After being diagnosed with diabetes, navigating the world of what you should and should not eat can be complex and downright overwhelming at times. It can seem like you are being bombarded with conflicting information about what is healthy and what is not.
To further complicate matters, what is healthy before diabetes is not necessarily healthy when trying to manage blood sugars after being diagnosed with diabetes.
One of the most important groups of foods to understand with diabetes are carbohydrates. Carbohydrate management is essential in diabetes to keep blood sugar levels in check. Monitoring and managing blood sugar is the key to good diabetic control.
What Exactly is Diabetes?
Before understanding carbohydrates, it is important to understand how diabetes works.
First, there are two forms of diabetes. Type I diabetes typically starts in childhood, though it can develop at any point in life. It is characterized by autoimmune destruction of the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. Because of this, the body progressively loses the ability to produce insulin. Without insulin, people with this condition typically need to be on injected insulin for the rest of their lives
Type II diabetes is similar to Type I diabetes in that they both involve progressively elevated blood sugars in the blood that the body is unable to process. This is where the similarities end however. Type II diabetes typically develops later in life as a result of both genetics and lifestyle.
Type II diabetes involves resistance to the body’s own insulin alongside reduction of secretion of insulin in the pancreas. Those with Type II diabetes may not need to be on insulin, depending on the course of their disease.
Control of diabetes is essential to prevent long term complications from this condition. The most serious long-term complications include blindness, kidney disease, nerve damage, and heart disease. One of the best ways to prevent these complications is by maintaining good control of insulin and by extension, sugar and carbohydrate intake.
The Effects of Insulin on Blood Sugar
After understanding how diabetes works as a disease, it is equally as important to understand how diabetes, insulin, and blood sugar all work together. Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas that allows the body to break down blood sugar and convert it into usable energy.
Without insulin, the body cannot break down simple or complex carbohydrates into energy, and these carbohydrates build up in the blood. It is the buildup of these sugars that cause both the short- and long-term complications of diabetes.
Insulin is essential to the breakdown of carbohydrates and thus is essential to the body’s normal functioning. If diabetes becomes severe enough and insulin either is resisted by the body or not produced in high enough quantities, death is even possible without medical treatment.
Let’s Talk Carbs
When living with diabetes, understanding carbohydrates is just as important as understanding how insulin works. There are two basic types of carbohydrates: simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates.
Simple carbohydrates are most commonly in the form of fructose and glucose. They have fairly simple chemical structures and are typically easily digested and metabolized by the body. This leads to quick release of insulin and a faster rise of total blood sugar.
Quick elevations in blood sugar are not good for the body, especially in someone with diabetes. It is harder for someone with diabetes to manage blood sugar and when it is released rapidly into the bloodstream, this can have negative health consequences.
Most commonly, simple carbohydrates are found in foods like fruit juice, table sugar, candy, and soda.
Complex carbohydrates differ from simple carbohydrates in their basic chemical structures. They are composed of three or more simple sugars linked together, and are thus harder for the body to break down. Some examples of complex carbohydrates include starch, fiber, and glycogen.
Due to this slower breakdown, complex carbohydrates elevate blood sugar more slowly. This slower release allows the body’s insulin to convert this sugar into energy more slowly and maintain more normal blood sugar levels for longer periods of time.
Complex carbohydrates come in many forms including whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
What Do Carbs Have to Do with My Diabetes?
Carbohydrate management is vital to maintaining good control of diabetes. Now that we know the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates, we can discuss the difference between “good” and “bad” carbohydrates.
Most often, simple carbohydrates are considered the “bad” carbohydrates while complex carbohydrates are considered the “good” carbohydrates. This is not always the case, but it is going to be the case most of the time. As a general rule of thumb, maintaining good blood sugars means eating mostly “good” carbohydrates in a diet.
When determining how much of a diabetic’s diet should consist of carbohydrates, the answer is unfortunately different for everyone. No matter how many carbs are supposed to be in your diet, the first step should always be learning to count carbohydrates. Total carbohydrate counts are often included on food packaging labels and are easily accessible online.
With this information, there are a few ways to determine just how much of your diet should consist of carbohydrates. The best way to do this is by signing up for a local Diabetes Education Program or by scheduling an appointment with a Registered Dietician or your healthcare provider. There is also a myriad of resources online to determine ideal carbohydrate intake. As a general rule, the CDC recommends that people with diabetes get about half of their daily caloric intake from carbohydrates.
The Type of Complex Carbohydrate Matters Too
While complex carbohydrates are generally considered a better choice than simple carbohydrates, there are a few things to consider when choosing which types of complex carbohydrates to eat.
For example, whole foods are usually considered healthier than refined or processed foods. This is because during the food refinement process, much of the nutritional value is removed from the food. Foods like brown rice, whole wheat bread, and oats are conventionally considered a better choice than white rice or white bread.
The same is true for fruits and vegetables as well. Whole fruits and vegetables take the body longer to break down, leading to slower release of blood sugar and insulin. This is compared to processed fruits and vegetables, fruit juices, and fruits with added sugars that cause spikes in blood sugar which is not good for someone trying to manage diabetes.
Fiber is another type of complex carbohydrate, but one which the body cannot break down. It is considered a great food choice in those with diabetes as it leads to slower release of insulin and subsequent elevation in blood sugar.
Fiber is present in many whole foods in high concentrations such as beans, berries, avocados, whole grains, apples, and dried fruits. While many think fruits should be avoided when living with diabetes, this is not always true as the fiber content in many fruits balances the amount of simple sugars present in that fruit.
With diabetes, it is also important to incorporate a variety of other foods in the diet outside of carbohydrates. Fat is especially important, as foods containing this tend to balance with carbohydrates to keep blood sugar levels in control.
What Specifically Should I Eat?
When presented with the vast number of options available to us today, it can be a daunting process to decide what you should and should not eat when living with diabetes. A single dietary plan will not work for everyone, so finding foods that you like is very important.
Whenever you think of carbs, breads and grains are typically the first thing that come to mind. Well, here is some good news: bread and grains are perfectly fine if you have diabetes! It is the type of grain that matters. Whole grains are the name of the game when it comes to healthy choices here. Things like 100% whole wheat bread and pasta, bran cereals, and whole wheat tortillas are some of the best options in this area.
Vegetables are another great, low-calorie source of healthy carbohydrates. Not only do they provide the carbohydrates that your body needs for energy, they also are packed full of vitamins and other essential nutrients. Some good options for vegetables include bell peppers, broccoli, zucchini, and avocados.
Possibly surprising to some, many fruits are also a good source of healthy carbohydrates. The key to finding low carb fruits are to look for those with high fiber and water content. Some good examples of these fruits are plums, peaches, cherries, and most types of berries.
What Foods Should I Avoid?
As mentioned before, there are some high carbohydrate foods that are best avoided with diabetes. While the obvious culprits include things like candy, soda, and fruit juices, there are some fruits, vegetables, and grains that are worth eating only in moderation.
In terms of grains, anything that is processed or refined is likely to have a high amount of quickly digested carbs, which spell trouble for diabetes. Vegetables like sweet potatoes and corn, and fruits like watermelon and bananas tend to be higher in “bad” carbohydrates. These do not have to be completely cut out in diabetes, but should be consumed in moderation.
diabetes and carbohydrates can seem very complex and hard to understand on the surface. With a bit of research and some taste-testing, understanding the relationship between these two things can be much more manageable. Just because you have diabetes does not mean that your stomach must suffer!