Medically reviewed by Shahzadi Devje, Registered Dietitian (RD) & Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE)
Dietitian's breakdown of different types of carbohydrates for type 2 diabetes management. Continue reading to learn which carbs are the best for blood sugar control. Plus, we explore the glycemic index, provide a list of the best carbs for glycemic control, tips on how to curb sugar cravings, and more!
Before we dive into what are good carbs for a diabetic to eat, I’d like to reiterate that, as a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, I try my very best not to categorize people by specific conditions.
My personal view is that anybody who suffers from a medical condition, and especially those which are life-altering, should not be labelled on the basis of their illnesses.
Nonetheless, the reality is that I am frequently asked, "What are good carbs for a diabetic to eat?" and feel compelled to use the term "diabetic" to answer your question.
Understanding carbohydrates benefits for diabetes management
We’ve heard it time and again. Carbohydrates, it appears, are the devil of the human diet. From carb-free to low-carb, to whole and empty carbs, our daily conversations about carbohydrates can be exhausting.
The thing is, carbohydrates come in a variety of different forms, and do not all have the same nutritional value — as we will see.
Our bodies rely on carbohydrates for energy. When you eat carbs, they are broken down into glucose (sugar). This, together with the insulin produced by the pancreas, influences blood sugar levels.
Besides glucose, carbs are also a source of dietary fibre, which is not broken down into sugar and has the function of making you feel fuller for longer.
In fact, certain types of carbohydrates provide the body with nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals. They also support gut health by encouraging the growth of healthy bacteria (probiotics).
If you don't eat enough fibre in your diet, it can lead to a lower amount of good bacteria in your gut.
The role of carbohydrates in the prevention of type 2 diabetes complications, glycemic control, and heart disease protection has been studied extensively.
Nutritious carbohydrates have repeatedly come out on top.
Glycemic control is the maintenance of your blood sugar levels to avoid highs and lows. Blood sugar level control is influenced by the types of carbohydrates you eat. A balanced diet, in conjunction with regular exercise and other lifestyle factors, can aid in good glycemic control.
According to a meta-analysis published in the Lancet, those who consumed the most fibre had a 15-30 percent decreased risk of all-cause and cardiovascular death. Additionally, a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and colorectal cancer was noted.
Clinical trials have shown that a higher than average dietary fibre intake reduces cholesterol, body weight, and systolic blood pressure.
Three types of carbohydrates for glycemic control
Our food typically contains three types of carbohydrates:
Starches are also known as complex carbohydrates and include starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn and peas), dried beans (black-eyed peas, fava beans, kidney beans) and grains (wheat, rice, maize, oatmeal).
Many types of starches provide the body with a slow release of energy. Because they take time to break down in the body, these starches help regulate blood glucose levels and help to maintain a steady and sustained energy level. They are also important sources of vitamins and minerals.
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate, and there are two types of sugars: simple sugars (also known as added sugars) and naturally occurring sugars.
Naturally occurring sugars are found in foods such as grains, vegetables, and fruits.
Any amount of sugar that is added to a food during processing or preparation, is known as added sugar. You'll typically see it found in bread, condiments, dairy products, and highly processed foods (cookies, soft drinks and pastries).
Dietary fibre is another type of complex carbohydrate. It, however, isn't digested by the body. As a result, it has no effect on blood sugar levels. Dietary fibre passes through the digestive system and helps to stimulate and support digestion.
It's found in plant-based foods, and there are two types:
Soluble fibre dissolves in water and can help to lower blood sugar levels and cholesterol levels. Sources of soluble fibre include oats, barley, beans, some fruits and vegetables, lentils, and peas.
Insoluble fibre does not dissolve in water, adds bulk and can help to regulate bowel movements. Sources of insoluble fibre include wheat bran, vegetables and whole grains.
Both types of fibre are important for good health. In fact, a diet rich in both soluble and insoluble fibre has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, improved insulin sensitivity, and inflammation control.
Insulin sensitivity is a measure of how well your body responds to insulin in order to absorb glucose (sugar) from the blood to be used for energy. It's important for those who have diabetes as it helps to maintain or improve blood sugar levels. A healthy diet and lifestyle can help to increase insulin sensitivity and lead to a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes and preventing diabetes complications.
Nutritious carbs for diabetes (to enjoy more often)
Whole-grain foods are an amazing replacement for refined grains which lack fibre.
Refined grains, such as white bread or roti and naan made with white atta (flour), white pasta, white rice can drive blood sugars to spike.
Besides being rich in phytochemicals (plant compounds with antioxidant properties), whole grains contain bucket loads of fibre and also have a low Glycaemic Index (GI) - all of which can help to regulate blood sugar levels.
What is the Glycemic Index? The glycemic index ranks carbohydrates based on how quickly they are converted into glucose in the body. Foods that break down into sugar the quickest have the highest glycemic index numbers. Whereas foods that break down slowly have lower glycemic index numbers.
The glycemic index has had a significant impact on public health and diabetes healthcare — especially in blood sugar control. However, what the glycemic index doesn't tell you is how much of the carbohydrates are included in your meal or snack.
To get an accurate picture of how food affects your blood sugar, it's best to consider a food's glycemic index number combined with its total carbohydrate content.
Some whole grain options include:
Other sources of nourishing carbs for diabetes include:
- Starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, peas)
- and dairy products such as unsweetened soy or almond milk.
