You hear the terms “good carbs” and “bad carbs.” You get plenty of advice, solicited or unsolicited, about what you, as a person with prediabetes or diabetes, should include or exclude from your “diabetic diet plan.” But, if you’re thoroughly confused, I’m not surprised. It’s confusing!
Let’s flesh out the facts and set you on a path to healthier eating that best guides you to manage your prediabetes or diabetes.
Are Foods Really “Good Carbs” “Healthy Carbs” or “Bad Carbs”?
No, not really!
What are carbs? Carbohydrate is actually a nutrient. Specifically it’s one of the three major calorie-containing nutrients in foods. Protein and fat are the others. It’s best to think of foods as packages of nutrients that contain varying amounts of carbohydrate, protein and fat. A couple of examples will help. Fruits and vegetables contain mainly carbohydrate with a bit of protein and nearly no fat (unless it’s added during manufacturing or by you in preparation.) Grains, whether healthier whole grains or refined grains, contain mainly carbohydrate and a small amount of protein. Fish or skinless chicken breast contains mainly protein and a very small amount of fat.
Foods that contain carbohydrate fall into two groups. You can call the healthier sources of carbohydrate “good carbs” or healthy carbs. These are: Fruits, vegetables (non-starchy and starchy), whole grains, legumes (beans and peas) and low or fat-free dairy foods.
The other category, which some people refer to as “bad carbs,” are more accurately referred to as “less healthy sources of carbohydrate.” These are: Refined grains (examples: most pizza crust; most bagels, muffins and pastries), sugary foods (examples: sugar-sweetened beverages, jelly beans) and sweets (examples: cookies, chocolates, cakes, ice creams which typically contain fat, too).
But Don’t Foods with Carbohydrate (Healthy or Less Healthy) Raise Glucose Levels?
Yes, but, that’s not the whole story!
Here’s the skinny: Once the carbohydrate, regardless of the food it is in, is broken down to glucose in your blood, your cells don’t know whether that glucose came from jelly beans or fruit. To your body, it’s glucose, aka “fuel.” Over time, however, your body (and your health) will know because healthier sources of carbohydrate (see the list above) offer other nutrients such as, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, whereas “less healthy carbs,” serve up calories with very little (if any) nutrition value.
The understandable conundrum: Once you learn about how, as a person with prediabetes or diabetes, any foods or beverages containing carbohydrate can affect your glucose levels, it may seem very logical to strictly limit the amount of carbohydrate you eat. However, and this is very important, your glucose levels do not solely depend on or can be controlled by the amount of carbohydrate you eat. To control glucose levels you must have a sufficient supply of available insulin (whether made by your pancreas or taken as the medication insulin) at the ready to help control your glucose levels after you eat.
How Much, What Type of Carbohydrate to Eat
Let’s frame this in. There’s a notion that Americans eat a “high carbohydrate diet,” but that’s not accurate. Survey data from the U.S. government’s most recent What We Eat in America, shows American adults, 20 years of age and older, eat about half their calories from carbohydrate. To get the fibers, vitamins, and minerals you need for good health, it’s important to eat a sufficient amount of carbohydrate from healthy sources – in the range of 45 to 65 percent of calories. Eating less than the recommended amount of healthier carbohydrates per day, especially if you don’t have many calories to spare, makes it difficult to eat enough of the nutrients your body needs.
According to the American Diabetes Association there is not an ideal amount of carbohydrate for a person with diabetes. In fact there is no longer a so-called “diabetic diet plan.” Some people may find it’s easier to follow a lower carbohydrate eating plan because this way of eating meshes with their preferred eating style and favored food choices. Yet, others may favor being a vegetarian, vegan or following a mainly plant-based eating plan. People need to find a way of eating that they can follow day in, day out for years to come. People typically have to manage diabetes for many years.
Do keep in mind, particularly as time goes on, that type 2 diabetes is a progressive disease. This means that over the years people typically need to work with their healthcare provider to start on, increase their dose of, or add other blood glucose–lowering medication. However, following a healthy eating plan is always an important component of any prediabetes or diabetes management plan.
Tips to Eat More “Healthy Carbs” and Fewer “Less Healthy Carbs”
- Choose beverages with no added sugars. Skip regularly sweetened soda, energy or sports drinks, fruit punch and the like. Opt for no calorie choices like water, tea or coffee (with no sugar, milk or cream added), diet soda; or calorie-containing fat-free milk or 100 percent fruit juice.
- Limit grain-based and dairy-based desserts and sweet snacks.
- To sweeten beverages or foods opt for SPLENDA® Sweetener Products for sweetness without the calories from added sugar. Learn more about these products at Splenda.com and find diabetes-friendly recipes.
- Choose whole grain cereals, breads, pasta, and rice instead of refined grains.
- Include two to three servings of fat-free or low-fat dairy foods each day.
- Include legumes (beans and peas) more often.
- Eat a sufficient amount of vegetables and fruit based on your diabetes eating plan.
I have been compensated for my time by Heartland Food Products Group, the maker of SPLENDA® Sweetener Products. All statements and opinions are my own. I have pledged to Blog with Integrity, asserting that the trust of my readers and the blogging community is vitally important to me.
Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDE, BC-ADM, is a nationally recognized dietitian and diabetes educator who applies more than 35 years of expertise as an author, freelance writer, media spokesperson, consultant and diabetes educator. Hope notes: “Healthy eating today is one tough job! The good news is that simple tweaks in your food choices and how you prepare foods can often set you on a path to healthier eating. Each positive step is a step in the right direction along the path to a long and healthy life.”
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center, Food Surveys Research Group (Beltsville, MD) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics (Hyattsville, MD). What We Eat in America, NHANES 2011-2012.
- Institute of Medicine; Food and Nutrition Board; Planning Committee on Dietary Reference Intakes Research Synthesis; Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids http://www.nationalacademies.org/hmd/Reports/2002/Dietary-Reference-Intakes-for-Energy-Carbohydrate-Fiber-Fat-Fatty-Acids-Cholesterol-Protein-and-Amino-Acids.aspx. (Accessed November 7, 2016)
- Evert A, Boucher J, et al. Nutrition therapy recommendations for the management of adults with diabetes. Diabetes Care: 2013;36(11):3821-3842.
- Warshaw, H: Diabetes Meal Planning Made Easy, 5th ed. American Diabetes Association, 2016. (book) http://www.shopdiabetes.org/1987-Diabetes-Meal-Planning-Made-Easy-5th-Edition.aspx. (Accessed November 7, 2016)
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines. (Accessed November 7, 2016)