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Diabetes: Eating Smart

Learning how to make healthy choices and balance carbohydrates, protein, and fat can help people with diabetes keep their blood sugars in a healthy range.

Understanding Carbohydrates

People with diabetes need to pay special attention to carbohydrates (carbs) because carbs raise blood sugar levels. After you eat, your body breaks down carbs into glucose (sugar). The glucose goes into the bloodstream making the blood sugar level rise. Insulin is a hormone that helps get glucose into cells so it can be used as energy.

But not all carbs are the same — some carb-containing foods are better than others. Whole-grain foods, fruits, and vegetables are great choices because they have fiber, vitamins, and other nutrients. Fiber slows the digestion and absorption of sugar and can help keep your blood sugar levels in the healthy range. Candy, soda, and highly processed foods cause blood sugar levels to rise quickly because they break down easily and don’t have fiber to slow things down.

A meal that contains a balance of carbs (including fiber), protein, and healthy fats can slow digestion, help you feel full, and provide a variety of important nutrients. For example, a breakfast of peanut butter on a whole wheat English muffin with strawberries contains carbs, fiber, protein, and healthy fats. This meal will break down slower than a less-balanced breakfast of waffles with pancake syrup and canned fruit cocktail in heavy syrup (mostly carbs). Meals that break down quickly may leave insulin still working after most nutrients are digested, possibly causing low blood sugar later.

Carb Counting: A Practical Skill to Use Every Day

Learning how to count carbs is a helpful skill to master, especially if you take insulin with each meal. When you know how many carbs are in the foods you eat, you can match their insulin doses much better.

Registered dietitians can help people with diabetes balance carbs, proteins, and fats. They can tell you how many grams of carbs you might need with meals and snacks depending on your age, size, activity level, and food preferences. When you work with a dietitian, you’ll learn practical skills, including how to:

  • count the number of carbs in the foods you eat
  • read food labels
  • calculate the carbs for homemade recipes
  • use online resources or an app (like Calorie King or MyFitness Pal) to find nutrition information
  • try new ideas for healthy meals and snacks

Tips for Healthy Eating

To keep meals and snacks on track:

  • Keep a food log. If you want a dietitian to review your diet, jot down what you eat and when, the number of carbs, andyour  blood sugar readings before you eat. The log will help the care team decide if they need to adjust your care plan.
  • Save helpful resources on your phone or computer. Portion-size charts and lists of common foods with their carb counts can come in handy at home or when you’re out. Simply bookmark your favorite website or save a picture in your photos.
  • Eat a variety of foods. Choose whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats whenever possible.
  • Think about buying a digital food scale. This handy tool can help you calculate carbs, especially in fruits and snacks. When carb counts are more precise, you can match the right insulin doses more easily.
  • Ask questions. Your dietitian is your coach and resource. If you have any questions along the way, reach out to them.

It may take a little time to get used to making changes. But starting today will help you now and in the future.

Reviewed by: Cheryl Patterson, RD, LDN, CDCES
Date Reviewed: Jan 1, 2022

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