Smart Ways to Enjoy Carbs

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on October 15, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

Confused about carbs? Chances are you either think they're the enemy, or you're not sure what they have to do with diabetes at all.

Let's get one thing straight. Carbs are not off-limits. But too many -- especially the wrong kind -- can wreak havoc on your blood sugar.

"Carbohydrates -- found in fruits, vegetables, and starches like bread and pasta -- are the body's main source of energy," says Lori Zanini, RD, a dietitian and certified diabetes educator. The body turns carbohydrates into sugar (glucose), and that fuels your cells.

How your cells get this fuel can be tricky when you have diabetes. "Insulin is like a key that unlocks your red blood cells to let the sugar in," Zanini says. But if insulin doesn't unlock those cells so they can burn sugar for fuel, the sugar flows freely in the bloodstream and raises blood sugar.

That's why you want to enjoy carbs in a way that will have the least impact on blood sugar. Zanini offers these tips:

Have a carb routine. "You want to have around the same amount of carbs, around the same time every day, so your body knows what to do with the insulin that it's making or that you're giving it," she says.

Your doctor or dietitian can tell you exactly how many carbs you should get at each meal, but the rule of thumb is 45 to 60 grams.

Choose "slow" carbs. "Some carbs digest faster than others, and when it comes to managing diabetes, you want to choose carbs that digest slowly," Zanini says. Carb-rich foods with more nutrients, especially fiber, digest more slowly.

Consider these swaps: whole wheat bread instead of white, whole wheat pasta instead of regular, brown rice instead of white, sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes, whole-grain oatmeal instead of boxed cereal, and whole fruit instead of fruit juice.

Under-ripe, rather than over-ripe, bananas go through your system more slowly. Slightly undercooking rice and pasta can slow digestion, too. "Cooked al dente, it's going to have less effect on your blood sugar because the fiber stays intact," Zanini says.

Pair with protein. Because carbs do raise blood sugar to some degree, get the biggest bang for your buck when you eat them.

"Combining a carb with a protein will not only keep you full longer, but it also helps stabilize blood sugar, because protein doesn't raise blood sugar," Zanini says.

You may typically serve up protein and carbs at mealtimes, but don't forget to add protein to snacks, too. Rather than having an apple alone, spread a little peanut butter on it. Eat a stick of string cheese with wheat crackers.

Save carbs for last. In a small study, blood sugar was lower after mealtimes for people who ate their veggies and protein first, and saved their carbs for the end of their meal. Give it a try.

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Lori Zanini, RD, CDE, Manhattan Beach, CA.

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