How to Manage Diabetes with a Carbohydrate-Friendly Diet

Medically reviewed by Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE on March 17, 2016Written by Elijah Wolfson on January 25, 2012
low carb food

Eating right is essential to the treatment and management of diabetes. For people with diabetes, managing carbohydrate intake and making healthy food choices is helpful and important.

What Is Diabetes?

Diabetes can be thought of as a disease caused by the body’s inability to process carbohydrates properly. Insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, enables the body’s cells to absorb glucose (blood sugar). In people with diabetes, the cells don’t respond properly to insulin. Or, in some cases, the body doesn’t produce any or enough insulin to properly manage blood sugar levels. For many with type 2 diabetes, it’s both.

The result is that blood glucose levels become abnormally high, potentially causing serious complications. Managing carbohydrate intake is one of the best ways to avoid these complications and control blood glucose levels.

What Is a Diabetes-Friendly Diet?

The key to managing blood sugar levels is managing carbohydrate intake. This is because carbs are responsible for raising blood sugar levels. Managing the quantity of carbs is the primary goal, although choosing slow-digesting, high-fiber carbs is helpful too.

Besides carbs, you may also need to limit your sodium intake, limit saturated fats, and avoid trans fats. It’s also important to incorporate fiber and healthy fats into your diet. People with diabetes are at significantly higher risk for hypertension, high cholesterol, and heart disease than the general population. It’s important to take these risks into consideration when planning meals.

What Should I Limit?

Certain foods are harmful to your health if you have diabetes. Limit the following foods as much as possible:

Trans Fat

Listed as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats on a label, these are best avoided or limited to less than 2 grams per day. They’re typically found in prepared and processed foods.

Added Sugar

People with diabetes can have sugar. However, foods with added sugar are generally high in quick-digesting carbs and low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. These ingredients are listed most to least on labels. The higher up in the list the sugar is, the more added sugar it will contain.

Added sugar may be listed in the ingredient list as:

  • bakers sugar
  • brown sugar
  • cane sugar
  • caster sugar
  • coconut sugar
  • confectioners sugar
  • crystals
  • dextran
  • dextrin
  • dextrose
  • diastatic malt
  • fructose
  • galactose
  • glucose
  • glucose solids
  • granulated sugar
  • maltose
  • raw sugar
  • refiners syrup
  • sugar cubes
  • superfine sugar
  • table sugar
  • white sugar
  • yellow sugar

High amounts of added sugar are found in:

  • frosting
  • milk chocolate
  • flavored milk and milk substitutes (chocolate or vanilla milk, soy milk, almond milk)
  • corn syrup
  • maple brown syrup
  • rice fructose syrup
  • high fructose corn syrup
  • sweetened condensed milk
  • pure sugar candies
  • packaged confections
  • packaged pastries

Processed or Prepared Foods

Highly processed foods are generally low in fiber, vitamins and minerals. These often contain added sugar, sodium, and preservatives. They may also contain trans fats. These foods often digest quickly and can cause a greater spike in blood sugar. Highly refined grains, such as white bread, pastas, rice, and cereals, fall into this category.

What Should I Include?

Studies have shown that high-fiber diets can improve your health and help manage diabetes. Make sure your diet contains higher amounts of soluble fiber as well as insoluble fiber. Legumes, fruits, vegetables, and oats are all good sources of soluble fiber. Women should aim for 21-25 grams of total fiber per day, while men should aim for 30-38 grams.

What Should I Manage?

Everyone’s dietary needs are different. Some people simply need to manage portions, using tools like the plate method for portion control. Others need to more strictly manage carbs. In this case, your dietitian or diabetes educator should give you an idea of how many carbohydrates you should eat at each meal and snack. A general rule of thumb is to limit your carb intake to around 30-60 grams at meals and 15-30 grams at snacks, although this varies greatly.

Carbohydrate Choice System

Counting carbs is no simple task. Some people manage total grams of carbohydrate, while others count servings, with a serving being equivalent to 15 grams of carbs. The following list includes foods with the amount of carbs in grams and an equivalent “carbohydrate choice.” Every 15 grams of carbohydrates is worth 1 carbohydrate choice.

Food CarbsCarb Choices
1 large bagel60 g 4
1 ear of corn 15 g1
1/3 cup pasta15 g1
1 cup cooked squash15 g1
1 (standard size) 4-oz apple, orange, or peach15 g1
1/2 cup grapefruit or orange juice15 g1
1/4 cup raisins30 g2
1 cup milk12 g1
1 slice pizza, frozen, thick crust, medium30 g2
1 standard size doughnut30 g2
1 tbsp syrup15 g1

Certain foods are considered “free” and don’t take up any carbohydrate choices. These include anything that is 5 grams or less of carbohydrate and fewer than 20 calories per serving:

  • club soda
  • coffee
  • gelatin, sugar free
  • seasonings
  • soft drinks, diet
  • sugar substitutes
  • tea, hot or iced, unsweetened
  • water, plain or unsweetened

By managing your carbs and being mindful of fats and added sugars, you’re well on your way to living a healthy diabetes lifestyle.

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