Counting carbohydrates has become a recent trend for many health-focused and nutrition-minded people. If you have diabetes, tracking carbohydrates is an important part of your treatment plan. That’s because your body processes sugars, which your body gets from carbohydrates, differently than people who do not have diabetes.

Good carbohydrates

  1. Look for carbohydrates with a low glycemic index (GI).
  2. Unprocessed carbohydrates, like 100 percent stone ground whole wheat bread, have a lower GI.

Carbohydrates to avoid

  1. Avoid carbohydrates with a higher GI.
  2. Processed carbohydrates, like white bread, have a higher GI and should be avoided.

Diabetes affects the way your body uses glucose, or sugar, in your blood for daily functions. When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into glucose, or blood sugar. That is why people with diabetes have to carefully monitor the carbohydrates they consume.

Carbohydrates can be measured using the glycemic index (GI). This index uses a scale of 1 to 100 to measure how much a food raises your blood sugar. Foods with a higher GI are digested more quickly in your body. Food with a GI value of 56 or more is generally considered to have a medium to high GI.

When a carbohydrate is broken down, your body has access to the sugar and energy from that food. Higher index foods can quickly raise a blood glucose level. If you have diabetes, a rapid increase in your blood glucose level may be difficult to manage. People with diabetes should choose foods with a lower GI. These foods take longer for the body to break down, which means your blood sugar level will increase slowly. A slower rise in blood sugar may be easier to manage.

Here are five “good” food group choices for people with diabetes, or people who are watching their blood sugar level. All of these foods have a GI of 55 or less.

Dried beans and legumes

Dried beans and legumes are a good source of fiber. This makes the body spend more time breaking them down to create energy. These foods will not only keep you full for longer, but they also have a low GI, which will help control your blood sugar. Lentils and kidney beans are examples of this food group.

A 1-cup serving of this group has about 20 grams of carbohydrates.

Fruits and vegetables

Non-starchy vegetables, like carrots and sweet potatoes, are good choices for people with diabetes. Starches, like regular potatoes, have a higher GI and the body can more easily convert them into energy. That can raise your blood sugar levels. Non-starchy fruits and vegetables have only a handful of grams of carbohydrates per serving.

Other good choices from this food group are peas, berries, or apples.

100 percent whole grains

Stone ground wheat bread and pumpernickel are good examples of foods with lower GI. These are less processed, unlike white bread or other white grains. Your body digests less processed foods more slowly, which can help control your blood sugar level.

One slice of bread has about a dozen grams of carbohydrates.

Cereals that are rolled

Steel-cut oatmeal, muesli, and all-bran cereals have a lower GI than some other grains. That allows for a slower release of glucose, which is important for controlling your blood sugar.

A 1/2-cup serving of these have an estimated 15 grams of carbohydrates.

Pasta and other hearty sides

Barley, bulgur, and forms of pasta rank low on the GI scale. Look for whole grain versions. These also have an estimated 10 to 15 grams of carbohydrates depending on the portion size.

Foods with a medium GI rating that you can add to a diabetic diet include quick oats, whole wheat bread, and couscous.

Knowing what foods to avoid is as important as knowing which ones to eat. Below are some foods you should avoid or eat in limited amounts.

Processed food

Processed food often comes in the forms of junk food. These easy to eat snacks, like cookies or baked goods, contain white sugar and white flour. They spike your blood sugar and often leave you feeling hungry as the sugar is quickly turned into energy.

Traditional cereal

Traditional cereal, like corn flakes and puffed rice, will bring a sudden surge of blood sugar, but will do little to satisfy you. Try a cereal with a lower GI like steel-cut oatmeal.

Salty snacks

It’s hard to stop with just a few salty snacks. Pretzels, rice cakes, and saltine crackers are a few salty snacks that are best to avoid.

Meals in a box

These are easy go-to meals, especially if you’re looking for a quick workday lunch option. If you have diabetes, though, you should avoid these. Many of these meals have refined carbohydrates, a high GI, and are loaded with salt.

You should also steer clear of macaroni and cheese or white rice meals made with a seasoning packet. The GI ratings are high and so are the carbohydrate counts.

There’s more to choosing a good carbohydrate than knowing the GI. Here are additional things you can look for when choosing a carbohydrate:

  • Look for foods with high fiber. Soluble fiber, in particular, can help slow your body’s absorption of sugar, which can improve your blood sugar level.
  • A good rule of thumb is that the more processed a food is, the higher GI it will have. For example, fruit juice has a higher GI than fruit.
  • Choose ripe fruit. Fruit that has been stored for a longer amount of time will have a lower GI than fruit stored for a shorter amount of time.
  • Cooking can change the GI of a food. Raw and mildly cooked foods have a lower GI because it takes longer for your body to break them down and use the energy.
  • If you’re going to eat a high GI food, pair it with a food that has a lower GI. That can help balance out the effect the blood sugar has on your body.
  • Keep your portions in check. Just because a food has a lower GI doesn’t mean you should consume more of it.

In general, the lower the GI, the more nutritional the food will be. Using that rule as a guide can help you balance out your overall diet.

There are a few simple things you can do to make it easier to select good carbs.

  • Learn how to read labels to determine how many sugars or carbohydrates are found in your favorite foods.
  • Set a goal of how many carbs you should have at each meal. Find a carbohydrate calculator on a phone app or trusted online source to help plan your days.
  • Make a list of your favorite foods that have a lower GI and fit well into your diet. Stock up on them and make it easier to add them to your daily meal plan.

Learn more: Diabetes nutrition guide: Reading food labels »

The amount of carbohydrates you eat depends on how you manage your glucose levels. Work with your doctor to determine the right amount of carbohydrates for you. Remember to eat a balanced diet that includes protein and good fats to go along with the carbohydrates.