Are free foods really free?

By Helen Jackson
Accredited Practising Dietitian and Credentialled Diabetes Educator

Information about diabetes-related free foods can be confusing.

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

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.

It’s important to consider both the glycaemic index (GI), which measures how quickly a carbohydrate food is digested and the resulting glucose enters the bloodstream, and 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.

It’s also important to consider factors such as an individual’s reaction to certain foods and the amount of free foods consumed in a day.

These are both influences which can have an impact on whether or not an item is actually “free” in respect to the individual.

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 worse a weight problem.

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.

Experimenting with “free” foods, considering how much of them you eat and checking your blood glucose, is an option for working out if “free” foods are really free for you.

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

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