By Everyday Health
By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
Counting carbs and understanding the glycemic index are important for anyone managing type 2 diabetes. Along with exercise, eating the right diet is key for controlling the condition, and these methods can help you plan your diet and manage your blood sugar.
Counting carbs with diabetes
A healthy diet consists of a balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. However, people with type 2 diabetes need to watch carbohydrates most carefully.
"Any food that contains carbohydrates is digested into sugar, which increases your blood glucose level,” says Lanah J. Brennan, RD, a nutrition expert and certified diabetes educator practicing in Lafayette, La.
In people with type 2 diabetes, the body’s insulin doesn’t properly move sugar out of the blood and into cells to be used as energy. For this reason, eating too many carbs can raise the amount of sugar in your bloodstream and lead to complications.
“It’s important to eat carbohydrates throughout the day for energy and nutrients that your body needs," add Brennan. But the key for type 2 diabetes is to eat carbs in limited amounts at each meal and snack. Counting carbs is the best way to monitor your carb intake and keep sugar from building up in the blood.
Counting carbs is a way to help you pay attention to how many carbohydrates you eat. “Carbohydrate counting can help you manage your blood glucose by helping you maintain a consistent blood sugar level as you’re eating meals and snacks during the day," Brennan explains.
Carb counting is important for anyone with diabetes, but can also be used by anyone trying to control their weight. If you have type 2 diabetes, you’ll need to work with your dietitian or diabetes educator to determine the right amount of carbohydrates for your individual diet.
Your carb-counting number will depend on your age, your weight, how much you exercise, and what medications you may be taking. Use these basic tips to manage carbohydrates and diabetes:
Most people with type 2 diabetes should stick to eating around 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per meal.
Foods that contain carbohydrates include starches, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, beans, and sweets.
For foods that have nutrition labels, add up the grams of carbohydrates per serving and stick to the serving size. If you eat more than one serving, you’ll have to take this into account.
For foods without nutrition labels, estimate the amount of carbohydrates by using a food chart. For example, one small piece of fresh fruit has about 15 grams of carbohydrates.
Remember carb counting for beverages. Fruit juices and alcoholic beverages in particular add lots of carbs.
It's also important to include protein and fats in your meals, but these aren’t included in carb counting. "Total carbs should make up about 45 to 60 percent of your daily diet if you have type 2 diabetes," says Dinamarie C. Garcia-Banigan, MD, an endocrinologist and diabetes specialist at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass.
Using the Glycemic Index
The glycemic index is another method that can help you plan your diabetes diet. It is a measurement of how much a particular carbohydrate-containing food raises your blood sugar. By choosing lower glycemic-index foods, you may be able to avoid spikes in your blood sugar.
Research shows that the type of carbohydrates is important for people with type 2 diabetes, but the total amount of carbs has a bigger impact on blood sugar. That means you should use the glycemic index for "fine-tuning" your diet, but not as a substitute for carb counting.
Ask your dietitian or diabetes educator for a chart of high and low glycemic foods to go along with your carb counting chart. You can also find these charts online. Here are some basics on glycemic index:
Foods with a high glycemic index have numbers between 70 and 100, and they tend to raise blood sugar more than lower glycemic-index foods.
Foods with a glycemic index under 50 are considered low glycemic-index foods and will raise blood sugar less.
Low glycemic foods include dried beans, legumes, non-starchy vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
High glycemic indexes can be found in foods that are highly processed like baked goods, white bread, white pasta, and white rice.
The Bottom Line on Carbohydrates and Diabetes
"Your diet is your number-one weapon against type 2 diabetes,” Dr. Garcia-Banigan says. “Understanding how to balance your diet and control your carbohydrates needs to become part of your healthy lifestyle."
Carb counting and the glycemic index are important for controlling blood sugar, but you also need to manage your portion sizes. "And don't forget to include lean protein and avoid saturated fats," Brennan adds.
Balancing nutrition, carbohydrates, and diabetes can seem like a lot to handle, but these basic guidelines can make it easier to manage. Remember there’s no one diet that works for everyone with type 2 diabetes. Talk to your dietitian or diabetes educator to come up with the right carb-counting number for you so you’ll be able to keep a steady flow of energy throughout the day, maintain a healthy weight, and manage your blood sugar.
Next Discussion: Where to Find... »