When you have diabetes, choosing complex carbs can help keep your blood sugar stable to stay energized all day long. Here's what a dietitian and certified diabetes educator says.
Advertisement
Cauliflower & Red Lentil Curry
Credit: Jason Donnelly

If you have diabetes, you probably know to watch your carbohydrates. Carbs, especially simple 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. But exactly what are the best carbs for diabetes? The trick is choosing complex carbs: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, 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 eleven complex 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 the day to be consistent with your intake.

Timing in your actual meal counts, too: A 2019 study published in Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism journal found that starting with a non-carb, like a protein or vegetable first, and saving carbs for last may reduce blood sugars levels.

1. Lentils

Lemony Lentil Salad
Credit: Jason Donnelly

A 1/2 cup of cooked lentils provides, per the USDA:

  • Carbs: 20 grams
  • Calories: 115

Why we love them

Research shows 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

One medium apple provides, per the USDA:

  • Carbs: 25 grams
  • Calories: 95

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 2021 study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that eating more whole fruits—including apples, grapes and blueberries—may be associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.

3. Blueberries

Berry-Almond Smoothie Bowl

One cup of berries provides, per the USDA:

  • Carbs: 21 grams
  • Calories: 85

Why we love them

Berries of any kind are a great choice if you have diabetes, and blueberries are not the exception. Low in calories and high in 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

One medium-size cooked sweet potato (with skin) provides, per the USDA:

  • Carbs: 24
  • Calories: 103

Why we love them

We're sweet on sweet potatoes for plenty of reasons. They're tasty, versatile, loaded with complex carbs, fiber and vitamin A—and easy on your blood sugar. Leave the skin on for extra fiber and nutrients.

5. Yogurt

Strawberry-Chocolate Greek Yogurt Bark

One cup of plain, low-fat yogurt provides, per the USDA:

  • Carbs: 17
  • Calories: 154

Why we love it

Yogurt delivers not only protein, carbs and calcium but also vitamin D—a nutrient many people with diabetes need more of. Some research suggests that eating yogurt may even help with diabetes prevention. A 2017 overview published in The Journal of Nutrition suggested that eating 80-125 grams per day was associated with a 14% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Stick to plain yogurt—made without added sugars—and sweeten it naturally with fruit.

6. Oats

peanut butter energy balls

One cup of plain, low-fat yogurt provides, per the USDA:

Carbs: 21 grams per 3/4-cup serving

Calories: 125

Why we love it

A must-have on your list, oats are rich in soluble fiber, which is slowly digested and absorbed, causing fewer 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

A 1/2-cup of cooked quinoa provides, per the USDA:

  • Carbs: 20 grams
  • Calories: 111

Why we love it

High in complex 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

Green Papaya Salad

Get the Recipe: Green Papaya Salad

One cup of papaya provides, per the USDA:

  • Carbs: 16
  • Calories: 62

Why we love it

This tropical fruit 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 healthcare provider if you're not sure.

9. Whole-Grain Pasta

Spaghetti with Quick Meat Sauce

One cup of whole-grain pasta (depending on the type) provides, per the USDA:

  • Carbs: 30-40 grams
  • Calories: 150-180

Why we love it

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 other 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.

10. Barley

Vegetable Barley Soup

Get the recipe: Vegetable Barley Soup

One cup of cooked pearled barley provides, per the USDA:

  • Carbs: 44
  • Calories: 193

Why we love it

This often-overlooked whole grain contains beta-glucan fiber, a secret weapon in the battle against high blood sugar (oats are another great source). During digestion, beta-glucan forms a thick, viscous slurry that slows digestion, says Nicolas Bordenave, Ph.D., an assistant professor of food biochemistry at the University of Ottawa in Ontario, Canada. As a result, glucose is released gradually, preventing your blood glucose levels from rising. Go with whole-grain barley when possible, since it's less refined and thus is digested even more slowly than the pearled kind.

11. Pumpkin

Cinnamon Baked Pumpkin

Get the recipe: Cinnamon Baked Pumpkin

A cup of cooked mashed pumpkin provides, per the USDA:

  • Carbs: 12
  • Calories: 49

Why we love it

Starchy veggies are great options if you have diabetes. Pumpkin has fewer carbs than other starchy vegetables, plus it's packed with vitamin A and antioxidants. Got leftover canned pumpkin? Check out these creative ways to use up every last bit of that nutritious goodness.