Are free foods really free?

Information about diabetes-related free foods can be confusing.

Ideally, a free food for people living with diabetes has only a small amount of carbohydrate (5 grams or less per serve).

Low impact on BGLs

The core intention of calling an item a free food is to acknowledge that it will have a very low impact on blood glucose levels. The theory is that even though some of the free foods do contain a small portion of carbohydrate, blood glucose levels are generally not affected.

There are limitations to the concept of free foods. Under certain conditions, even free foods can affect insulin requirements and blood glucose levels. Free foods that contain protein or fat, although having a low impact on blood glucose levels, still require insulin for metabolism.

What to consider

It’s important to consider:

  • the glycaemic index (GI), which measures how quickly a carbohydrate food is digested and the resulting glucose enters the bloodstream.
  • the food insulin index (FII), which looks at how much insulin the body would normally release in response to a certain food or meal (carbohydrate plus the protein and fat).

Some foods need more insulin for metabolism than others.

Amount of free foods

It’s also important to consider an individual’s reaction to certain foods. Also, the amount of free foods consumed in a day should be examined.

These factors both impact on whether or not an item is actually “free” in respect to the individual.

Kilojoules in free food

Another consideration is the energy (kilojoule or calorie) content of the food.

Eating large volumes of “free” foods which are high in fat or protein may cause or make a weight problem worse.

It’s important to eat any food, “free” or not, mindfully. Take your time to enjoy it: smell it, feast your eyes on it, feel its texture in your mouth and taste it! Mindful eating can reduce overeating.

So are free foods really free? For some individuals this may be true.

However, for others, body reactions and other influences may adversely affect blood glucose or weight when eating these foods.

Test your reactions

Experimenting with “free” foods, considering how much of them you eat and checking your blood glucose, can help you work out if “free” foods are really free for you.

For more information on Glycaemic Index and the Food Insulin Index, visit the Glycaemic Index Foundation.

The NDSS program, Carb Counting Online, helps you recognise which foods contain carbs, and learn about different methods and tools to help you count carbs in the food you eat. Choose which modules are right for you. You don’t need to complete them all. Just learn the basics, or progress further to gain more detailed information and skills.

By Helen Jackson
Accredited Practising Dietitian and Credentialled Diabetes Educator

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