What are healthy carbohydrates for a diabetic?
What are you supposed to be eating? Especially to keep your blood sugar levels in a healthy range?
These are common questions that can be confusing so let's get straight to business and dig in and answer those questions now. Let's walk through some of the individual aspects and then we'll wrap it up into something simple and practical at the end, okay?
Crazy fact, right!
Of course that doesn’t mean we do live without carbohydrates, because we love carbohydrates of all kinds, a little too much most of the time. 😉
Thankfully though, there are healthy carbs you can eat. And there are also a range of low carb foods you can buy, which means you can still enjoy delicious tasty meals.
Too Many Carbs Is The Issue
The average person consumes way too many carbohydrate foods – around 800 calories worth per day, according to one study comparing 158 countries!
The thing to understand, is that as a diabetic, carbohydrates are the type of food you need to get a good handle on. Why?
Because the amount of carbs you eat influences your blood sugar and A1C more than any other nutrient.
Let's take a look at a typical day on a Western diet plan:
Breakfast: Toast with a glass of orange juice – carbs.
Morning tea: 1 small blueberry muffin – carbs.
Lunch: A ham salad sandwich and a coke – carbs.
Afternoon tea: A packet of salt and vinegar chips and a choc chip cookie – carbs.
Dinner: Spaghetti pasta with a jar of sugar-filled bolognese sauce – carbs.
Dessert: 1/2 cup chocolate ice cream – carbs!!
Nutrition Breakdown Of The Average Menu
As you can see, carbohydrates total to around 337 g for just one day eating such a menu. Even just one day like this is problematic, let alone eating that many carbs day in and day out.
It also provides very little in the way of nutritional quality. Studies indicate that while the average person tends to eat a lot these days we have rising levels of nutritional deficiencies, even in Western societies where food is ample!
As a person with diabetes, you may have been told to eat more carbohydrates and less protein and fat – that's been a very common recommendation for decades. Unfortunately, this is very problematic because as a diabetic you are essentially carbohydrate intolerant. Meaning, your body has lost the capacity to deal with glucose in the blood effectively.
While every person does have a different rate of carb intolerance, a lower carb diet has proven the best method for lowering blood sugar and A1C levels.
How Carbs Affect Your Body
Let's just get back to basics for a second and focus on how carbs influence your body.
The written explanation
You eat carbohydrates -> Your body processes this and as a natural response your blood glucose rises -> Your pancreas releases the hormone insulin to lower your blood glucose -> As a diabetic you have an inability to uptake glucose into the cell effectively, which leaves your blood glucose high (this is called insulin resistance) -> More insulin in the bloodstream increases insulin resistance -> Insulin is also the fat storage hormone so all the excess glucose in your blood gets pushed into fat cells -> This increases triglycerides and cholesterol levels and increases inflammation causing more issues. -> So it can become a bit of a repetitive cycle.
The video explanation
Here's a simple video that shows how the carbohydrates we eat triggers insulin.
The affect of carbohydrate intake on blood glucose occurs whether we have diabetes or not. Carbohydrates are carbohydrates. This is the natural physiological response of the body. But, as a diabetic, your ability to deal with the carbs is impaired.
So how can you lower and control this high blood glucose?
You have to change gears on the type of carbohydrates you eat.
When you think of carbohydrates, it probably brings to mind things like potatoes, rice, pasta and bread. And more than likely, many things on this common list of carb sources include processed and refined foods such as white bread, white pasta, and white rice, which are high energy carbohydrate foods that will spike your blood sugar much quicker than a complex carb.
Simple and Complex Carbs
Simple sugars/carbs – refined white sugars, white flours, white breads, white pastas – these uptake into the bloodstream with little digestive processing needed, and therefore, they tend to spike blood sugar faster and higher.
Complex sugars/carbs – have to get processed and converted to glucose and take longer to enter the bloodstream. Complex carbohydrates are often higher in dietary fiber, and the fiber is there to slow digestion and absorption of glucose so that blood sugar raises slower and hormone levels stay more stable.
