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Carbohydrates and Diabetes

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Carbs and Blood Sugar

Keeping your blood sugar levels on track means watching what you eat, plus taking medicines like insulin if you need to. Your doctor may also have mentioned that you should keep track of how many carbohydrates (carbs) you eat. But what exactly are carbohydrates and how do they affect your blood sugar?

The foods we eat contain nutrients that provide energy and other things the body needs, and one of these is carbohydrates (pronounced: kar-bo-hi-drates). The two main forms of carbohydrates are:

  1. sugars such as fructose, glucose, and lactose
  2. starches, which are found in foods such as starchy vegetables (like potatoes or corn), grains, rice, breads, and cereals

The body breaks down or converts most carbohydrates into the sugar glucose (pronounced: gloo-kose). Glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream, and with the help of a hormone called insulin (pronounced: in-suh-lin) it travels into the cells of the body where it can be used for energy.

But people with diabetes have problems with insulin that can cause blood sugar levels to rise. For people with type 1 diabetes, the pancreas does not make enough insulin, and for people with type 2 diabetes, the body can't respond normally to the insulin that is made.

Carbs Can Be Part of a Healthy Diet

Because the body turns carbohydrates into glucose, eating carbohydrates makes blood sugar levels rise. But that doesn't mean you should avoid carbohydrates if you have diabetes. Carbohydrates are a healthy and important part of a nutritious diet.

Some carbohydrates have more health benefits than others, though. For example, whole-grain foods and fruits are healthier choices than candy and soda because they provide fiber, vitamins, and other nutrients.

Fiber is important because it helps you feel full and keeps your digestive system working properly. In fact, eating lots of fiber can even help to slow the body's absorption of sugar when eaten together with sugar in the same food. Everyone needs fiber, and most people don't get enough. Some experts think that people with diabetes should eat more fiber than people without diabetes to help control blood sugar.

Sugary foods, like soda and candy, don't usually have fiber and typically contain "empty calories." That means they have calories but little nutritional value, and eating too many of them might leave little room for healthy foods. Eating too many empty-calorie foods can also make a person more likely to be overweight or obese. These foods can also cause tooth decay.

Balancing Your Carbs

After you eat food that has carbohydrates in it, your blood sugar goes up. As far as controlling your diabetes is concerned, your goal is to balance the insulin in your body and the exercise you do with the carbs you eat. Balancing insulin, physical activity, and carb intake keeps your blood sugar levels in a healthy range.

Following a meal plan helps you keep track of your carb intake. You and your diabetes health care team will come up with a meal plan that includes general guidelines for your carbohydrate intake. Your meal plan will take into account your age, size, weight goal, exercise level, medications, and other medical issues. The meal plan will also include the foods you like to eat — so let your health care team know what these are.

If you're not sure how many carbohydrates a food contains, check the label or ask your doctor or nutritionist. Also, check the labels of diet foods before you chow down because these products may be low in fat, but could contain extra sugar. By performing a balancing act with carbohydrates, exercise, and insulin, you can keep your blood sugar in line and still enjoy good eats.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: August 2010

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses and treatment, consult your doctor.

© 1995–2014 The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth. All rights reserved.

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