Jewels Doskicz is a registered nurse, freelance writer, patient advocate, health coach, and long-distance cyclist. Jewels is the moderator of Diabetic Connect’s weekly #DCDE Twitter chat, and she and her daughter both live healthfully with type 1 diabetes.
One might think they’re in the wrong at mealtimes while staring down a generous portion of pasta, potatoes, bread or any common carbohydrate. Carbs have been getting dragged through the dirt lately.
As low carbohydrate and high protein diets take center stage, the situation leaves most people with pre-diabetes and diabetes in an awkward head-scratching position asking: Do we eat carbs or is this all about moderation?
If carbohydrates are really that injurious for us, why are diabetics meticulously eating and counting them all day long?
Before you hide in the closet with your bowl of chicken alfredo, let’s look at the function carbohydrates have in the human body.
Carbs and Glucose Control
As things stand, carbohydrates do indeed play a vital role in blood glucose regulation.
I’m certainly not suggesting a diet of white bread and brownies. We’ve all heard people say “a carbs a carb” and it might be in relation to your blood sugar, but a brownie isn’t equal to a cup of steamed carrots health wise.
Regardless, depending on your overall goals to gain, lose or maintain weight, your health care providers will have differing advice for daily individual carb totals. If you push people on wheelchairs through the airport all day, for example, your daily total carb count will be rather unique—you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to need carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates in conjunction with insulin are responsible for:
• Feeding energy to hard-working muscles and the central nervous system (AKA the brain)
• Assisting with fat metabolism
• Stopping protein and fat burning for energy which causes ketosis
• Stabilizing blood sugars
According to Diabetes Forecast, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies recommends “130 grams of carbohydrate daily to meet the needs of the central nervous system, including the brain.”
Protein and healthy fats are also critical pieces of a healthy diet. However, protein breakdown can be stressful on the kidneys as they excrete by-products. The kidneys are one of the organs that we are trying our best to protect with diabetes, lending questions about in-vogue protein heavy diets for diabetics.
Exercise and Carbs
Exercise is a pillar of diabetes management; sugar (glycogen) stores in the body are essential for someone with or without diabetes to tap into, when active, to maintain blood sugars.
Here’s How Eating Carbs While Regularly Exercising Works:
• Eat carbs
• Carbs are broken down and available through the blood stream
• If you don’t need the energy right away, it’s stashed for later in the liver (the body’s gas tank) and muscles; it can also be stored as fat if the other spots are full for the day
• Glycogen stores can be tapped into later when you need it
• “Used as a fuel source during exercise, it is important to optimize glycogen stores before exercise and replenish them after exercise.” This happens by consuming carbohydrates according to Iowa State University
There certainly are limitations; what we don’t want is a tidal wave of carbs three times a day—larger than exercise, pills, or insulin and a syringe are capable of regulating. Nor do we want to be storing carbs as fat on a daily basis.
According to Joslin Diabetes Center “there aren't any foods that are 'off-limits'. Rather, one just needs to learn how to spend his or her grams of carbohydrate wisely over the course of the day." To no surprise, many foods outside the meat and fat groups contain carbohydrates.
Research definitively shows that people with diabetes have a much lower risk of developing side effects of diabetes when their blood sugars are kept as closely as they can to a normal range. Check in with your health care team for personal advice on a carbohydrate load that’s right for you.