Get to Know Carbs
Carbohydrates or “carbs” get a lot of attention these days and it’s no secret that carbs can affect your blood sugars (blood glucose). You might be wondering if you should eat less of them, or even eat them at all. You’re not alone!
Carbs come in many different forms, but the main three are starch, sugar and fiber. When purchasing packaged food, the term “total carbohydrate” refers to all three of these types. (Learn more about nutrition labels.) So how much is the right amount?
Let’s start with the basics. All food is made up of three main nutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fat. You need all three to stay healthy, but each person needs a different amount. When choosing carbs, the key is choosing complex carbs—the ones that give you the most bang for your buck in terms of vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Processed foods tend to be high in carbs, especially refined carbohydrates that are more likely to cause your blood sugar to spike, while also being very low in vitamins, minerals and fiber—giving carbs a bad rap. But choosing less processed carb foods and paying attention to how much you are eating can make a big difference in your blood sugar and overall health.
Now, let’s dig into the types of foods that have carbs—and how to choose nutrient-dense foods.
Try to target whole, minimally processed carbohydrate foods. If you’re using the Plate Method, foods in this category should make up about a quarter of your plate. Foods high in starch include:
- Starchy vegetables like corn, winter squash and potatoes
- Legumes and pulses including lentils, beans (like kidney beans, pinto beans and black beans) and peas (think split peas and black-eyed peas)
- Grains including foods made from wheat like noodles, bread and crackers, as well as oats, barley, rice and others
- Whole grains are just that, the whole plant that has been harvested and dried with little processing. They provide fiber as well as essential vitamins including B and E and other minerals needed for optimal health.
Wondering what the deal is with “refined grains”? Basically, these grains are processed to remove the outer layers and most nutritious parts of the grain, meaning that we’re missing out on all the beneficial fiber, vitamins and minerals that the whole grain would typically provide. To avoid diseases caused by vitamin and mineral deficiencies, there are laws in place to make sure that essential vitamins and minerals be added back in during processing—this is what “enriched” means when you see it on the label. Bottom line: when reading the ingredient list, look for products that list “whole grain” or “whole wheat” as the first ingredient as opposed to “enriched.”
Sugar is another source of carbs. There are two main types:
- Naturally occurring sugars like those in milk or fruit
- Added sugars, which are added during processing, like in regular soda, sweets and baked goods
You may have heard added sugars referred to by other names—or seen one of these listed in the ingredients in a food label. Dextrose, fructose, lactose, table sugar, beet sugar, honey, corn syrup, turbinado and agave are just some of the many names for added sugars.
Did you know that you can find the amount of both added and naturally occurring sugars listed in the new nutrition facts label?
Wondering about sugar substitutes? Get the sugar substitute facts here.
Fiber comes from plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables and whole intact grains. Fiber acts like your body’s natural scrub brush—it passes through your digestive tract, carrying a lot of bad stuff out with it. It also keeps us feeling full, and helps lower cholesterol. Those aren’t the only benefits: eating foods higher in fiber can also improve your digestion, help you manage your blood sugar and reduce your risk of heart disease.
People with diabetes and those at risk for diabetes are encouraged to eat at least the same amount of dietary fiber recommended for all Americans. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a minimum of 14 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories, with at least half of your grains being whole-intact grains. You can find specific recommendations for your age group and gender in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
Keep in mind that if you haven’t been eating a lot of foods high in fiber on a daily basis, it’s important to increase your intake slowly. Even though they are good for you, it can take time for your body to adjust. A sudden increase in eating foods high in fiber (especially foods with added fiber or when using supplements) can cause gas, bloating or constipation. Be sure you are drinking enough water too, because fiber needs water to move through your body!
Good sources of dietary fiber include:
- Pulses (like lentils and peas) and beans and legumes (think navy beans, small white beans, split peas, chickpeas, lentils, pinto beans)
- Fruits and vegetables, especially those with edible skin (like pears, apples and beans) and those with edible seeds (like berries)
- Nuts—try different kinds (pumpkin seeds, almonds, sunflower seeds, pistachios, peanuts are a good source of fiber and healthy fat, but watch portion sizes, because they also contain a lot of calories in a small amount!)
- Whole grains such as:
- Quinoa, barley, brown rice and farro
- Whole wheat pasta
- Whole grain cereals, including those made from whole wheat, wheat bran and oats
Foods that are naturally high in fiber and contain at least 2.5 grams are often labeled as a “good source,” and foods labeled as “excellent source” contain more than five grams of fiber per serving.
While it’s best to get your fiber from food, talk to your diabetes care team to determine if you should consider a fiber supplement.