February 8, 2019

What Diabetics Need to Know About Carbohydrates


Managing your diabetes can feel overwhelming, but it isn’t impossible.

Understanding what carbohydrates are and how they affect your diabetes will make managing it a much simpler task. Here are the five most important things every person with diabetes needs to know about carbohydrates:

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates, or carbs, are one of the three main nutrients that you get from food, along with proteins and fats. Carbs are important because they can be broken down into glucose, which is how your body gets most of its energy. The three types of carbs are sugars, starches, and fibers. Sugars, also known as simple or fast-acting carbs, are naturally found in fruits and dairy products. Sugars are also often added to soft drinks, candies, and dairy- or grain-based desserts. Starchy vegetables such as corn and potatoes, grains such as rice, wheat, and barley, as well as pastas and cereals, are high in starch. High fiber foods include nuts, legumes, beans, and whole grains.

How many carbs should you eat?

Experts recommend that 45-65 percent of your daily calorie intake should come from carbs. Ideally, these carbs should be spread out over the course of your day, with meals containing 40-60 grams of carbohydrates for women and 60-75 grams for men. Snacks are optional and should amount to 15-30 grams of carbohydrates. For better blood sugar control, meals and snacks should be eaten around the same time every day. Of course, everyone is different. You should talk to your doctor or diabetic educator to see how much of your specific daily calorie intake should come from carbs.

How do carbs impact blood sugar?

Not all carbohydrates have the same effect on your blood sugar. Sugars are easily digested and raise your blood glucose level quickly, which can cause it to spike. Starches are digested more slowly, and make your blood glucose level go up more gradually than sugars. Unlike other carbs, fibers cannot be digested and on their own do not make your blood sugar go up.

How can I manage my carb intake?

There are a few ways that you can manage your carb intake, including:

  • Food exchange lists

    One way to manage your meals is by using a food exchange list. A food exchange shows foods by category with similar quantities of carbs, proteins, calories, and fats. Each meal option or “choice” in a category has the same effect on your blood sugar and can be exchanged with any other food in that category. Using food exchange lists can help you find a meal plan that consistently has the same impact on your blood sugar levels.

  • Counting carbs

    Counting your carbs is another great way to manage your meals. Carb counting is especially useful for people who take insulin two or more times per day. This will give you greater flexibility in planning your meals, although it is more complicated than a meal exchange. Carb counting involves counting the total number of carbs in your meal, which are usually given in grams, and taking the corresponding amount of insulin for that meal. On nutrition labels, this number is found under “total carbohydrates”, but make sure you also know the serving size. When counting carbs, it is important to also consider the amount of fats and proteins in your meal since they can change the way you digest glucose.

  • Glycemic index and load

    A food’s glycemic index is a measure of how quickly your blood sugar rises after eating it. Glycemic index (GI) goes from 0-100. Low-GI foods being below 55, medium-GI foods being 56-69, and high-GI foods at 70-100. Food’s glycemic load (GL) is a way to measure how much each gram will raise your blood sugar. High-GL foods being measured at and above 20, moderate-GL foods in the range of 11-19, and low-GL foods from 1-10. High-GI and -GL foods should be avoided as they will cause your blood sugar to spike. GI and GL can also be useful for people who want to have excellent control of their blood sugar, but can take a lot of work to get right.

How can I keep track of my carb intake?

Record keeping is important for people with diabetes. Keeping a written record of what you eat, how many carbs it has, when you ate it, when and what medicines you take, and how your blood sugar responded, can help you improve blood sugar control by allowing you to fine-tune carb and medicine doses.

Fort HealthCare offers diabetes education and nutrition services to help you manage your diabetes. To find a Fort HealthCare provider, visit /find-a-doctor