Carbohydrates and Diabetes: All you need to know

Carbohydrates and Diabetes: All you need to know

One of the three main nutrients that make up meals is carbohydrates (carbs). Carbohydrates are our main source of energy and carbohydrate-containing foods also provide important nutrients for good health.

Glucose is produced by breaking down all the carbohydrates you consume. Your blood glucose levels and diabetes management may be affected by the type and quantity of food you consume. Evidence suggests that the type of carbs we consume has a greater impact on overall health than the quantity. Quality of carbohydrates has been assessed using glycaemic index (GI), glycaemic load, fibre content and wholegrain amongst others.

Generally, lower GI foods are considered useful when managing blood glucose levels. For our overall health, choosing foods high in fiber and whole grains over refined carbohydrates, like white bread is better for our heart health and lowers our risk of developing certain types of cancer. Certain foods that include carbs, such as fruits and vegetables, are connected to good and excellent health.

Reducing your calorie intake for people with type 2 diabetes who may be overweight or obese, really helps to lose weight. This can be achieved in a number of ways, such as cutting down on your existing carb intake or by adopting a low-carb diet.

How carbohydrates affect people living with diabetes

Carbohydrate metabolism is vital in the development of type 2 diabetes, which happens when the body cannot produce enough insulin or cannot use the insulin it does produce. When you eat or drink foods that have carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into glucose (a type of sugar), which then raises the level of glucose (blood sugar) in your blood. That glucose is used as fuel by your body to keep you moving throughout the day. This is what you most likely refer to as your "blood sugar" or "blood glucose." The carbohydrates you consume are very crucial in the management of diabetes.

After your body converts those carbohydrates into glucose, your pancreas releases insulin to assist and aid your cells in absorbing glucose. When someone’s blood glucose or blood sugar is too high, it is called hyperglycemia. There are a few factors that can lead to "highs," such as a lack of insulin in the body or ineffective cell responses to the insulin that is released, which results in an increase in blood glucose levels. Low blood glucose is known as hypoglycemia. Sometimes "lows" are brought on by inadequate carbohydrate intake or an imbalance in medications. In essence, the amount of carbs we eat affects our blood sugar, thus balance is essential!

Is it possible to eat carbohydrate and still reduce blood sugar?

Carbohydrates have a direct impact on blood sugar levels and so diets followed by people with diabetes tend to focus either on the quantity of carbs consumed or the pace at which they are absorbed by the body.

Sugar, starch, and fiber are the three different types of carbohydrates. To keep blood sugar levels in a healthy range, it's important to get the ideal combination of sugars, starch, and fiber. It helps to know that:

  • Added sugars raise the blood sugar quickly : Blood sugar levels rise while eating foods with added sugar, such as cookies, cake, and soft drinks. The food label may list sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, sucrose, or fructose. Foods that naturally contain sugar (like fresh fruits, milk, and Greek yogurt) are healthier, more nutritious and don’t cause blood sugar to rise as quickly as added sugars.
  • Some starches raise the blood sugar slowly : Generally, starches that are less processed tend to boost blood sugar levels more gradually. These consist of foods like oats, lentils, and brown rice. Foods that are processed a lot, like white rice and white bread, cause a rapid rise in blood sugar.
  • Fiber helps slow down sugar absorption : People living with diabetes can maintain healthy blood sugar levels by eating a diet high in fiber. Food fiber slows the rate at which carbohydrates turn into sugar, so there's less of a peak when blood sugar spikes. Whole fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and whole grains are all excellent sources of fiber. Additionally, fiber helps you feel full and maintains a healthy digestive system.

Tips to guide you:

  • Choose healthy carbs. Eat a lot of fresh fruit, veggies, and whole grains to gain your carbohydrates. These foods are healthy because they also have fiber, vitamins, and other nutrients.
  • Reduce intake of highly processed foods and foods with added sugar. It can be challenging to maintain healthy blood sugar levels when consuming these meals and drinks. Avoid all beverages with carbs (except milk). They provide no nutritional value and cause blood sugar levels to rise. These should only be used for treating low blood sugar.
  • Count carbs. Read food labels to help you. When eating at a restaurant, you can request nutritional information from your server or look up the information online.
  • Weigh and measure. To get accurate carb count, use a scale and measuring cups. This helps you match insulin dosage to the carbs you eat.
  • Stay active every day. Regular exercise improves insulin and makes it work better. It also helps keep blood sugar in the healthy range.

Understanding how carbs fit into a balanced diet makes it easier to keep your blood sugar in a healthy range. If you have questions about what to eat or you need help counting carbs, talk to a dietitian on your care team.