Carbohydrates are found in lots of foods. Whether the carbs are starches, sugars, or fiber, they give the body energy to use right away or to store for later. Different types of carbs affect blood sugar differently. Learn about the carbs in your diet so you can make healthy choices.
Simple carbs have only one or two sugars, so the body processes simple carbs quickly. These carbs -- such as table sugar, the added sugars in processed foods, and the sugars found in fruits and milk -- make blood sugar rise rapidly.
Complex carbs contain three or more sugars. Your body has to work harder to break down complex carbs because the sugars take longer to digest. Examples of complex carbs include the fiber in spinach, watercress, buckwheat, barley, wild or brown rice, beans, and some fruits. Complex carbs may contain soluble or insoluble fiber, but both are good for you.
The Glycemic Index
The glycemic index (GI) ranks foods based on how much they raise blood sugar. Low-GI carbs may cause less of a change in blood sugar.
Lentils, green beans, broccoli, spinach, plums, yogurt, and brown rice are on the low-GI list. But a low-GI diet doesn't necessarily control blood sugar. Consistency in the amount of grams of carbohydrates you eat matters.
Choosing Better Carbs
Limit the amount of added sugars in your diet. Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, especially non-starchy veggies like leafy greens. Choose whole grains instead of refined grains, which lose fiber, vitamins, and minerals in the refining process. When you buy bread and cereal, look for whole grains as the first ingredient on the label.
How Carbs Raise Blood Sugar
Our bodies break down carbohydrates from foods into glucose for energy. The increase in blood glucose triggers the pancreas to release insulin, which helps the body use or store the glucose. People with diabetes may not make enough insulin, or their insulin may not work well. Treatments with lifestyle or medications help handle the glucose. When you live with diabetes, managing your diet, physical activity, medications, and insulin use helps keep blood sugar stable.
It's important for people with diabetes to keep their blood sugar levels under control. To do this, you'll need to watch serving sizes and read food labels to learn how much carbohydrates are in your food. In some cases you may have to guess. Some people aim for 45-60 grams of carbs per meal. Suppose you eat a plain turkey sandwich with a half cup of fruit. Two slices of bread have 30 carb grams. The fruit contains 15 carb grams for a total of 45 grams.
What About Fruit?
Are you avoiding fruit because you have diabetes? Don't. Fruit is still a part of a healthy diet. Eat fresh or frozen fruit -- a small peach or 1 cup of diced cantaloupe provides less than 15 grams of carbs. Dried fruit is acceptable, too, as long as you keep an eye on portion sizes and carbohydrates per serving.
Finding Carbs on Nutrition Labels
Look for the amount of "total carbohydrate" grams on the food label. "Total carbohydrate" can also be broken down as "dietary fiber" and "sugars." But "sugars" won't tell the whole story. These include the natural sugars found in fruit and milk products as well as added sugars. A food label that lists a form of sugar as the first ingredient may be high in total sugars.
Added sugars are carbohydrates. They sweeten and often preserve processed foods. Soft drinks, cookies, and cake have added sugars. But so can yogurt and cereal. Read ingredient labels and think twice about eating foods that list sugar as the first ingredient. Tip: Some added sugars end with "ose" -- like dextrose, sucrose, maltose, or high fructose corn syrup.
A Balanced Diet
A balanced diet with at least 3-5 servings of vegetables a day can help you lose weight and control blood sugar. And cooked, non-starchy vegetables like okra, beets, or eggplant have only about 5 grams of carbs per half cup. Even though you might focus attention on counting carbs, you also need to eat enough protein and healthy fats. Don't skip meals, and eat healthy snacks to help keep blood sugar under control.
Happy Hour No More?
Is a glass of wine off-limits? It depends. Alcohol can cause low blood sugar, so ask your doctor if drinking is safe for you. Check your blood sugar levels before and after you drink. Only drink in moderation, with food, when blood sugar is under control. And check blood sugar levels again before you go to bed to make sure they're within a healthy range.
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Rachel Beller, RD, president, Beller Nutritional Institute.
American Diabetes Association: "Carbohydrates," "Glycemic Index and Diabetes," "Sugar and Desserts," "Making Healthy Food Choices," "Insulin Basics," "Carbohydrate Counting," "Create Your Plate," "Non-Starchy Vegetables," "Alcohol," "The Glycemic Index of Foods."
American Diabetes Association / Diabetes Forecast: "For Health, Hold the Sugar."
Massachusetts Institute of Technology: "Glycemic Index."
Harvard Medical School / Harvard Health Publications: Glycemic Index and glycemic load for 100+ foods."
Medline Plus: "Fiber," "Carbohydrates."
Oregon State University Linus Pauling Institute: "Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load."
Center for Science in the Public Interest: "Nutrition Action Health Letter: The Whole Grain Guide."
National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse: "Insulin Resistance and Pre-diabetes."
University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics: "Nutrition for Diabetics."
USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: "Melons, cantaloupe, raw, 1 cup, diced," "Peaches, raw, 1 small (2 1/2" diameter)."
Family Doctor.org: "Added Sugar: What You Need to Know."
U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Empty Calories: What are 'added sugars'?"
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "A Healthier You: Chapter 8: Fats, Added Sugars, and Salt."
University of Maryland Medical Center: "Diabetes Diet - General Dietary Guidelines
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.