Technically, dates are not good diabetic fruits because they are usually too high in sugar to allow for a satisfactory intake without providing an excessive sugar/carbohydrate intake. The fact that they are simply too good tasting to eat too little of contributes to the likelihood of an excessive intake and associated side effects for diabetes. For example, one Medjool date without pit weighs an average of 24 g and provides about 18 g of total carbohydrates of which 16 g are simple sugars. Some diabetics may only eat 1-2 of these dates safely with their condition; anything more may negatively affect blood glucose levels and cause side effects such as hyperglycemia, feelings of unwell and long-term complications.
But can diabetics actually eat dates? Yes, they can. But only in very small amounts, preferably not every day and not on an empty stomach, but rather after a light protein, low carbohydrate meal. Technically, anything and everything, if eaten in small enough amounts, can be made safe to eat with diabetes. After all, having diabetes doesn’t actually exclude foods like fruits just because they contain sugar and other digestible carbohydrates. Medical professionals have reviewed the importance of eating fruits with diabetes and come to the conclusion that it’s actually healthier for diabetics to eat fruits and other plant foods, just not as much as people without diabetes.
With diabetes, the main goal is to limit the intake of sugar and total carbohydrates (total meaning sugar and other digestible carbohydrates), both per day and per meal. This is meant to help reduce the impact of insulin resistance and aid the body in processing sugar, limiting diabetes-associated. Ideally, all diabetic patients should see a doctor or a dietitian for a personalized eating plan which includes recommendations for sugar and total carbohydrates intake per day and per meal. By adhering to recommended intakes, they can then plan ahead for eating fruits, including dates, but intake would still have to be limited to very small amounts.
The effects of dates on blood sugar metabolism are mostly determined by the following factors: how much you eat, energetic value (calories), sugar and total carbohydrate intake, glycemic index and glycemic load. These factors will determine the final effects of the fruit on the condition.
Dates calories: 280 to 320 kilocalories (kcal) per 100 g, whether fresh or dried. Most of the calories come from sugar and will cause weight gain and accentuate the metabolic disorder if you eat too much of the fruit too often.
Dates sugar and total carbohydrate content. On average, 100 g of the fruit (fresh and dried) provide around 70-75 g of total carbohydrates, of which 62-66 g are simple sugars, primarily glucose and fructose. It’s a lot, hence the caution when it comes to eating dates with diabetes.
1 pitted Medjool date (estimate weight: 24 g) has 17.99 g of carbohydrates of which 15.95 g are sugars.
1 pitted Deglet Noor date (estimate weight: 7.1 g) has 5.33 g of carbohydrates of which 4.5 g are sugars.
To put things into perspective: If you’re, let’s say, allowed 45 g of total carbohydrates per meal, only 2 Medjool dates without pit will provide about 36 g of carbs and 32 g of simple sugars. And 4 Deglet Noor dates will get you 21.3 g of carbs and 18 g of simple sugars.
Remember that dates are not a sugar substitute. Yes, they are fruit and they are healthy, but they are also very sweet and all of their sweetness comes from glucose and fructose, the same two simple sugars that make up table sugar (sucrose). And while it may not be the same thing as eating table sugar because with fruit you also get vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber etc., eating dates still doesn’t mean you can eat as much as you want if you have diabetes. It’s still sugar, whether it comes from fruits or other sources.
Dates glycemic index: 45-55 (low) and up to 60 (moderate). The glycemic index (GI) is a scale that measures how fast the carbohydrates in a food raise blood glucose levels compared to pure glucose. Below 55 is a low GI. Between 55-69 is a moderate GI. Between 70-100 is a high GI. Diabetics are advised to choose fruits with a low GI because they have the smallest impact on blood glucose levels, provided of course intake is within recommended amounts.
The GI of dates is variable, depending on variety and type of processing the fruit has undergone. For example, fresh and unsweetened dried dates typically have a low GI, between 45-55, sometimes as much as 66 (moderate) meaning that eating a limited amount does not raise blood glucose levels too fast too much. It will still raise blood glucose levels, but just not excessively. Some dried, sweetened varieties on the other hand may have a GI as high as 100 which means a certain rise in blood glucose levels and side effects for diabetes. Whilst the fresh and plain, dried fruits may be consumed in limited amounts infrequently, the sweetened varieties are best avoided altogether with the condition.
