Carbohydrates in the Diabetes Diet

Posted on May 22, 2011


Carbs count in a diabetes diet because they directly affect blood glucose levels. If you’re not producing enough insulin to regulate those levels, serious medical issues can develop.

When you have diabetes, following a careful diabetes diet is a key aspect of diabetes management, and controlling carbohydrate intake is an essential part.

Along with proteins and fats, carbohydrates are one of the three major components of food. Your body converts carbohydrates into glucose, which your cells burn for energy. Since glucose is transported to cells through your bloodstream, eating carbohydrates will cause your blood glucose level to increase.

Because carbohydrates directly affect your blood sugar level, eating too many carbs — or the wrong sort of carbs — can undo whatever other actions you’re taking to keep your diabetes in check.

How Carbs Affect Different Diabetes Types

It’s important to control your carbohydrate intake no matter which of the three major forms of diabetes you have:

  • Type 1 diabetes. If you have this type of diabetes, you cannot produce insulin, a hormone that helps cells use glucose. That means you must take insulin and other medication to regulate blood sugar. A healthy diabetes diet with controlled carbohydrate intake will make it easier to predict when you will need to administer insulin and how much to use.
  • Type 2 diabetes. People with type 2 diabetes have developed a resistance to insulin, often due to obesity or poor diet. By maintaining steady blood sugar levels through carb counting, you may be able to reduce the amount of insulin or medication you need or avoid taking the drugs altogether.
  • Gestational diabetes. If you develop diabetes during pregnancy, you need to count carbs because unchecked blood sugar levels can damage the fetus as well as your own body.

Diabetes Management: Carbs and the Diabetes Diet

There are three main types of carbohydrates:

  • Sugars, often called simple carbohydrates, are converted quickly to glucose. Think of them as dry wood in a fire, burning fast and hot.
  • Starches, often called complex carbohydrates, are formed by long chains of sugars and take longer for your body to break down into glucose. Think of them as big logs that burn slowly in a fire.
  • Fiber is present in different amounts in all plant-based foods, especially in whole grains (starches). It’s great for digestive health, but because it isn’t digested the way the other two types of carbs are, fiber grams don’t count in your carb totals.

People with diabetes need to count all the starch and sugar carbohydrates they take in every day as part of their diabetes management plan. The American Diabetes Association recommends that diabetics eat around 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per meal, although you should consult with your diabetes care team to determine the right amount of carbohydrates to fit your needs and lifestyle.

Most of your carbohydrates should come in the form of starchy carbohydrates, which will convert into glucose more slowly and help your blood sugar remain steady. Healthy choices include whole grains, beans, and lentils, and starchy vegetables like peas, corn, and potatoes. Avoid refined starches like white flour or white rice, as they tend to burn as fast as sugars.

Some of your carbohydrates still can come in the form of sugars, particularly if they are natural sugars in healthy foods like low-fat dairy products, fruits, or vegetables. Just avoid added sugars such as table sugar and the high-fructose corn syrup and other types of sugars you’ll find in sodas, sweets, and other processed foods.

To keep track of your carbohydrates, you need to read the nutrition facts label included on most packaged foods. Check out the serving size to figure out how much constitutes one serving, and then scan down to find the total amount of carbs contained in a serving. Usually, the label also will show how many of those carbs are sugars and how many are dietary fiber, which helps to slow the release of sugar. Always read the ingredient label closely because product names can be deceiving — for instance, you may find a number of different forms of sugar in a processed food that isn’t even a sweet.

You need to be a part-time detective to find out all the facts about carbs, but your undercover work will make it much easier to manage diabetes.