When you found out you have diabetes, your doctor may have asked you to start counting carbohydrates. In fact, it's very likely your doctor did if you take insulin, or are being treated with intensive therapy, or have type 1 diabetes. Counting carbs can help you better manage your blood sugars.
Maybe that makes you wonder if you can ever eat cake again. Here's the good news: There is no diabetes diet. You can still eat a sweet treat once in a while -- as long as you take into account how many carbohydrates you're eating. Learning about carbs, how they affect your blood sugar, and how to count them at every meal can help you manage your diabetes.
"Diet is a word that we don't recommend using," says Emily Loghmani, RD, a certified diabetes educator at Johns Hopkins Diabetes Center in Baltimore. "The word diet seems to conjure up unpleasant ways of eating and restrictions that people do for a certain period of time. But diabetes is a chronic illness, so we try to teach people how to eat healthy and make food choices that they'll be able to sustain for the rest of their life."
Here are the facts about carbs and your body, along with tips for carb counting.
Diabetes and Carbohydrates
Everyone needs carbs. They fuel your body and give you energy for daily life.
Foods that have carbohydrates include:
- Bread, rice, cereal, crackers, pasta, and other starchy foods
- Dairy products, including milk and yogurt
- Fruit and fruit juice
- Starchy vegetables like corn and potatoes
- Beans and legumes
- Sugary foods and snack foods like juice drinks, sodas, cookies, candy, cake, and chips
Your body turns carbs into glucose, or blood sugar, which is its main source of energy. Insulin helps your body use glucose. But extra glucose can build up in your bloodstream, and over time, this can cause problems.
"The challenge when you have diabetes is that you need to find the right amount of carbohydrates that will work with your diabetes medications and your physical activity to keep your blood glucose at a safe level," says Amy Campbell, RD. "That's why we put so much emphasis on counting carbs -- to try to achieve that balance." Campbell is the manager of clinical education programs at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.
Counting carbs helps keep your body more stable, Campbell says. "The more someone varies their carb intake, the more their blood sugars will vary." Because carbs affect your blood sugars more than proteins or fats do in a meal, try to have about the same amount of carbohydrates every meal.
Counting Carbs: Three Ways
Campbell and Loghmani use three different levels of carb counting with their patients. You and your doctor will choose your approach based on the type of diabetes you have, what kind of drugs you take, and your weight goals.