Anyone who thinks you have to swear off carbs after a diabetes diagnosis couldn’t be more wrong. But you do have to be more careful with your carb choice—and portion. Here, nutritionists and diabetes educators share the kinds of carbs they wish their patients would eat more of (and cut back on).
“Fuel foods” are nutrient-dense and should be an important part of a healthy diet, says Ann Scheufler, MS, RDN, CDE, of Banner Health Endocrinology. Here are examples of types of carbs with multiple health benefits for people with diabetes:
Roller or steel-cut, oats contain a kind of fiber called beta-glucan, which can improve insulin action and lower blood sugar levels. "Beta-glucan also sweeps cholesterol from the GI tract, preventing it from reaching the bloodstream," says Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, author of 21 Things You Need to Know About Diabetes and Your Heart.
If you’re looking for a tasty swap for traditional grains, you’ve found it here. “Quinoa provides protein and carbohydrates and is one of the most nutrient-dense foods available to us,” says Rene Ficek, RD, CDE, lead nutrition expert at Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating. Quinoa contains iron, B vitamins, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, vitamin E, and fiber. It’s also one of the few foods plant-based foods considered a complete protein, which means that it has all the essential amino acids your body needs.
Quinoa is one of the few plant-based foods that's considered a complete protein.
“Quinoa is a great substitute for traditional grains, and its versatility in meals is uncompromised,” notes Ficek. It’s also good for your heart, as it provides healthy fats and that are associated with reducing inflammation. A one-half cup serving is filling and satisfying so you’re less likely to go overboard.
This gluten-free ancient grain is chock-full of protein. In fact, it rises above most other grains at about 13 grams of protein per half-cup serving. Amaranth has a porridge-like texture to it, which makes it a good hearty breakfast option. (Here are other high-protein breakfast options to consider.) Amaranth is packed with calcium and is also high in iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. It’s the only grain documented to contain vitamin C.
Another high-protein grain, “buckwheat has a chewy texture and fits well as a substitute for traditional grains,” says Ficek. Buckwheat is also high in soluble fiber, which means it can help lower cholesterol and slow down the rate of glucose absorption. (These are other diet changes to lower high cholesterol.)
Good news alert: Potatoes are healthier for you than you probably think. The key to making this carb a healthier choice: leave the skin on. “They are very high in vitamin C and provide are also a rich source of vitamin B, folate, and minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and iron,” says Ficek. “The added fiber content of the skin left on can help prevent a blood sugar spike.” Pair about four potatoes with a lean protein for a nutritious dinner.
Leave the skin on your potatoes to increase their health benefits.
These nutritious foods are considered a slowly digested resistant carb. The type of starch they contain converts slowly to glucose. “They are a low glycemic index food, which means that they do not produce a rapid spike in blood glucose,” says Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, of Maya Feller Nutrition. These hearty legumes are good sources of protein, fiber vitamins, and minerals. They’re also a filling and satisfying meat substitute. Instead of using ground beef in tacos or chili, use lentils or beans.
It’s a myth that you shouldn’t eat fruit on a diabetic diet. (In fact, here are healthy fruits for diabetes that nutritionists want you to eat.) On the contrary, fresh fruit contains fiber that helps to stabilize blood sugar and keep you full. But different fruits can have different effects on your blood sugar. Honeydew is a good choice for a lower-carb, nutrient-rich fruit that still feels a little indulgent. “Honeydew melon also contains vitamin C, which is beneficial for the immune system, and other nutrients called phytonutrients that may be helpful in promoting eye health,” says nutritionist Kelly O’Connor, RD, CDE, a certified diabetes educator at the Diabetes and Nutrition Center at Northwest Hospital in Randallstown, Maryland
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"Soul foods" are those foods that fuel the spirit; they’re for enjoyment—and are not that nutritious, says Scheufler. It’s fine to eat them on occasion and in small portions, but they shouldn’t be a steady part of your diet.
It’s usually easy to identify the sugar-laden cereals—look for the tiger or the leprechaun on the box, right? But sometimes “healthy” words like bran and raisins are misleading. For instance, O'Connor has seen many patients switch from a perceived “sweet cereal” to a cereal with bran flakes and raisins. “Due to the carbohydrate content of both the bran flakes and raisins, this is a high-carbohydrate breakfast choice that should be consumed only in small quantities,” says O’Connor. That’s hard to do when just one cup is a serving size with around 45 grams of carbs.
“There are many foods that provide some sort of nutrition to the body, but soda does not fall into that category and should be avoided completely,” urges Ficek. “Soda immediately spikes blood sugar, and it also contributes to belly fat, which is the worst type of fat for those with diabetes.” Many nutritionists advise cutting back on diet soda too, as the artificial sweeteners can trick your taste buds and affect your cravings for sweet foods.
“The fried and refined noodle is low in fiber and stripped of vitamins and minerals,” says Feller. Not only can this cause a spike in blood sugar, but the high-sodium flavor packet can also increase blood pressure.
“White” foods like bread, bagels, and rice are simple carbohydrates that spike your blood sugar quickly. To enjoy these carbs on a diabetic diet, pair them up with other nutrients. “Limit them to one cup cooked and pair them with a lean protein source and non-starchy vegetables,” says O’Connor. Some non-starchy veggie options include zucchini, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and Brussels sprouts.
Pair up pasta with lean protein and veggies to minimize the blood sugar spike.
Sorry, but most desserts like these are high in calories and low in nutrients. “Depending on their fat content, they don’t necessarily spike blood sugar as high as other foods can, but these treats generally don’t contribute to heart health,” notes Scheufler. You don’t have to ban all dessert, but don’t go for a huge slice either. (Here are tips for eating dessert with diabetes.) Share a piece and slowly savor each bite. You just may be pleasantly surprised at how a smaller portion can satisfy your sweet tooth.
Remember, when you have diabetes, it’s not just carbs you have to care about. Diabetes also raises your risk of cardiovascular complications, so a heart-healthy diet that’s low in saturated fat and sodium is ideal. “A serving of biscuits and gravy may contain anywhere from 40 to 75 grams of carbs, 27 to 58 grams fat, and also a high amount of sodium, especially if it’s commercially made,” says O’Connor.
“If a frozen meal is largely pasta- or rice-based, it is likely to contain a large amount of carbs, a large amount of sodium, and possibly a small amount of protein,” says O’Connor. A one cup serving in a typical frozen macaroni and cheese dinner has a whopping 68 grams of carbs and 15 grams of fat.
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Reviewed by: Preeti Parikh, MD, . Review date: April 11, 2018