Here's a list of some of simple and complex carbs so you can see the difference between them:
It's good to be aware of what simple and complex carbs are because if you go read other websites you will notice that the carbohydrate advice for people with diabetes, often says to include complex carbs.
However what you need to know is that…
All types of carbohydrates break down to glucose, period!
Even if it takes longer to digest, the glucose is still going to end up in your bloodstream!
So for a diabetic that means even complex carbs from things like grains can be problematic because they are high in carbohydrate content. So let's dig even deeper to find out why and what your best choices are.
Complex Carb Choices
So basically you have 4 categories of carbs to choose from:
- Whole grains
- Beans and legumes
Eat More Veggies
Vegetables are a complex carbohydrate!
Most people don't think of vegetables when they think of carbs.
However, vegetables are the type of carbs you really need to focus on eating more of, because they are more nutrient dense – meaning, they are full of vital vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other compounds that the body needs to fuel it’s optimal function.
Statistics show that only 8% of the population are eating the recommended 5 servings a day of vegetables, with 25% getting only one serve a day, and the rest…well they are not eating any veggies at all!
One serving of vegetables is equivalent to around half a cup. So 2.5 cups a day minimum is the main aim. With diabetes though, since you need to cut down on other high carb foods – potatoes, rice, bread, pasta – you should really be eating way more than 2.5 cups of veggies per day.
Vegetables contain so many valuable nutrients and compounds that can guard us against disease. They reduce energy density of the diet, helping you lose weight. They provide valuable fiber that helps promote healthy digestion, they help reduce sugar cravings, and they just make you feel great.
Vegetables are by far the very best form of carbohydrate for you to choose, well at least most of them are.
Types of Vegetables to Include & Avoid
Fruit is a natural food source so if you were to choose something sweet you'd be far better to choose a small piece of fruit.
However, most fruit also happens to be a high source of carbohydrates. And despite commonly held assumptions that fruit juice is healthy, it's not.
Fruit juice is a BIG NO NO!
It's extremely high in sugar/ carbs.
Take a look at this apple verse apple juice comparison.
As you can see, eating the whole apple provides 19 g total carbs, 3 g fiber, 14 g sugar. Whereas, if you drink 1 cup apple juice, it sharply increases the carb and sugar count, and decreases fiber. It helps to have a visual comparison right?
All and all, when it comes to fruit, the best fruits for a diabetic are berries such as strawberries, raspberries, blueberries. These are your lower carb options and you can have around 1/2 cup per serve. Berries make a nice dessert served with something like cottage cheese or yogurt.
Now we've already covered all the white processed forms of grains above. Things like white rice, white pasta, white bread, white flour, and packaged foods that often contain simple carbs, and sorry to say but these all have to get the cut.
But what about whole grains?
Well, they are a complex carbohydrate and you can eat whole grains and count carbs and monitor your intake. BUT it is far, far easier to get better results if you AVOID ALL GRAINS!
Did you just say avoid all grains?
The American Diabetes Association 2017 Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes, state that: “whole-grain consumption is not associated with improvements in glycemic control in type 2 diabetes.” Or in other words, it does not help you regulate blood sugar and A1c – that's what the research clearly shows. There is no evidence to suggest whole grains benefit blood sugar in any way, quite simply because they are a high carb food. And hopefully by now you are beginning to understand their strong influence on your numbers.
Eliminating grains does come as a shock to many people but if you REALLY want to control your blood sugar and avoid the progression of complications long term, then avoiding grains is the way to go. It also helps to un-complicate things for you, allowing you to enjoy your food more without having to worry so much about counting every single carb.
Sure, it's an adjustment. But you certainly won't starve.
There are plenty of things you can still eat – if you're stuck for ideas, check out our weekly meal plans.
Pictured above are two of our low carb breads – even without grains there is plenty to eat!
Anyway, let's just get back to the whole grain debate for just one minute.
Let's just say you want to have a couple of slices of toast for breakfast or some brown rice with dinner and you're aiming to keep your carb count to 30 g per meal.
