The Integral Carb
The main characteristic of diabetes is high blood glucose/sugar. A large part of high blood sugar is due to the carbohydrate or carb. Carbohydrates are converted into glucose and appear in the bloodstream between 10 minutes and 2 hours after eating.
If food and drink cause a spike in blood sugar, then diet is the one of the most important aspects for managing blood sugar. This is especially true for those with non-insulin-dependent diabetes, where diet is often the main aspect of diabetes management.
Meanwhile, those with insulin-dependent diabetes can counteract the carbs with insulin – but diabetes is still easier to manage by eating or drinking the right amount and the right kinds of carbs that don’t send you on a blood sugar roller coaster ride.
So, why do people with diabetes need to eat or drink carbs in the first place? Because carbs give the body energy, along with important nutrients. So what is the right amount?
Well, a common general guideline is that between 45 and 65 percent of daily calories should be carbohydrates. This is what, for instance, the US government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends.
But really, the optimal amount of carbs varies for each individual. There are countless diets and studies that suggest lower numbers. Which diet you should use can be determined by simply trying things out. Consult with your doctor and take some time to figure out what works best for you.
Which Carbs can I eat?
Even if you know that you need a certain amount of carbs, it might not always be clear what kinds of carbs to have. How do you know what to eat? Let’s have a look!
Generally, you shouldn’t need to feel like there is a foodstuff that you “can” and “can’t” have. It’s always about balance. In fact, there isn’t a particular “diabetic” way to eat: much of the dietary recommendations for those with diabetes is the same universal advice for healthy eating.
This means that the important thing to keep at the back of your mind is choosing healthier food or drink. What counts as a healthy foodstuff?
When talking about carbs, consider that there are three kinds of carbs: fibre, starch, and sugar. Fibre and starch are the ones you’ll want to usually be going for.
When considering diabetes and food, fibre is a particularly important kind of carb. Generally, a person should consume between about 23 and 33 grams of fibre a day. Fibre is the one carb that is not converted into glucose.
Instead, fibre aids with digestion and slows down the body’s conversion of carbohydrates into glucose. So, eating fibrous food will help to avoid blood sugar levels being all over the place!
Fibre and starch are a kind of so-called complex carbohydrate. Complex carbs are beneficial because they contain naturally-occurring nutrients and are digested slowly: they provide the body with energy more efficiently.
Examples of complex carbs are:
- Wholegrain bread
- Sweet potatoes
- Brown rice
Meanwhile, simple carbohydrates have often been stripped of fibre and contain few nutrients. Some more naturally-occurring simple carbs do contain vitamins, like in milk. So, you don’t always need to avoid simple carbs. Either way, it’s important to know that all kinds of simple carbs cause a quick blood sugar spike.
Examples of refined, nutrient-low simple carbs are:
- White bread
- White pasta
- Raw sugar and, therefore, anything containing raw sugar, such as the following:
Cooking your own food can be a great way to control the kinds of carbs you get – read How do you Count Carbs in Homemade food? to find out how this works together with diabetes.
You might also come across the glycemic index at some point, when food is described as having a “low GI”. The GI level represents what kind of impact carbs will have on blood sugar. The lower the GI, the more slowly a person’s blood sugar rises.
A low GI level is below 55. The American Diabetes Association suggests some of the following as low GI foods:
- Bulgar wheat
- Non-starchy vegetables
You’ll begin to notice a similarity between low GI foods and complex carbs. It should be noted, however, that this is not always the case. For example, carrots contain complex carbs but they have a pretty high GI level.
What else can I eat?
There’s more to food than just carbs. Food can be broken down into three main constituents, named macronutrients.
A carbohydrate is one of the macronutrients, which usually provides the body with the most energy. But the other two also provide energy, along with other elements.
You’ll have heard about calories, fats, and proteins. So what about them?
The vast majority of foodstuffs give you energy. A calorie is a way of measuring how much energy you are receiving from food or drink in general. The more calories food has, the more energy you are giving your body.
If you consume more calories than you burn, that extra energy gets stored as fat. If you consume too few calories, the body needs to burn fat stores for its source of energy. That’s why calories are key to weight loss or weight gain.
Generally, a woman needs 2000 calories a day to maintain the same weight, while a man needs 2500 calories to maintain the same weight. However, the numbers vary depending on the person. Use a calorie calculator to find numbers more specific to you.
The kilojoule is another measurement that is common on food packaging. Kilojoules (kJ) and calories (kcal) are essentially different ways to measure the same thing. 1 kJ = 0.2 kcal; 1 kcal = 4.2 kJ.
Proteins are one of the three main macronutrients. They are essential for repairing and maintaining the organs of the body. Nails and hair are largely made up of proteins, while muscle growth requires proteins.
A general guideline is that 10-35% of the diet should be proteins. Too many proteins can put a strain on the kidneys, which is important to consider because, as Diabetes.co.uk points out, up to 40% of people with diabetes are affected by kidney damage. As always, a balance is the best way forward.
Fats (or lipids) are often scorned when talking about diets. Too much of it (like anything) is unhealthy.
But fats are still important: fat protects the organs and keeps your warm, while helping you take in vitamins. Fat also provides the body with fatty acids which helps the body in numerous ways.
So, because we need fats, we should eat the kinds of fats that help us. We should try to avoid trans fats, which have no nutritional value. Additionally, too many saturated fats can create a build-up of cholesterol and reduce insulin sensitivity. This is something that’s mentioned in another blog post – What Foods to Avoid with Diabetes.
Instead, many of the naturally-occurring unsaturated fats have the nutrients we need. These can be found in food like oily fish, avocado, and certain nuts, like almonds.
Your Lifestyle with Diabetes and Food
Ok, so that’s a lot of information at once. You already have to count carbs for your food and diabetes management. Surely that’s enough?
Well, yes and no. Realistically, you can’t always have an ideal diet; you can’t always be counting the percentage of protein in your daily diet. But it’s all about balance – it’s worth knowing what you’re putting in your body.
Finding all the details of the food you’re eating can be exhausting. Don’t turn it into a chore – instead, you could easily find the nutritional details of foodstuffs in Hedia’s food database, with about 1700 food items.
Since it’s important for those with diabetes to track carbs anyway, you might find it useful to track diet in general with Hedia.
Being healthy is not just about eating healthy food: it comes down to what makes you feel like you’re living a good life. If you only eat or drink foodstuffs that are low in nutrition and put a strain on your body, then you won’t be happy.
At the same time, if you’re placing too many restrictions on yourself, you’re also not going to be happy. Sometimes, you just need that comfort food. But in balance. Read about how to set realistic goals for diabetes self-management here.
10 Tips for Diabetes and Food: Healthy Living
My advice, then, is not to focus too much on the smaller details of diet, but to aim to live a generally healthy life. Here are some of my tips for healthy living:
- Drink water
- Find time to relax (for more advice on this, look at Stress and Diabetes)
- Snack with healthy alternatives (think carrots)
- Eat less red meat
- Exercise and diabetes go well together: exercise in any way (cleaning counts!) most days
- If it’s someone’s birthday, do eat a slice of birthday cake
- Cook food more often (it’s fun and you can control how healthy it is)
- Eat those veggies
- Go wholegrain; it’s still pasta and bread, except it’s better for you
Diabetes and Food: a life in Balance
To sum up, I would say: think about your food but don’t overthink it. Knowing what you put in your body is one of the most important parts of controlling blood sugar levels.
But don’t let that take over all your thoughts! As our CEO, Peter, would say: life is for living. And it’s not for constantly worrying about numbers or nutrients. Balance is everything.