereal

When it comes to balancing your blood sugar, breakfast is one of the most important meals of the day. People with diabetes tend to have higher blood sugar in the morning (known as fasting blood sugar) because they have trouble metabolizing the glucose our liver produces when we are sleeping.

Sweetened cereals are high in refined carbohydrates and sugar, two foods that cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels. Sweetened cereal is also low in two ingredients that help slow the absorption of carbohydrates and make us feel full—protein and fiber. So, if you have prediabetes or diabetes, starting your day with a bowl of sweetened cereal can trigger increased hunger, cravings for carbohydrates and sweets and feeling tired and fatigued for the rest of the day.

What to buy instead:

That being said, eating the right amount and type of cereal for breakfast may actually help to lower your blood sugar by providing key nutrients like protein, fiber and vitamins and minerals that help support blood sugar control. The best breakfast cereals for people with diabetes are made with 100% whole grains, have no added sugars, and have at least 3 to 5 grams of both protein and fiber. Don't forget to choose options that are minimally processed and made with whole foods ingredients like oats, nuts and seeds.

4. Energy bars

Energy bars are marketed as "healthy," but in reality many of them are high in sugar and contain other processed ingredients that are not the best choice for our health. Most energy bars are made with syrups or dried fruit to help bind together the ingredients. While dried fruit can be a good source of vitamins, minerals and fiber, it is also very high in sugar and contains very little protein. Eating foods that are high in sugar and low in protein can increase blood sugar levels and make it difficult to feel satisfied after a meal or snack.

What to buy instead:

You can get the convenience of eating energy bars without all the sugar by choosing the right product for your diabetes. A good quality energy bar can make all the difference in balancing your blood sugar and your energy to get you to your next meal. When choosing a store-bought energy bar, start with the ingredients list and make sure the list is short and consists of whole foods like fruit, nuts and seeds. Next, choose bars that have real food sources of protein and healthy fats like nuts and seeds. Protein and fat help slow the absorption of carbohydrates, which lowers blood sugar and helps you feel full and more satisfied. When looking at nutrition labels aim for at least 10 grams of protein per serving. Skip energy bars that are high in artificial sweeteners, sugar and overly processed ingredients.

5. Packaged desserts and cookies

The occasional homemade sweet treat won't throw off your blood sugar too much, but when it comes to packaged desserts you might be getting more than you bargained for. Store bought cookies and other baked goods are one of the least helpful food choices you can make when it comes to managing your blood sugar. The combination of sugar, refined flour, and fat make these foods especially problematic for people with diabetes. Eating foods that are both high in carbohydrates and fats can contribute to weight gain and obesity, a significant risk factor for insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

Of course having a few cookies once in a while can be part of a healthy diet, but most people find it difficult to eat just a few of these sugary snacks because they are low in protein and fiber.

What to buy instead:

The good news is you can have your cake and eat it too if you pay attention to nutrition labels in the cookie aisle. Many food companies have jumped on the healthy dessert bandwagon and have created healthy alternatives to your favorite sweet treats. Look for products made with 100% whole-grain flours or high-protein flour alternatives, like almond flour. The best store bought cookies for your blood sugar should be sweetened with small amounts of natural sugars like fruit juice and dried fruit, or natural sugar alternatives like stevia or monk fruit extract. Choose cookies with no more than 5 grams of sugar per serving. Finally, make sure your cookie has at least 3 to 5 grams of protein and fiber.

The Bottom Line

Packaged foods are convenient options for busy people who need a quick meal or snack, but these foods tend to be full of empty calories and are lacking key nutrients for health. If you are managing your blood sugar, be sure to check nutrition labels and avoid foods that are high in refined carbohydrates and sugars like crackers, sweetened cereals, energy bars, and store-bought desserts. Choose options that are high in protein and healthy fats, and made with real food ingredients.