Sip with Confidence: A Nutritionist’s Blood Sugar-Friendly Fall Drink Swaps

Bridget Wood is a Registered Dietician (RD) and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist (CDCES). She also has type 1 diabetes (T1D) herself. Here, she shares the ways that she indulges in yummy autumn drinks without letting her blood sugar get out of control.

Fall is one of my favorite seasons. The leaves are changing and the air turns from warm to cool and crisp — which makes it the perfect time to sip on a warm, comforting coffee drink. As fun as fall can be, it can cause more stress for those living with diabetes due to all of the phenomenal drinks and treats out there. Sometimes those seasonal autumn coffee treats come with an extra side of guilt. 

Never fear, your friendly T1D RD is here! Through trial and error (and a lot of time during the pandemic) I’ve perfected my fall favorites at home so that they have little to no impact on my blood sugars. Let’s explore some delicious fall coffee drinks and tips on how to make them more blood sugar-friendly, so you can fully enjoy the flavors of the season without feeling like you are missing out!

Coffee or Tea?

Caffeine can be notorious for causing blood sugar spikes in some individuals living with diabetes. It is a stimulant, and as a result, some people might notice an increased blood sugar level after enjoying their fall favorite. If you’re more sensitive to caffeine, try using something with a lower caffeine amount, decaf, or unsweetened black tea to reduce the chances of the spike. You can brew it fresh, make a cold brew concentrate for the week, or use your coffee machine at home to make a blank canvas for your morning brew. 


Pumpkin Spice Latte 

The Pumpkin Spice Latte or PSL  is arguably the signature drink of the fall. It usually combines espresso, milk or a milk alternative, pumpkin spice syrup, whipped cream, and pumpkin spice topping. While it can be a nice treat every once in a while, the Starbucks PSL, for example, has a whopping 52 g of carbohydrates for just a 16 oz serving! To put it in perspective, that’s the same amount of carbohydrates as approximately 4 juice boxes! It also doesn’t even always contain real pumpkin-which is packed with fiber to help promote blood sugar stabilization. 

Here are some swaps to make a pumpkin spice latte blood sugar-friendly at home:

Sugar-Free Pumpkin Spice Syrup: SF syrups are a staple in our home as they allow me to enjoy my favorites without causing a notable rise in blood sugar! If you have a sensitivity to certain sweeteners, you can often find alternatives that use natural sugar substitutes so that you can still enjoy them!
Unsweetened Milk: Choose triple-filtered dairy, unsweetened almond, soy, or coconut milk instead of traditional dairy milk. These alternatives are lower in carbohydrates than the regular dairy milk or milk at your favorite coffee shop and can help keep blood sugars in range post-PSL treat.
Make your own PSL concentrate: The ingredients of the traditional PSL drinks on the market can be blood sugar friendly if they are used in the right amounts. You can create your own at home using unsweetened non-dairy/dairy milk, pumpkin puree, pumpkin spice seasoning, and a sweetener of your choice. Be careful when buying pumpkin puree as it is often confused for pumpkin pie filling, which has a ton of added sugars. You can opt for less sugar when creating yours at home, or use a sweetener to make it virtually sugar-free. 

Apple Macchiato 

For me, nothing screams fall more than the flavors and aroma of apples and cinnamon. Add a touch of caramel and you have a classic fall treat that screams autumn leaves, apple orchards, and cider with a twist. As delicious as they are, the versions at your favorite coffee shop are loaded with syrups, juice concentrates, and drizzles that can make your post-meal BGs way harder to control post-macchiato. 

While you can ask your barista to use less of these items, or increase your physical activity after you enjoy, these sugar swaps can help when you’re making it at home:

Sugar-Free Caramel Syrup:  While the caramel flavor is a staple all year round, it especially comes in handy for a nice fall treat. There are so many to choose from online — but you can also make your own sugar concoction with caramel extract, sweetener, and water. 
Apple Extract: Use a drop or two of natural apple extract to infuse that fruity flavor.  Can’t find extract? Try a small amount of sugar-free Apple cider mix in your at-home creation. 
No Whipped Cream, or Sugar-Free Whipped Cream: Top your latte with homemade or store-bought sugar-free whipped cream, or go without, to further reduce sugars-the drink still has a ton of fall flavor! 

Maple Latte 

I grew up in the South, so pecans are a staple of fall cuisine for me. From pies to pralines to coffee drinks-fall is the pecan’s time to shine. Maple is the perfect accompaniment to the buttery and rich flavor of the pecans but it can come at a cost. Four tablespoons of maple syrup has approximately 200 calories and almost 60 g of carbohydrates. Pair that with a full-fat dairy and other sugar-loaded toppings and you might notice quite the rise in blood sugar levels.

Here’s how to enjoy this fall favorite while keeping the high blood sugar at bay:

Sugar-Free or Reduced Sugar Maple Syrup: Replace traditional maple syrup with a reduced sugar or sugar-free version to reduce carbs and get the maximum amount of maple flavor without the sugar.
Unsweetened Pecan Milk: Try unsweetened pecan milk as a lower-carb alternative to regular milk so that you can get the same pecan flavor without the high BG levels. You can even make your own at home with pecans and water in a high-powered blender!
Sprinkle with Crushed Pecans: Instead of sugary toppings, garnish your coffee with crushed pecans for a nice crunch and less of a sugar punch.

By making a few simple adjustments and being mindful of your choices, you can enjoy delicious fall coffee drinks while keeping your blood sugar in check. While there is no such thing as foods or drinks that are off limits for people living with diabetes, doing simple swaps like the ones above, or making your own at home so that you can control the amount of added sugar, can help you stay on track without decreasing your time in range or breaking the bank. Making each drink can be time-consuming, so prep ahead or opt for store-bought sugar-free creamers like those from Nutpods, Leaner Creamer, Walden Farms, or traditional brands like Coffee Mate or International Delight. If you choose to enjoy these drinks from the comfort of your favorite coffee shop, ask the barista if they can cut the amount of items with sugar in half, use unsweetened milk, or even drink in a smaller portion to help take away some of the guesswork. 

If you are on insulin, make sure you work with your medical provider to tailor the best dosing strategy for you as everyone (and every coffee base) is different! You can even go for a nice walk to look at the autumn leaves with your drink- the movement will further reduce post-coffee treat blood sugar spikes if you experience caffeine-related insulin resistance or spikes. Here’s to a season filled with delightful sips and the vibrant colors of fall that’s blood sugar-friendly to boot! 

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