Here's one food that I'm frequently asked about as a possible source of "healthy carbs."
Sweet potatoes are a nutritious starchy veggie.
It's brimming with Vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene) and has good amounts of potassium and dietary fibre. Sweet potatoes are delicious!
Sweet potato nutrition facts
One regular-sized sweet potato provides:
|Net carbs||22 g|
|Beta carotene (a form of vitamin A)||11062 µg|
Check out my recipe for a scrumptious platter of Crispy Baked Sweet Potato Wedges.
You also asked: What is the best diet for diabetics?
The diet that is best for diabetes is one you can keep up with, enjoy, and fits within your lifestyle and culture.
Some people have the misconception that desi foods are unhealthy. I respectfully disagree with this view.
The cuisines of South Asia have evolved over more than three millennia. It is a vivid display of culture and heritage, as well as fascinating history. The art of combining spices and perfecting them is what, in my opinion, defines Desi cooking.
Turmeric, cumin, cinnamon and cloves are just a few of the spices included in the Ayurvedic diet, and have medicinal and healing qualities according to Ayurvedic medicine.
Indian food, then, is more than just an item on a menu. South Asian culture promotes home cooking and embraces the use of fresh nutritious ingredients in dishes, rather than processed ones.
If you're South Asian and want to learn how to balance out of control blood sugars, check out D-School. It was born out of my lived experience with type 2 diabetes, love for Desi cooking, and expertise in diabetes.
What about the best western diets for glycemic control?
Science supports the Mediterranean or predominantly plant-based diet, in order to manage blood sugars successfully. Diabetes Canada also endorses it because of its nutritional value and health benefits.
Diets revolving around vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, fruits, and whole intact grains reduce the risk of diabetes overall. Similarly, fish (such as salmon, halibut) has shown to significantly lower AC1, whereas olive oil used as the principal source of dietary fat decreases triglycerides. Check out my vegan Mediterranean Style Crispy Tofu as a delectable, plant-powered dinner idea.
Achieving glycemic control
To reiterate, the glycemic index is a ranking of how quickly, moderately or slowly each carbohydrate-based food or beverage raises blood glucose levels. This information is incredibly useful for those with diabetes, as different carbohydrates are absorbed at contrasting rates.
Low-GI foods for a healthy, balanced diet
Carbohydrate-rich foods with a low glycemic index are those with a number 55 or less. The following are excellent low GI carbohydrate choices:
|Wholegrains||barley, bulgar, spelt, pulse flours, steel-cut oats and oat bran, quinoa|
|Vegetables||sweet potato, winter squashes and non-starchy vegetables (tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach, okra, turnips, summer squashes, zucchini)|
|Pulses||mung beans, lentils, kidney beans, soybeans, edamame, chickpeas|
|Fruits||apples, green plantains, blueberries, apricots, cherries, raspberries, strawberries, peaches, pears, prunes, plums|
The glycemic index is not the final word on carbohydrate foods. What you eat with your carbs is just as important, if not more so. With any low-GI food it's all about portion control and consuming them in combinations that keep blood sugar levels in check.
Carb calculator for diabetes
Calculating carbohydrates, or "carb counting," helps individuals with diabetes manage food intake and blood sugar levels. It is mostly adopted by those on insulin twice or multiple times a day.
Keeping tabs on carbs helps in planning meals, and enjoying moderate snacking. It usually involves calculating carb grams in foods and matching them to the individual dose of insulin.
With the right balance of physical activity and insulin, carb counting can greatly assist in managing steady blood sugar. You can use Carb Manager or My Fitness Pal to check the carbohydrate count in any food here and here. If you’re a dietitian or health care professional, please refer to this.
Sugar cravings and diabetes
Craving sugar is perfectly natural – most humans may be born with a sweet tooth. However, cravings might be driven by a neurological need for a treat, rather than the body’s need for sustenance.
Some simple, adaptable techniques to overcome sugar cravings include:
- Eating a nourishing and filling meal – preferably one which is rich in protein (fish, legumes, eggs, tofu). These are amazing for curbing hunger.
- Nice, brisk walks may also help in eliminating cravings. They are helpful distraction techniques, and the exercise releases endorphins in the brain. These “feel-good” chemicals can help in reducing food yearnings.
- And last but not the least, replacing sugary treats with naturally sweetened fruits (in moderation) may curb cravings. Small-sized fruits such as plums, strawberries or apricots are low GI and are a good source of vitamins.
Final thoughts: Strive for a balanced diet
Make wholesome fibre-rich carbohydrates with a low glycemic index the bulk of your carbohydrate intake. And remember, what you eat and when also matters. Plus, maintaining a consistent eating schedule, especially when it comes to meal frequency, is key.
The most important thing is to figure out what works for you, tailor your carb intake to your specific needs, and plan ahead. Most importantly, make good use of nutritious carbs to create balanced meals.
Here is an entire collection of diabetes-friendly recipes.
As with all my recipes, these recipes are easy, healthy and appeal to the whole family.
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Shahzadi is an award-winning registered dietitian (RD) regulated by the College of Dietitians of Ontario and certified diabetes educator (CDE), approved by the Canadian Diabetes Educator Certification Board. A YouTuber and notorious foodie, she's dedicated to helping you end your cooking wars, transform your health, and be the best version of yourself! Shahzadi is an on-air nutrition expert for CTV Your Morning and a regular contributor for Global News and other national media outlets.