Your body needs carbohydrates for energy, and many healthy foods — such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains — contain carbohydrates. But too many carbs, even those from healthy sources, can be unsafe if you have diabetes.
Many people think of sugar as the number one culprit behind blood sugar (glucose) spikes. But overindulging in any kind of carbs can be dangerous when you have diabetes, since all carbs are broken down by the body and turned into glucose, explains Jennifer Garland, RD, a registered dietitian with the Vanderbilt Diabetes Program in Nashville, Tenn.
“If you eat too many carbs at one time and your body isn’t able to make enough insulin to break down those carbs, your blood sugar can become too high after that meal or snack,” Garland says. And frequent or sustained high blood sugar can result in long-term diabetes complications such as heart disease, poor circulation, and nerve damage.
Although a diabetes diet should include a variety of nutritious foods, it must involve careful carb counting to manage diabetes properly.
Carb Counting: Getting Into the Habit
It’s important to make carb counting part of meal planning for your diabetes diet. Choose the foods you want to eat, determine the correct portion sizes, and then add up the grams of carbohydrates in each food. Try to limit carbs to between 45 grams and 60 grams per meal, and then adjust as needed based on the effect those carbs have on your blood sugar levels and how your body responds to them.
Try these tips to control your carb intake:
Be consistent with carbs. Garland recommends working with a dietitian to determine how many carbs you should be deriving from each of your meals and snacks. She emphasizes that it’s more important to eat a consistent amount of carbs at each meal than to focus on exactly how many carbs to consume in a given day.
Use technology to stay on track. If you have a smartphone, Garland suggests downloading one of the many free apps, such as GoMeals, that make carb-counting on the go easier. You can also go online to find out the carb counts for fruits, vegetables, and other foods that don’t tend to be labeled with a nutrition facts panel.
Log your carbs. Simply tallying up your carb intake can help you make healthier food choices. “Whenever we try to learn more about what we’re eating, a written record can provide a lot of information about our portions, eating patterns, and the areas where we can strive for improvement,” Garland says.
Divide your plate. Draw imaginary lines on your plate, breaking it up into properly-portioned sections. Fill half of your plate with non-starchy veggies (great low-carb foods), a quarter of your plate with lean meat, and the remaining quarter with a complex carbohydrate, such as sweet potato or brown rice.
Substituting With Low-Carb Foods
To help maximize your carbohydrate allowance, try replacing high-carb foods with these low-carb counterparts:
Instead of strawberry ice cream, try sliced strawberries served with low-fat or nonfat whipped topping.
Instead of mashed potatoes, try mashed cauliflower, turnips, or rutabaga.
Instead of white rice, try brown or wild rice.
Instead of tortilla chips, try slicing a low-carb tortilla into chip-size pieces, baking them on a cookie sheet for 15 minutes at 350 degrees, and serving with a chunky salsa.
Instead of spaghetti, try steamed spaghetti squash or zucchini strips topped with pasta sauce.
Instead of bread, try making a sandwich wrap using romaine lettuce leaves.
Carb counting for a healthy diabetes diet doesn’t mean giving up your favorite foods. It just means you must stay aware of your carb intake, stay consistent, and make strategic low-carb substitutions to make your favorite foods diabetes-friendly.