Carbohydrates — Part of a Healthful Diabetes Diet

Reviewed by Sharon Denny, MS, RDN
Carbohydrates — Part of a Healthful Diabetes Diet

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March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.

A common nutrition myth is that individuals with diabetes need to avoid carbohydrates. While individuals with diabetes must be mindful of how much carbohydrates they eat, they don't need to avoid it altogether. Carbohydrates are the body's main source of fuel and are necessary to maintain proper cellular function. The type of carbohydrates and portion size are what matter most.

There are three types of carbohydrates: starches, sugars and fiber. Starches are found naturally in foods such as bread, cereal, rice, crackers, pasta, potatoes, peas, corn and beans. Sugars are found naturally in foods including fruits and milk and are also concentrated in processed foods such as candy, cake and soda. Fiber is the roughage in plant foods and helps keep the digestive tract healthy. Soluble fiber, found in foods including oatmeal and fruit, can help maintain a healthy cholesterol level.

Individuals with diabetes should choose most of their carbohydrates from nutrient-rich whole foods such as fruits and vegetables, beans, whole grains and dairy products. Sweets and sugary beverages should be saved for special occasions. And, spreading carbohydrates evenly throughout the day helps prevents spikes and dips in blood sugar. A registered dietitian nutritionist can create a specific meal plan that harmonizes individual preferences with the special needs of someone with diabetes.

To get a general idea of how much carbohydrates to eat, consider someone on a 2,000-calorie meal plan. For 2,000 calories, an RDN may recommend that one meal contain about 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrates. Carbohydrate intake at meals depends upon how many meals and snacks a person plans to eat throughout the day. A serving of carbohydrates is 15 grams. Here are examples of one-serving portions of some carbohydrate-containing foods to include in meals and snacks.

  • 1 small piece of fresh fruit (4 ounces)
  • ½ cup of canned or frozen fruit
  • 1 slice of bread (1 ounce) or 1 (6-inch) tortilla
  • ½ cup of oatmeal (cooked)
  • ⅓ cup of pasta or rice (cooked)
  • 4 to 6 crackers
  • ½ English muffin or hamburger bun
  • ½ cup of black beans or starchy vegetable
  • ¼ of a large baked potato (3 ounces)
  • ⅔ cup of plain fat-free yogurt or sweetened with an artificial sweetener
  • 2 small cookies
  • 2-inch square brownie or cake without frosting
  • ½ cup ice cream
  • ¼ cup of sherbet
  • 1 tablespoon syrup, jam, jelly, sugar or honey
  • 2 tablespoons light syrup

Carbohydrates are an important part of a healthful diet for people with and without diabetes. Remember: The best sources of carbohydrates are whole foods such as fruits and vegetables, beans, whole grains and dairy products. Talk with a registered dietitian nutritionist to create an individualized meal plan.

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