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Managing a Carb-Controlled Diet

Managing a Carb-Controlled Diet


Living with a carb-controlled diet can be challenging and, frankly, intimidating. Counting carbs and knowing what constitutes a healthy carbohydrate compared to those you should consume in moderation can be a tricky balance to find. That’s why we’ve gone to a nutrition expert to uncover the essentials when it comes to carbs and diabetes.

You can’t escape them—they’re in your bread, milk, cereal, grapefruit, corn and cookies. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however. After all, we all need carbs! “There’s so much hype about carbohydrates [carbs] that people get the impression they’re bad,” says Amy P. Campbell, RD, CDE, education program manager at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. Carbs are important as they provide energy to our bodies. Living a carb-controlled diet doesn’t have to be intimidating, however. In fact, here’s what you need to know to make smart-and-easy carb choices.

Carbs Are Best in Balance

In people with type 2 diabetes, insulin—the hormone that converts sugar into fuel—isn’t working properly. If you suddenly overload your system with carbs, your body can’t convert them all into energy you can use. Instead, sugar gets dumped into your blood—and stays there. And with carbs, this process happens quickly. The result: high blood sugar levels. But you can’t just avoid carbs and the energy they provide. A better strategy involves balancing your carb intake throughout the day. Many people with diabetes enjoy three or four carb servings (or 45–60g carb) at each meal and snacks. Work with your healthcare provider to find the numbers that are best for you.

It's NOT About the Sugar

Maybe you’ve heard diabetes referred to as “a touch of the sugar.” Yet, sugar isn’t the enemy. Sugar is just one type of carb. Total carb count—not the type—will have the most impact on your blood sugar levels. It’s okay to eat a small dish of ice cream on occasion—just count it as part of your total carb allowance.

Carbs Are Just One Part of the Picture

Sugar isn’t off-limits in a carb-controlled diet. Neither are French fries! But even if these indulgences fit into your carb allowance, they shouldn’t make regular appearances. After all, they take up space that should be reserved for foods that are more nutritious. While weighing the carbs in a food, don’t forget to factor in whether it’s providing any nutritional benefits. So if you’re longing for pizza, look for a choice with a fiber-rich crust. Other good choices: whole-grain breads, pastas and crackers, brown rice; high-fiber cereals; fruits and vegetables; and fat-free or low-fat milk and yogurt.

Learning the Lingo Can Help

Carbs are referenced in several different ways: carb choices, carb servings, etc. Instead, carbs can be measured in grams. Below we explain further.

15 grams of carbohydrates = 1 carb choice

Thus, if you eat something that has around 30 grams of carb, you’ve eaten 2 carb choices. Keep this in mind when you are trying to keep track of your carb choice intake. If carb counting seems complicated, rest assured that some tools can help make carb choices more clear. For example:

  • Take advantage of nutrition panels on packaged products. Zero in on total carbohydrate—and keep the listed serving size in mind, too.
  • For foods without labels, such as fruits and vegetables, use a carb counting guide. The Complete Guide to Carb Counting, 2nd Edition, is published by the American Diabetes Association on You can also call 1-800-DIABETES (1-800-342-2383).
  • Restaurants may supply nutritional information on their websites or upon request.

Portion Distortion is Common

Even if you’ve been living diabetes for years, check your portion know-how occasionally. Remember that carb choices are based on specific serving sizes. Make a habit of measuring your cereal or pouring yourself a four-ounce glass of juice. “Most people eat much more than they realize,” says Campbell. Calories from all foods will affect blood sugar to some degree.

Sometimes Your Body is the Best Judge

No matter what your eating plan, test your blood sugar about two to three hours after a meal. “Generally, blood sugar should be below about 160 at that point,” says Campbell. “If it’s higher than that, it’s likely because you ate too much and/or didn’t have enough medication on board.” Watch for signs of high blood sugar: thirst, headache, frequent urination and fatigue. If you experience any of them, check your blood sugar reading with your meter.

We hope this article on carbs and diabetes has informed you on some of the essentials for finding balance as you continue to encounter carbs in your diet. For more nutritional tips, be sure to read articles such as our article that tackles nutrition labels or learning more about plate servings.

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