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Sharp Health News

Carbs and diabetes: what you should know

April 19, 2018

Carbs and diabetes: what you should know

For people with diabetes, maintaining blood sugar levels is essential to managing the disease. Eating healthy snacks during the day can help keep blood sugar levels even, which can increase energy levels and prevent hunger and overeating.

In the long term, stable blood sugar levels can help to avoid chronic complications associated with unmonitored diabetes, such as nerve damage, kidney disease and cardiovascular disease. An important part of monitoring blood sugar is keeping track of carbohydrate intake.

What are carbohydrates?
Dr. Gary Levinson, a board-certified internal medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group explains, “Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy. While important nutrients such as protein and fat can alter blood sugar, carbohydrates have the biggest effect. The amount of carbs necessary for a healthy diet varies from person to person. People with diabetes should be sure to take them into consideration when planning meals, and talk with their doctor or a diabetes educator who can help decide how much is appropriate.”

Are carbohydrates the same as sugar?
In the most basic terms, yes, carbohydrates are broken down into sugar during digestion. Carbohydrates are divided into two categories depending on their molecular structure: complex or simple. Complex carbohydrates are processed more slowly by the body, allowing for a gradual increase in blood glucose levels. Nuts, vegetables, whole-grain pasta, whole-grain bread and whole-grain cereal all contain these “healthy” carbs.

Simple carbohydrates, which include table sugar, are found in fruits, dairy and sweet treats such as candy, cookies and soda. “Avoid foods that contain processed sugar, which provide a quick boost of energy, but typically provide little in the way of important nutrients,” Dr. Levinson says. A diet containing excess processed sugar leads to weight gain and diabetes-related complications.

What do carbohydrates have to do with diabetes?
After eating food that contains carbs, blood sugar rises. The body responds by producing a hormone from the pancreas called insulin. Insulin removes sugar from the bloodstream and stores it in tissue. The stored sugar can then be used to power muscles and organs. People with Type 1 diabetes are unable to produce insulin and people with Type 2 diabetes can’t produce the amount of insulin their body needs. It’s important for people with diabetes to know which foods contain carbohydrates and how much of it they are eating in order to avoid unhealthy blood sugar spikes and dips.

What kind of healthy carbohydrates should people with diabetes be eating?
Both simple and healthy (complex) carbohydrates provide energy in the form of calories. In general, half of your daily caloric intake should come from healthy carbohydrates.

To keep blood sugar stable throughout the day, choose a snack that pairs carbs with protein or fat. This slows down absorption in the body and provides you with essential nutrients that sweet treats lack.

Tracey Grant, a wellness program manager with Sharp Rees-Stealy's Center for Health Management, offers the following healthy snack suggestions:

  • 1/2 cup cottage cheese with 1 cup strawberries
  • 1 hardboiled egg with 1 cup fruit
  • 1 apple with 2 tablespoons peanut butter
  • 5 ounces Greek yogurt with 2 tablespoons nuts
  • 1 banana drizzled with 2 tablespoons nut butter and cinnamon
  • 1 cheese stick with 1 handful cherry tomatoes
  • 1/3 cup mashed avocado with 1 cup raw veggies

For the news media: To talk with Dr. Gary Levinson about diabetes for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at erica.carlson@sharp.com.

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