Can You Eat Carbs When You Have Diabetes? What Dietitians Have to Say
If you have diabetes, making carbohydrates part of your healthy diet can be confusing. It's a misconception that folks with diabetes should avoid all carbs. Below you'll find what you need to know about carbs, which are the best to include in meals and what your meals should look like.
Pictured Recipe: Farfalle with Tuna, Lemon and Fennel
What Are Carbs?
Carbohydrates are a group of macronutrients that provides your body with its primary energy source since they are digested faster than protein and fat. There are various types of carbs, and they can be divided into two main categories: simple and complex carbohydrates.
Simple vs. Complex Carbs
Simple carbohydrates, also known as simple sugars, include all sorts of foods made from a single or double sugar (monosaccharide or disaccharide). Monosaccharides include glucose (the primary source of energy for the brain) and fructose (found in fruit). In contrast, disaccharides include lactose (found in milk and dairy), maltose (found in molasses) and sucrose (table sugar). Due to their simple form, your body can digest them fairly quickly.
Complex carbohydrates, which include starches and fiber, contain at least three sugar molecules. Because of this, your body takes more time to break down starches, whereas fiber can't be digested but also slows down digestion. Due to their slower breakdown, complex carbs don't cause the same sugar spikes as simple ones. Starch is found in starchy vegetables like corn and potatoes, legumes like beans and lentils, and grains like white and brown rice. Fiber is present in fruits, starchy and non-starchy vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
As you can see, some foods can contain all three types of carbs: sugar, starch and fiber, per the CDC.
Related: How Many Carbs Are in Vegetables?
Are All Carbs Created Equal?
No, all carb foods are not the same. For starters, the body digests and reacts to each carb food depending on the amount of each type of carbohydrate it has—starch, sugar and fiber. For example, an apple and a lollipop contain simple carbs, but the apple provides vitamins and minerals to nourish your body and its fiber content will keep you full longer and help stabilize your blood sugar. Same with grains; refined grains like white rice, baked goods and white bread, contain less fiber and nutrients than whole grains like oats, quinoa and brown rice.
Although fiber isn't absorbed into the body, it plays a key role in your digestion and provides many benefits "including helping to manage blood sugar, cholesterol and weight and contributing to a healthy gut," explains Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., RDN, founder of Nutrition Starring YOU and author of The Everything Easy Pre-Diabetes Cookbook. "This can be achieved primarily through food but if you have trouble consuming the recommended grams per day, fiber-fortified foods and supplements may be beneficial." According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults should aim to consume between 28 and 34 grams of fiber per day, whether or not they have diabetes.
Can Eating Carbs Cause Diabetes?
Let's debunk one of the biggest myths about diabetes. "Eating too much "sugar" or "carbs", does not cause diabetes, according to Toby Smithson, RD, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator and author of Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition for Dummies. Diabetes happens when you lose your ability to control the glucose that comes into your blood when you eat carbohydrates. Again, carbs are needed for overall good health, so you need to manage blood sugar through diet, exercise and sometimes medication. And know that it's not just carbohydrates that affect blood sugar levels.
Should You Eat Carbs When You Have Diabetes?
Some folks believe that people with diabetes should cut out carbs, especially foods containing simple ones. Harris-Pincus weighs in on this myth and states, "Not only is it nearly impossible to cut out all carbs, but it's also not healthy to do so."
Smithson agrees that people with diabetes should eat carbs. For a person with diabetes, the number of carbs they eat and the source of the carbs are key recommendations for the diet. "Carbohydrates provide important vitamins and minerals" and are the only "source of fabulous fiber," says Smithson. As previously mentioned, it's important to include fiber in your daily eating plan. Fiber also helps lower blood pressure, increases bowel movements frequency and the absorption of minerals in your intestinal tract, Smithson explains.
So for instance, while fruit and dairy contain simple sugars and might seem "off limits", they're also filled with nutrients and should be included in a diabetes-friendly meal plan.
What Impact Do Carbs Have On Blood Sugar?
As stated above, carbs fall into categories such as sugars, starches and fiber. "When you eat and digest foods that include sugars and starches especially, the glucose is separated in digestion and absorbed straight into the bloodstream to keep a supply available to every cell in the body," Smithson explains. You want to have glucose available as it is the body's favorite source of fuel. Your health care provider can provide strategies and tools to help your body manage blood glucose levels in a healthy range.
How Many Carbs Should You Eat?
"The recommendation for the amount of carbohydrates and timing of eating carbohydrate-containing food for a person with diabetes is individualized," Smithson says. "Typically, people may eat anywhere from 15 grams to 60 grams of carbohydrates per meal. That is a big range and that's why the carb amount needs to be individualized." To help keep an eye on your blood sugar and how what you eat influences your blood sugar, it's recommended to check your blood sugar before meals and two hours after eating.
Another Simple Method to Build Your Plate
The American Diabetes Association released a simple method to help minimize carb counting for people with diabetes called The Diabetes Plate Method. The Diabetes Plate Method uses a 9-inch dinner plate to guide you. If you need fewer calories, you can choose a 6-inch plate, while someone who needs more calories can opt for a 10-inch plate. Below are the five steps in this method—including the types of carb foods to fill different areas of your plate.
Step 1: Fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables
Non-starchy vegetables include artichokes, asparagus, tomatoes, green beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms and peppers. Whether raw or cooked, non-starchy vegetables should fill up half your plate.
Step 2: Fill one-quarter of your plate with lean protein
One-quarter of the plate should be can be filled with animal or plant-based proteins. If you opt for animal protein, choose lean cuts of beef, pork, turkey and chicken. Also, try incorporating fish and seafood at least twice a week. Eggs and cheese also count towards protein. Plant-based options like beans and lentils are also options, but their carbohydrate count tends to be a little higher compared to nuts and tofu, so it's certainly important to be mindful of that.
Step 3: Fill one-quarter of your plate with carbohydrate foods
These options include whole grains, legumes, dairy products, fruits and starchy vegetables like corn, sweet potatoes, butternut squash and potatoes.
Step 4: Choose water or another very low-calorie or zero-calorie drink
This includes water, seltzer and sparkling water. Coffee and tea are also options, but be careful with the add-ins like cream and sugar. Sugar substitute drinks can also be enjoyed but in small amounts.
Step 5: Use healthy fats in small amounts
This includes drizzling a vinaigrette dressing with an olive oil base, sparkling some seeds or eating a few slices of avocado.
Putting It All Together
If you're living with diabetes, carbs should be part of your diet and part of each meal to ensure a well-balanced diet. Below is an example of balanced, diabetes-friendly recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you still need guidance to help properly manage your blood sugar and the amount and timing of carbs on your plate, a registered dietitian or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) who is also a certified diabetes educator (CDE) can help.
- Breakfast: "Egg in a Hole" Peppers with Avocado Salsa with a slice of whole-wheat bread
- Lunch: Farro Salad with Arugula, Artichokes & Pistachios
- Dinner: Garlic Butter-Roasted Salmon with Potatoes & Asparagus
Related: Diabetes Meal Plan for Beginners