Eating carbohydrates can raise a person’s blood sugar. This is crucial information for people living with diabetes, or those trying to lower their risk of developing the condition.
However, eating adequate amounts of carbohydrates or carbs is still an important part of a diet plan for someone with diabetes.
A person living with diabetes should understand the relationship between the condition and carbs so that they can make the best food choices for themselves.
Not all carbs are equal — some food containing carbs also contains other important nutrients that can benefit a person with diabetes in the right quantity.
If a person with diabetes has high blood sugar, it can cause them to experience serious complications. Eating carbohydrates can contribute to high blood sugar.
Insulin is a naturally occurring hormone that breaks down sugar in the blood for use as energy. If the body is not receiving insulin or even amounts of insulin, it can lead to elevated blood sugar levels, which can have harmful effects for the person.
Type 1 diabetes means that a person’s body does not produce any or enough insulin.
According to The Johns Hopkins University, type 1 diabetes typically starts when a person is young and occurs due to the immune system attacking the pancreas, which prevents the body from producing insulin.
In type 2 diabetes, a person’s body is insensitive to insulin. Type 2 diabetes usually occurs later in life, often in adults who have obesity.
Blood sugar explained
People living with either type 1 or 2 diabetes need to monitor their blood glucose (sugar) levels.
Eating food and fasting directly affect a person’s blood glucose levels.
However, not all foods affect blood glucose levels in the same way.
The body breaks down digestible carbs into sugar. This then enters a person’s bloodstream.
Simple carbs can cause blood glucose levels to rise very quickly. Simple carbs include fructose and glucose, and can contain some vitamins and minerals.
Foods that contain fructose may include fruit juice concentrate, which contains simple carbs.
Simple carb foods that contain glucose may include table sugar or candy.
On the other hand, complex carbs will slowly elevate blood glucose levels. These foods can contain other vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
However, complex carbs can include starchy foods, such as white bread or white potatoes, which contain fewer other beneficial ingredients.
What does this mean for a person with diabetes?
According to UW Health, the total grams of carbohydrate a person eats will affect their blood sugar and will help them understand how much insulin they need to receive.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a person living with diabetes should aim to eat about 50% of their calories from carbs.
Therefore, if a person eats 1,800 calories a day to maintain a healthy weight, 800–900 of those calories could come from carbs. The CDC explain that this equates to around 200–225 grams a day.
However, they state that the number of carbs a person needs will vary.
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) breaks carbs down into three categories, including:
The ADA explains that a person’s biggest source of carbs should be non-starchy, whole vegetables.
Next, people should eat some minimally processed carbs. These can include:
- starchy vegetables
Lastly, the ADA recommends that people avoid foods with refined sugar as much as possible. These foods include candies, soda, and juices.
A person with diabetes will need to keep an eye on their carb intake as part of their blood sugar monitoring.
However, they can aim to include carbs in their diet that contain other beneficial nutrients.
Different types of carbohydrates can provide different benefits.
- increasing insulin sensitivity
- decreasing blood pressure and cholesterol
- aiding weight loss
The CDC add that fiber does not raise blood sugar levels.
Starch is found in several vegetables, whole grains and fruit.
According to the ADA, the slow speed at which starch releases glucose into the blood can help prevent blood sugar spikes.
In general, a person should avoid added sugars and refined sugars.
However, if a person’s blood sugar level drops too low, the ADA recommends using food or drinks with 15 grams of carbohydrate. They suggest a person should wait 15 minutes, then check their blood sugar levels. If their blood sugar is still under 70 milligrams per deciliter, they can have another serving.
Foods to include
There are several foods that provide fiber or starch. The ADA recommends including the most amount of carbs from non-starchy vegetables, including:
The ADA also recommends including some of the following foods in a daily meal plan:
The CDC recommends a person consume no more than 50% of their calories each day from carbs.
A 2018 study shows that eating too many carbs each day can increase a person’s risk of diabetes, other metabolic disorders, or cardiovascular disease.
Consuming simple carbs can cause blood glucose levels to rise quickly in those with diabetes.
Left untreated, hyperglycemia, or high blood glucose, can cause a serious condition called ketoacidosis.
There are some foods a person with diabetes, or a person looking to lower their risk of diabetes, should avoid as much as possible.
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) recommends limiting or avoiding the following foods:
- fried foods
- foods high in saturated fat and trans fat
- soda, juices, and other beverages with high sugar levels
- sweets, including:
- ice cream
- baked goods
Different types of diets
A person should work with their healthcare providers to determine the best dietary plan for them.
A person should also talk to their doctor before making a radical change in diet since it can affect how much insulin or medication they may need to control their blood sugar levels.
General diet tips
There are a few different dietary options that may work well for a person living with diabetes.
The CDC recommend that any diet plan for a person living with diabetes should:
- focus on whole foods
- avoid or limit sugars
- include mostly non-starchy vegetables
Plate method and counting carbs
The CDC suggest a person use either the plate method or counting carb dietary plans.
The plate method visually breaks the plate down into portions to help guide how many carbs, protein, and non-starchy vegetables a person should eat during a meal.
Counting carbs involves adding up how many carbs a person eats during a meal and day in an effort to limit the total carbs consumed.
Low carb diets
Low carb diets, such as the keto diet, are often popular choices for people living with diabetes.
However, a 2015 research paper found that although low carb diets are generally safe and effective in the short term, they are did not show any benefits over higher carb diets in the long term in terms of:
- weight loss
- blood sugar control
- fat concentrations
- blood pressure
As a result, the researchers did not recommend the use of low carb diets as a standard diet recommendation for people living with diabetes.
A person living with diabetes should focus on eating non-starchy vegetables, whole grains and starches found in fruit and vegetables.
People should avoid or limit the amount of processed foods and refined sugar they consume to avoid issues from elevated sugar levels.
There are several potential dietary plans a person can follow, including the plate method, counting carbs or even low carb diets.
A person should always talk to their doctor before making drastic changes to their diet.