Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar

Carbohydrates are the main kind of food that raises blood sugar levels. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the amount of carbohydrates you eat. Simple carbohydrates, or sugar, will begin to raise blood sugar very soon after you eat them. Complex carbohydrates, or starchy foods, take longer for the body to change into sugar but will eventually be changed completely to sugar. Protein and fat have little effect on blood sugar levels.

Carbohydrate (Carb) counting and diabetes

Carb counting can help you manage your blood sugar. Some people on intensive insulin therapy or insulin pumps use carbohydrate counting to match the amount of fast-acting or meal-time insulin they take before eating to the amount of carbohydrates they choose to eat at a meal. Learn more about one type of fast-acting insulin.

Carb counting can help you:

  • Manage your blood sugar
  • Be flexible in your choice of foods and meal times
  • Eat more foods that you enjoy

To count carbs, you need to:

  • Know which foods contain carbohydrates
  • Find out how many carbohydrates are in those foods
  • Read food labels and use measuring tools, such as measuring cups, spoons, and a food scale
  • Work with your diabetes care team to decide how to divide your carbohydrates among your meals and snacks

What foods contain carbohydrates?

Many foods contain carbohydrates. The foods that contain the most carbohydrates are:

  • Starches—bread, cereal, crackers, grains, rice, pasta
  • Starchy vegetables—potatoes, corn, peas, beans
  • All fruits and fruit juices
  • Milk and yogurt
  • Sugary foods—candy, regular soda pop, jelly
  • Sweets—cakes, cookies, pies, ice cream

In fact, the only food groups that generally don’t contain carbohydrates are:

  • Meats and meat substitutes, such as eggs and cheese
  • Fats and oils

Because carbohydrates raise blood sugar more than other nutrients, you may wonder why you should eat them at all. You need to eat foods with carbohydrates because they provide your body with energy, along with many vitamins and minerals.

Sweets are okay to include in your meal plan once in a while. But keep in mind that sweets often contain a lot of carbohydrates, calories, and fat, with very little nutritional value.

How much do I need?

Work with your registered dietitian or another member of your diabetes care team to find the number of carbohydrates you need in your meal plan. That’s the number that you should aim for each day.

Your dietitian or diabetes educator can help you easily divide your carbohydrates among your meals and snacks. If you take diabetes pills or 1 to 2 injections of insulin a day, it’s important to try to eat the same amount of carbohydrates at the same meals and snacks each day. If you take 3 or more injections of insulin a day, you may have more flexibility with your meal plan because you adjust your meal-time insulin to what you eat.

Skipping meals can lead to low blood sugar, especially if you take insulin. If you include snacks in your meal plan, don’t forget to count the carbohydrates!

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