Dates glycemic load: low (19-22). The glycemic load (GL) measures to what extent the carbohydrates in a specific amount (portion size) of a certain plant food raise blood glucose levels. It’s seen as a more reliable factor for determining the impact of various plant foods on blood glucose levels and diabetes because it takes into account actual portion size, more specifically the amount of carbs in a portion typically eaten. Below 10 is a low GL. Between 11-19 is a medium GL. Over 20 is a high GL. The lower the GL, the lower the impact on blood glucose levels.
A serving of 50-60 g of dates, fresh and dried, typically has a GL of 19-22, which is low and technically good for diabetes. But it’s important to remember that not all diabetics will react the same way to the same foods and amounts of said foods. So while one diabetic might tolerate a serving of 2 Medjool dates well (24 g per fruit, 50 g total), others might not. Listen to what your body is telling you and if you feel sick or unwell after eating a certain fruit, cut down on your intake or simply discontinue consumption.
How to make a sweet and high-carbohydrate (high-sugar) fruit such as dates good or at least safe to eat with diabetes? By following some of these rules:
1) Eat very small amounts. Your doctor or a dietitian might recommend you eat a certain amount of carbohydrates per meal (example: no more than 45-65 g of carbs per meal, sugar included). So if you’ve had, let’s say, some chicken with vegetables, calculate how much carbs you have left to eat and, based on the results, see if you can have a couple of dates.
2) Limit yourself to one serving of a fruit a day, especially high-sugar ones like dates.
3) Never on an empty stomach. If you want to reduce the effects of a fruit on blood glucose levels and avoid side effects, have your fruit after a meal that is low in carbs and contains some light protein.
4) Combine them with animal-based foods for better blood glucose metabolism. If you have dates with a bit of plain yogurt or a piece of cheese or some grilled chicken, chances are these other foods will reduce the glycemic index and load of the dates too and reduce their effects on blood glucose levels. Such effects are a result of the protein and fat in the animal based foods which slow down digestion and the rate of sugar absorption into the bloodstream.
To what extent are dates safe for diabetes? While some diabetics can eat the fruit in limited amounts, others may not eat them at all. This is because, most of the time, dates are available as dried fruit, of the likes of dried figs, plums or raisins. This means they concentrate several times the sugar, carbohydrates and calories of the fresh fruit, making it difficult to determine portion size correctly so as to not exceed the maximum recommended amounts of carbohydrates in a diabetes diet. Also, a lot of people find it difficult to limit their intake of dried fruits since they are so sweet and good-tasting, increasing the chances of an excessive intake.
One of the most frequently asked questions I get about this fruit is:
Do dates raise blood glucose levels? The answer is yes, they do, considering they are fruits and have quite a lot of sugar. All plant foods do to various degrees. And it’s a normal, natural process that helps the body obtain energy from carbohydrates in plant foods. The digestible carbohydrates in the fruit are broken down into simple sugars during digestion which are then absorbed into the bloodstream, contributing to blood sugar (glucose) levels. The important thing is to eat small enough amounts so that the rise is not excessive and the body isn’t overwhelmed with processing the sugar.
Dates and diabetes – other relevant nutritional facts.
1) Good fiber content: between 5.3 and 9 g of dietary fiber/100 g. Fiber is indigestible plant material and has hypoglycemic effects, slowing down digestion and absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. It also contributes to the low glycemic index of the fruit and has minor weight loss benefits.
2) Minor source of protein: between 1.8 and 2.45 g of protein which provides minor benefits for glucose metabolism.
3) Rich in vitamins B5 and B6 (over 10% of recommended daily intake), good for skin and diabetes-associated neuropathy from nerve damage.
4) Small amounts of vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B9 with benefits for skin and nervous system.
5) Good magnesium and potassium content (over 10% of recommended daily intakes). Good for lowering high blood pressure, a major complication of type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
6) Source of manganese and other antioxidants. Minor benefits for energy metabolism and wound healing. Also good for bones.
7) Source of iron. Contributes to energy metabolism and has a tonic, revitalizing effect.