- Brown rice has a net carb count of 19 g per serve (1/2 cup). Now half a cup isn't that much, and most people normally eat more than this (it's easy to do). So you would have to measure your portion sizes AND keep a closer check on your blood sugar levels. NOTE: Total carbs minus fiber = net carbs.
- 1 slice whole grain toast has a net carb count of 12.5-15 g per serve. So if you wanted to eat 2 slices that bumps you up to 25-30 g just for just the toast, without any toppings.
What most people don't realize is that grain based foods are very high in carbohydrates. So avoiding them, at least for the most part, cuts out a majorly big hassle for you. And helps you control blood sugar and A1C levels much easier.
Beans & Legumes
Beans and legumes include things like adzuki beans, chickpeas, brown and red lentils, lima beans, borlotti beans, broad beans, fava beans, garbanzo, lima beans, navy beans, mung beans, and so forth.
These do contain protein, but they are predominantly a carbohydrate food.
While beans and legumes are beneficial for feeding gut bacteria that support our health, you need to keep a tight limit on your portions.
Here is the net carbs for some beans (per 1/4 cup):
- Northern beans – 6 g
- Pinto beans – 7.5 g
- Lentils – 6 g
- Navy beans – 7 g
- Black beans – 6.5 g
- Chickpeas (Garbanzo) – 10 g
- Red kidney beans – 7.5 g
If you were to follow a truly low carb diet, you would exclude beans and legumes.
BUT, there is research to show that the soluble fiber in beans and legumes provide some great health benefits. They have a low glycemic index and are considered slow carbs, so for most people, it's okay to eat the lower carb bean and legume options in moderation (1/4 cup per serve).
The soluble fiber also dramatically slows down the glucose uptake. Yes it still does end up in the bloodstream, but if you want to include beans and legumes, then limit them to 1/4 cup serving only and choose the lower carb options as outlined above. That's only going to be around 6-8 g net carbs per serve, and you can still include lots of veggies and some meat for a well-rounded meal.
Note though, some people with diabetes will not be able to tolerate any beans or legumes. The only real way to know is to use your blood sugar monitor and assess how foods influence you.
Where Does That Leave Us So Far?
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No doubt by now, you have many questions:
What will I eat for breakfast?
What about bread? Can I still eat bread?
What will I eat for breakfast?
Breakfast cereals are off the list, at least the kind you find on the supermarket shelf. Yes, even things like wheat biscuits and whole grain options, and even oatmeal in many cases, we've already talked about why.
When it comes to bread, there's no doubt that it’s something that everyone loves, but we can definitely live without it. Of course, there are low carb bread options, too.
Still, you can live without bread for the most part. It just takes a little getting used to.
And of course, if you're motivated to make your own breads, there are loads of low carb flours you can use instead.
What are your breakfast options?
We’ve been conditioned to think we need to eat cereal for breakfast because we have this idea in our head about what breakfast foods are, we've just been raised like that.
But what you need to be eating for breakfast is a real wholesome meal loaded with good food. The beginning of the day is the most critical time to eat a good meal in order to sustain your energy, balance your hormones, and prevent sugar cravings and binge attacks later in the day.
The trick is to start thinking about breakfast differently.
Yes, it may sound strange and takes a while to get used to, but this is really how we're meant to be eating (eating real food!) and you'll find it gives you a much better start to the day.
Best Source Of Healthy Carbohydrates: The Run Down
Just to clarify what you’re aiming for in choosing healthy carbohydrate sources to manage your diabetes.
1. Vegetables are your number one main priority and inclusion – mainly non-starchy vegetables. There is such a wide variety to choose from that you will never get bored. The aim is a minimum of 5 serves a day – equal to about 2.5 cups, but you should easily be able to eat more.
2. Berries can be eaten in moderation. Around1/4 to 1/2 cup per serve.
3. Small amounts of beans and legumes such as lentils, northern beans, or pinto beans. Around 1/4 cup per serve.
4. Avoid all grains if you can.
5. As a rule do not displace vegetables for any other type of food, you must get those veggies for their super nutritional power!
Stick to those simple rules and you will find yourself having less struggles with lowering and maintaining blood sugar!
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