What are Carbohydrates?
To a person with diabetes, the carbohydrates are so much more than just something on a nutrition panel. Carbohydrates are the nutrient in food that is most easily converted into sugar (i.e. glucose) in our bloodstream, and most easily raises our blood sugar levels.
All forms carbohydrates, except for fiber, are broken down and converted into sugar in our bloodstream. It doesn’t matter if those carbohydrates came from Sour Patch Kids candy or whole grain pasta: they are broken down into glucose and will raise blood sugar levels.
Foods That Contain Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates can be found in foods like: all grains (rice, quinoa, corn, flour), cereal, all fruits, vegetables (vegetables like potato are high in carbohydrate, beans are medium, and green veggies like bell peppers and cucumber are low), pasta, crackers, cookies, cereal, breads, muffins, cake, yogurt, pizza, beer, cider, wine, ice cream juice, soda, popcorn, candy, and more.
Peanut butter is an example of a food that contains carbohydrates, but it contains far more dietary fat than carbs, so it’s often thought of as a fat, not a carbohydrate. When counting the carbs in your diet, though, you would still want to account for the carbohydrates in foods like peanut butter.
How to Count Dietary Fiber
Dietary fiber is a form of carbohydrate that is not digested or broken down into glucose, therefore it doesn’t raise your blood sugar. When counting carbohydrates, many people subtract the total amount of dietary fiber listed in the nutritional profile of any given food from the total amount of carbohydrates when the number is over five grams. Your results may vary, so it’s worth keeping an eye on your blood sugars to see if this is true for you.
Dietary fiber also slows down the digestion of our carbohydrates. This is a great thing for people with diabetes because it means insulin, whether natural or injected, has more time to work and your blood sugars will rise more slowly.
Differences Between Carbohydrates, Fat & Protein
Carbohydrates are the only unessential macronutrient, because the body can create glucose out of protein when there isn’t an abundance of carbohydrate in your diet. Additionally, the liver can release glycogen and convert that it into glucose when a person’s diet doesn’t contain regular amounts of carbohydrates.
Fat contains “essentially fatty acids,” which means those acids are absolutely essential to your body’s survival. For example, without any fat in your diet, your body wouldn’t be able to absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K. Fat is essential to that process–and many other processes.
Protein contains “essential amino acids.” These amino acids are crucial for your body’s ability to repair cells in your body, such as in your hair, skin, nails, and your muscles! And those are just a few of the functions that rely on protein in your diet–the list is endless because protein, like fat, is truly essential for your body to thrive!
Two Types of Carbohydrates
There are two types of carbohydrates: “simple” and “complex.” Simple carbohydrates are broken down quickly, raising your blood sugar more easily, and they tend to offer less nutritional value. Most processed snacks and products contain very simple carbohydrates.
Foods with complex carbohydrates tend to have higher fiber quantities, which helps slow down the rate at which they are digested and the rate at which they raise your blood sugar. These carbs also tend to offer more vitamins and nutrients.
For athletes, with or without diabetes, carbohydrates have always been thought to be a crucial aspect of properly fueling for your training and giving your body fuel to recover afterwards. But there are more and more athletes fueling their bodies on low-carb, high-fat diets. While it may not be the best fit for everyone, it is definitely an option.
Adjusting the amount of carbohydrates you eat can be a key part of weight-loss for people with diabetes, because fewer carbs means your body needs less insulin, the fat-storage hormone. In those with high levels of insulin resistance, helping your body need less insulin is crucial to both weight-loss and blood sugar management.
Using apps and websites like CalorieKing, MyFitnessPal or LoseIt can be a great first step to learning how many carbohydrates you are currently consuming in a day!
Common Misconceptions about Carbohydrates:
- You can eat as many whole-grain sources of carbohydrates as they want
- Whole-grain types bread or pasta won’t spike your blood sugar
- Drinking juice is the same as eating that source of fruit in its real form
- All carbohydrates are bad for people with diabetes
How Many Grams of Carbohydrates Should I Eat?
So how many carbohydrates should a person with diabetes eat? Unfortunately, there isn’t just ONE answer to this question, even in the medical word. There are severely low carb diets and there are doctors recommending at least 200 carbs per day (which is actually quite high). In the end, you need to reflect on your own abilities, discipline, and goals. And then choose an approach, in consultation with your health care team, that you can maintain.
To clarify, carb “quantities,” here’s a generalized description:
- the average American consumes well over 300 grams of carbs per day.
- standard physician recommendation for people with type 2 diabetes is under 200 grams per day.
- low-to-medium carb quantity = between 100 to 200 grams per day
- lower-carb diet = under 100 grams per day
- very low-carb diet (also known as ketogenic diet) = under 50 grams of carbs per day
So what is best? In today’s world you could probably find about 357 different answers to this question! And not only is it confusing, it’s overwhelming, which might lead you to giving up entirely or constantly bouncing between eating zero carbs (ah!) and all the carbs in sight. A diabetic’s ultimate version of some sort of frustrating yo-yo dieting cycle.
If that yo-yoing frustration sounds like you, then you might find the following helpful. Keep in mind that you should talk to your health care team about the best approach for you before making any changes. You have unique needs that need to be considered.
- The right amount of carbs to eat is the amount that helps you achieve your blood sugar goals without driving you totally crazy! If trying to eat barely 20 grams of carbohydrates per day drives you to binging wildly on carbohydrates for the following 3 week, then 20 grams of carbohydrates per day probably isn’t the right amount for you at this time in your life. Yup, there are lots of people with and without diabetes who thrive on super low-carb diets, but if that approach leads you to binge-eating, then it’s not the right choice for you. And that’s okay!
- The right amount of carbs to eat is the amount that helps you achieve your blood sugar goals in a way you can maintain long-term. It’s a lifestyle change, not a quick-fix for one week. If a nutritional lifestyle that includes about 100 grams per day, which leaves room for dessert or bread (whatever your carb-pleasure may be), helps you feel satisfied and doesn’t lead to binge-eating, then BINGO, you’ve found a carb-quantity that works for you.
Determining the right amount of carbohydrates for you is a personal decision, made in conjunction with your health care team, based on your ability to make long-term changes in how you eat and your goals in your diabetes and health.
While it may feel daunting to learn everything about carbohydrates, remember you don’t have to learn it all at once! Take your time, and start slow by simply looking more closely at the c arbohydrates in the food you’re currently eating!
Be sure to consult your healthcare team as well when making changes in your diet because those changes can call for changes in your medications, too.