If you have diabetes, you probably know to watch your carbohydrates. Carbs can cause spikes in blood sugar which, over time, can lead to dangerous diabetes complications.
Pictured Recipe: Sweet Potato Carbonara with Spinach & Mushrooms
But that doesn't mean you have to give up carbs altogether, says registered dietitian Marina Chaparro, M.P.H., R.D., certified diabetes educator, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and founder of Nutrichicos.com.
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"By no means are we going to avoid carbs," says Chaparro, who has type 1 diabetes herself. The trick is choosing smart carbs: whole grains, fruits, dairy and other foods with low glucose impact—meaning they're less likely to cause those blood-sugar peaks and lows. Smart carbs, Chaparro says, "can actually do a lot of good for you and your diabetes control."
Here are nine super-smart carbs—plus some tasty, diabetes-friendly recipes—to add to your menu planning. When you have diabetes, it's important to spread your carbs throughout your day to be consistent with your intake.
Timing in your actual meal counts, too: a recent small study published by researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York found that starting with a non-carb, like a protein or vegetable first, and saving carbs for last may help keep blood sugars steady.
Carbs: 20 grams per 1/2-cup serving
Why we love them: Stacks of recent research show that eating more plant-based foods is good for your heart health—and that's especially important if you have diabetes. Lentils deliver protein, carbs, fiber and iron all in one tasty package.
Recipes to try: Lentil Burgers (pictured) or Roasted Root Veggies & Greens over Spiced Lentils
Carbs: 30 grams in 1 medium apple
Why we love them: High in fiber and sweet, crunchy goodness, apples are less likely to cause spikes in blood sugar than some other fruits. A 2013 study published in the British Medical Journal found that eating more whole fruits—including apples, grapes and blueberries—was associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
Recipes to try: Apple Spinach Salad with Thyme-Dijon Vinaigrette (pictured) or Apple Crisp
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Carbs: 21 grams per cup
Why we love them: Berries of any kind are a great choice if you have diabetes, and blueberries are a superhero. Low in calories and high in carbs and fiber, they also pack plenty of vitamin C and heart-healthy antioxidants.
Recipes to try: Berry-Almond Smoothie Bowl (pictured) or Wild Blueberry Bagel
Carbs: 26 grams in 1 medium (with skin)
Why we love them: We're sweet on sweet potatoes for plenty of reasons. They're tasty, versatile, loaded with carbs, fiber and vitamin A—and easy on your blood sugar, too. Leave the skin on for extra fiber and nutrients.
Recipes to try: Oven Sweet Potato Fries (pictured) or Sweet Potato Soup with Toasted Pecans
Carbs: 17 grams per 1 cup plain, low-fat
Why we love it: A dairy superstar, yogurt delivers not only protein, carbs and calcium but also vitamin D—something many people with diabetes need more of. Some research suggests that eating yogurt may even help with diabetes prevention. In one large study, eating yogurt more than 4 times a week was associated with a 24 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Stick to plain yogurt—made without any added sugars—and sweeten it naturally with fruit.
Recipe to try: Mixed Fruit with Yogurt Topping (pictured) or Quick Strawberry "Cheesecake"
Carbs: 21 grams per 3/4-cup serving
Why we love it: A must-have on our list, oatmeal is rich in soluble fiber, which is slowly digested and absorbed, causing less spikes in blood sugar. It also helps lower cholesterol, so it's good for your heart health. "That's important to keep in mind, since heart disease is the No. 1 killer of people with diabetes," Chaparro says.
Recipe to try: Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Granola Bars (pictured) or Cherry-Berry Oatmeal Smoothies
Carbs: 20 grams per 1/2 cup, cooked
Why we love it: High in carbs, protein, fiber and other nutrients, quinoa has a low impact on blood sugar, making it a perfect choice if you have diabetes. It's versatile, too—try swapping it in for your regular rice or pasta.
Recipes to try: Chicken, Quinoa & Veggie Bowl (pictured) or Quinoa Cakes with Smoked Salmon
Carbs: 16 grams per cup
Why we love it: This tropical treat is loaded with fiber and water, so it aids in digestion and helps prevent constipation. It's also high in potassium, which protects the heart and helps keep blood pressure under control. One caveat: some people with kidney issues may have problems with high-potassium foods, so check with your doctor if you're not sure.
Recipes to try: Tropical Melon Smoothie (pictured) or Papaya-Avocado Salad
Carbs: 30-50 grams per 1-cup serving (depending on type)
Calories: about 200
Why we love it: "The idea that you can still eat pasta is so rewarding, and if you find one that contains both fiber and protein—OMG, you've got a winner," Chaparro says. Check the nutrition label and make sure it has 3 grams or more of dietary fiber—a good rule of thumb when shopping for any whole grains, Chaparro says. Some newer varieties use bean flour and have extra protein that can help you avoid blood sugar spikes. "That's the whole goal," Chaparro adds. Mix pasta with veggies and protein for a healthy dinner.
Recipe to try: Peanut Noodles with Chicken and Vegetables or Spinach Alfredo Lasagna