Here’s the Healthy Way to Eat Carbs if You Have Diabetes

Whatever you do, don’t cut them completely out of your diet.

It’s one of the most common diet concerns if you have diabetes, whether you’re newly diagnosed or have been managing the condition for years: How can I have my carbs and eat them too? The answer, according to nutritionists and diabetes educators, is you most certainly can, and should.

When you have diabetes, you want to keep your energy humming along at a consistent pace throughout the day, and that includes eating carbs. “If you eliminate carbs from your diet entirely or have very minimal amounts, your body may actually generate its own source of glucose, and that typically results in higher blood
sugars,” nutritionist Kelly O’Connor, RD, LDN, CDE, a certified diabetes educator at the Diabetes and Nutrition Center at Northwest Hospital, Randallstown, Maryland.

“Small to moderate amount of carbs, paired with lean protein and/or starchy vegetables at very regular intervals of every three to four hours during the day works best to keep both energy levels and glucose levels consistent during the day,” says O’Connor.

That said, “it is true that your body now does not process carbohydrates the same efficient way it did prior to being diagnosed with diabetes,” O’Connor acknowledges. “However, with a little effort and care, you can help your body to be as efficient as possible in metabolizing the carbs and keeping levels of blood glucose stable during the day.”

Here are some tips about healthy ways to make carbs part of a diabetes-friendly diet.

1. Think "soul food" vs. "fuel food"

It may help to think of carbs in terms of whether they’re “soul food” or “fuel food.” The reassuring news: You need both in your life, says Ann Scheufler, MS, RDN, CDE, of Banner Health Endocrinology. Scheufler describes “soul foods” as foods that fuel the spirit; they’re for enjoyment. (Think pasta, chocolate cake, bagels.) They’re not as nutritious, and that’s OK (because you eat way fewer of them). On the other hand, “fuel foods,” such as whole grains and beans, are nutrient-dense and should be an important part of a healthy diabetes diet.

2. Check blood sugar to see how carbs affect *you*

According to the American Diabetes Association, general guidelines advise to aim for 45-60 grams of carbohydrates per meal and 15-20 grams of carbohydrates per snack. Those guidelines aren’t set in stone; they’ll vary depending on various factors like your weight, goals, activity level, and the diabetes medications you take.

General guidelines advise aiming for 45-60 grams of carbs per meal and 15-20 grams per snack.

It’s always a good idea to opt for smaller portions of carbs because if you eat too many carbs at once, it may cause a spike in your blood sugar levels, which could result in not-so-great side effects such as headaches, fatigue, blurry vision, increased thirst, and frequent urination. “Checking your blood sugar one to two hours after you eat, and determining if your blood sugar has increased significantly, is one of the best ways to know which carb foods, and in what quantity, needs to be modified, or works for you,” says O’Connor.

3. Watch for hidden carbs

Fruit smoothies and or juicing fruit may seem like a tasty way to sip vitamins and minerals, right? Tasty, yes, but they can also sneakily raise your blood sugar levels. “If the smoothie or juice contains several fruits, it has the same effect in your body as if you consumed three or four pieces of fresh fruit in one serving,” says O’Connor. (Try these tips to avoid turning your smoothie into a sugar bomb.)

Foods labeled “sugar-free” and “fat-free” can have more carbs than you'd think too, as they may contain ingredients such as flour, oatmeal, raisins, chocolate chips, etc. Even breakfast cereals with “wheat” or “bran” in the name seem healthy, but if you look at the label, you may be surprised at how many carbs are in these seemingly nutritious options.

4. Make swaps to carve out room for carbs

We all need to treat ourselves—and just because you have diabetes doesn’t mean you have to swear off the office birthday cake. Strategic meal planning can help you make room for dessert. (Here are more tips for enjoying dessert with diabetes.) For example, if for dinner you would normally have salad, baked chicken breast, and a side of sweet potato—but know you’d like to save room for dessert—O’Connor recommends you swap the sweet potato for a lower-carb option like broccoli so you can enjoy a small slice of cake. “It would be a good idea to check your blood sugar one to two hours after eating the meal with the exchange made to see what effect it had, if any on your blood sugars. Then, you can feel confident about making those exchanges from time to time,” says O’Connor.

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