When you found out you have diabetes, your doctor might have asked you to start counting carbohydrates. Anyone with diabetes can use counting carbs to help better manage their blood sugars.
Maybe you're wondering if you can ever have cake again. Here's the good news: there is no diabetes diet. You can still eat the occasional sweet treat -- as long as it's in moderation. Learning about carbs, how they affect your body, and how to count carbs at every meal can help you manage diabetes.
"Diet is a word that we don't recommend using," says Emily Loghmani, registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Johns Hopkins Diabetes Center in Baltimore. "The word diet seems to conjure up unpleasant ways of eating and restrictions that people do for a certain period of time. But diabetes is a chronic illness, so we try to teach people how to eat healthy and make food choices that they'll be able to sustain for the rest of their life."
Here are the facts about carbs and your body, along with tips for carb counting.
Diabetes and Carbohydrates
Everyone needs carbs -- they fuel the body and provide energy so that we can function.
Foods that contain carbohydrates include:
- Bread, rice, cereal, crackers, pasta, and other starchy foods
- Dairy products, including milk and yogurt
- Fruit and fruit juice
- Starchy vegetables such as corn and potatoes
- Beans and legumes
- Sugary foods and snack foods such as juice drinks, sodas, cookies, candy, cake, and chips
Your body converts carbs into glucose, or blood sugar. Insulin from the body moves glucose from the blood into cells for energy. But people with type 2 diabetes either don't use insulin effectively or don't produce enough insulin. And people with type 1 diabetes don't produce insulin to be used. So excess glucose can build up in the bloodstream and over time, can cause diabetes complications.
"The challenge when you have diabetes is that you need to find the right amount of carbohydrates that will work with your diabetes medications and your physical activity to keep your blood glucose at a safe level," says Amy Campbell, RD. "That's why we put so much emphasis on counting carbs -- to try to achieve that balance." Campbell is the manager of clinical education programs at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.
Counting carbs helps build consistency, Campbell says. "The more someone varies their carb intake, the more their blood sugars will vary." Because carbs will have the greatest effect on blood sugars compared to proteins or fats in a meal, your goal is to try to consume a similar amount of carbohydrates every meal.
Counting Carbs: Three Approaches
Campbell and Loghmani use three different levels of carb counting with their patients. You and your doctor will choose an approach based on the type of diabetes you have, what kind of medicines you take, and your weight goals.