Diabetes: Understanding Carbohydrates

What is carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates provide fuel for the body in the form of glucose. Glucose is a sugar that is the primary means of energy for all of the body’s cells. There are two ways to classify carbohydrates simple and complex.

Simple carbohydrates are sugars — like glucose, sucrose, lactose and fructose. They are found in refined sugar and in fruits. Complex carbohydrates are the starches, which are the simple sugars bonded together chemically — they are found in beans, nuts, vegetables and whole grains. Complex carbohydrates are considered healthier mostly because they are digested by the body slowly, providing a steady source of energy. They also contain valuable amounts of fiber.

Carbohydrates, rather than fats or proteins, have the most immediate effect on your blood glucose since carbohydrates are broken down directly into sugar early during digestion. It is important to eat the suggested amount of carbohydrate at each meal, along with some protein and fat.

Carbohydrates are mainly found in fruit, milk and yogurt, bread, cereal, rice, pasta, starchy vegetables

Carbohydrate Counting

Carbohydrate counting is a method of meal planning that is a simple way to keep track of the amount of total carbohydrate you eat each day. Counting grams of carbohydrate and evenly distributing them at meals will help you control your blood glucose.

With carbohydrate counting, you plan your carbohydrate intake based on what your pre-meal sugar is and your intake or insulin dose can be adjusted. Carbohydrate counting can be used by anyone and not just by people with diabetes that are taking insulin. If you eat more carbohydrates than your insulin supply can handle, your blood glucose level goes up. If you eat too little, your blood glucose level may fall too low. These fluctuations can be managed by knowing how to count your carbohydrate intake.

Carbohydrate counting is most useful for people who take multiple daily injections of insulin, use the insulin pump or who want more flexibility and variety in their food choices. However, it may not be for everyone, and the traditional method of following food exchange lists may be used instead. A registered dietitian can help you figure out a carbohydrate counting plan that meets your specific needs.