Choosing "good" carbs can help you manage diabetes and provide plenty of energy—without blood sugar spikes—to fuel your day.

Laurie Herr
Updated July 23, 2021
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Cauliflower & Red Lentil Curry
Credit: Jason Donnelly

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. 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.

"By no means are we going to avoid carbs," says Chaparro, who has type 1 diabetes herself. But exactly what are healthy carbs for diabetes? 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.

1. Lentils

Lemony Lentil Salad
Credit: Jason Donnelly

Carbs: 20 grams per 1/2-cup serving

Calories 115

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.

2. Apples

Turkey-Apple-Brie Sandwiches

Carbs: 30 grams in 1 medium apple

Calories: 125

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.

3. Blueberries

Berry-Almond Smoothie Bowl

Carbs: 21 grams per cup

Calories: 85

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.

4. Sweet Potatoes

Spinach Salad with Roasted Sweet Potatoes, White Beans & Basil Vinaigrette

Carbs: 26 grams in 1 medium (with skin)

Calories: 110

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.

5. Yogurt

Strawberry-Chocolate Greek Yogurt Bark

Carbs: 17 grams per 1 cup plain, low-fat

Calories: 150

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.

6. Oats

peanut butter energy balls

Carbs: 21 grams per 3/4-cup serving

Calories: 125

Why we love it

A must-have on our list, oats are 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.

7. Quinoa

Greek Quinoa Salad
Credit: Greg DuPree

Carbs: 20 grams per 1/2 cup, cooked

Calories: 110

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.

8. Papaya

Tropical Melon Smoothie

Get the Recipe: Tropical Melon Smoothie

Carbs: 16 grams per cup

Calories: 60

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.

9. Whole-Grain Pasta

Spaghetti with Quick Meat Sauce

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.

Watch: What Does a 1-Day Diabetes Meal Plan Look Like?