In the world of diabetes management, carbohydrates have been looked at as something to be avoided entirely. While those diagnosed with diabetes have to track their carbohydrates more diligently than those who are not diagnosed, that does not mean that carbohydrates should be kept out of the diet completely. Your body needs carbohydrates; they are what fuels your body. In addition, many food sources of carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains bring with them nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and fiber. These keep your body healthy and are important in blood sugar control and prevention of complications associated with diabetes.
Carbohydrates include “simple” carbohydrates, such as glucose and table sugar. These types of carbohydrates tend to cause a more dramatic increase in blood sugar because they are more easily digested. Fructose, the sugar found in fruits, is also a simple carbohydrate. Fructose is absorbed differently than the other simple carbohydrates, however, causing a more gradual increase in blood sugar when compared to table sugar and glucose.
There are also complex carbohydrates. These carbohydrates are not broken down by the body as quickly and include beans, grains, and vegetables. Starch is a type of complex carbohydrate, composed of many chains of glucose. Because most starches are broken down by the body easily into its component glucose molecules, high-starch vegetables such as corn and squash must be adequately accounted for when counting carbohydrates. Other high-starch foods include potatoes, and starch is found in high amounts in white bread.
Dietary fiber is described as a complex carbohydrate which is not digestible and is intact in plants. Adequate fiber intake, around 20g-30g per day, could prevent chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and even Type 2 diabetes. The fiber is not digested, the sugars are not broken down and so there is no significant rise in blood sugar. Certain types of fiber have been shown to lower LDL, or “bad” cholesterol as well. A major complication associated with diabetes is heart disease, which adequate fiber intake can help prevent. A diet high in fiber also slows down digestion, helping you feel full longer and assisting with a more steady rise in blood sugar after a meal. To ensure you are getting adequate fiber in your diet, ensure you are eating enough fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. Ensure you are making half of your grains…bread, cereal…whole grains.
The glycemic index is a way of comparing how much a certain amount of a certain carbohydrate affects blood sugar when compared to a test food, usually glucose or white bread. High glycemic index foods are foods that are rapidly digested and absorbed, causing a rapid rise in blood glucose. The glycemic load is similar to the glycemic index, however it takes into account how much of a certain food is typically eaten, instead of an arbitrary testing amount.
To clarify what foods are taken into account when carbohydrate counting, below is a list of foods corresponding to a single serving of carbohydrates. A single serving of carbohydrate is considered 15g. It is suggested that those diagnosed with diabetes consume a consistent amount of servings of carbohydrates across all meals. For example, eating 4 servings of carbohydrates at breakfast and lunch and 5 servings for dinner. This helps keep your blood sugar levels consistent throughout the day. It is worth noting that certain vegetables do not need to be counted as a carbohydrate unless more than 1 cup is eaten.
- 1 slice bread (1 ounce)
- 1 tortilla (6-inch size)
- ¼ large bagel (1 ounce)
- 2 taco shells (5-inch size)
- ½ hamburger or hot dog bun (¾ ounce)
- ¾ cup ready-to-eat unsweetened cereal
- ½ cup cooked cereal
- 1 cup broth-based soup
- 4 to 6 small crackers
- 1/3 cup pasta or rice (cooked)
- ½ cup beans, peas, corn, sweet potatoes, winter squash, or mashed or boiled potatoes (cooked)
- ¼ large baked potato (3 ounces)
- ¾ ounce pretzels, potato chips, or tortilla chips
- 3 cups popcorn (popped)
- 1 small fresh fruit (¾ to 1 cup)
- ½ cup canned or frozen fruit
- 2 tablespoons dried fruit (blueberries, cherries, cranberries, mixed fruit, raisins)
- 17 small grapes (3 ounces)
- 1 cup melon or berries
- ½ cup unsweetened fruit juice
- 1 cup fat-free or reduced-fat milk
- 1 cup soy milk
- 2/3 cup (6 ounces) nonfat yogurt sweetened with sugar-free sweetener
Sweets and Desserts
- 2-inch square cake (unfrosted)
- 2 small cookies (2/3 ounce)
- ½ cup ice cream or frozen yogurt
- ¼ cup sherbet or sorbet
- 1 tablespoon syrup, jam, jelly, table sugar, or honey
- 2 tablespoons light syrup
- Count 1 cup raw vegetables or ½ cup cooked nonstarchy vegetables as zero (0) carbohydrate servings or “free” foods. If you eat 3 or more servings at one meal, count them as 1 carbohydrate serving.
- Foods that have less than 20 calories in each serving also may be counted as zero carbohydrate servings or “free” foods.
- Count 1 cup of casserole or other mixed foods as 2 carbohydrate servings.
Carbohydrates are an important part of a healthful diet. In order to ensure your diet is healthful, choose foods high in nutritional value and low in “simple” carbohydrates. Carbohydrates high in nutritional value include fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It is prudent to limit foods with a lot of simple sugars with no fiber to slow the digestion of those sugars, such as candy, pop, cookies, etc. These foods also do not contain many vitamins or minerals, so if your main source of carbohydrates is from candy, pop, and baked goods, you are depriving your body of many essential vitamins and minerals.
MYTH: THOSE DIAGNOSED WITH DIABETES SHOULD AVOID CARBOHYDRATES.
If you were to restrict carbohydrate content in your diet, your diet would be deficient in many important vitamins and minerals. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains contain these vitamins and minerals in high amounts. They also contain fiber and antioxidants, so while you should take certain starchy vegetables, fruits and foods like pasta and bread (preferably whole grain) into account when counting your carbohydrates, these foods will ultimately make you a healthier individual. Ensure you are eating a variety of different fruits and vegetables and keep half your grains whole to get the most out of your food choices!
By: Amanda Lewalski, Health, Nutrition and Dietetics Dept., Buffalo State College
Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar. (2016, July 25). Retrieved October 11, 2017, from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/carbohydrates-and-blood-sugar/
Carbohydrate Counting for People With Diabetes. (n.d.). Retrieved October 11, 2017, from https://www.nutritioncaremanual.org/client_ed.cfm?ncm_client_ed_id=123
Denny, S. (2015, July 7). Carbohydrates – Part of a Healthful Diabetes Diet. Retrieved October 11, 2017, from http://www.eatright.org/resource/health/diseases-and-conditions/diabetes/carbohydrates-part-of-a-healthful-diabetes-diet
Gropper, S. A., Smith, J. L., & Carr, T. P. (2018). Advanced nutrition and human metabolism. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.