BHealthy Blog

The Truth About Carbohydrates

By Regina McCormick, Clinical Dietitian, Baptist Health Medical Center-Heber Springs and Ashley N. Smith, Clinical Dietitian, Baptist Health Medical Center-Stuttgart

Diabetes is a serious, lifelong disease that can require a lot of lifestyle changes. Nutrition is one of the key aspects of treatment in controlling a person’s blood glucose along with physical activity, stress management, and other lifestyle changes.

Sometimes nutrition seems so confusing, and it seems everyone asks, “What do I eat? What can I eat?” Occasionally people may hear “You can’t eat any sugar,” “don’t eat anything white,” or “I can’t have carbs anymore.” We are here to shed light on general nutrition with diabetes and why carbohydrate is not an enemy.

Carbohydrates are a macronutrient just like fat and protein. Carbohydrates are converted to glucose, which is our main form of energy in our body and raises our blood glucose. Insulin then is pushed out by the pancreas to keep blood glucose at a normal level. With diabetes, either there is not enough insulin being made, the cell cannot use the insulin correctly (insulin resistant), or both.

Now at this point, you may stop and think, “Oh that is why I can’t have carbohydrates –– because I have diabetes.” However, we are here to tell you that you can have carbohydrates in correct portions. In fact, most foods –– including nuts, seeds, fruits, legumes, dairy, and vegetables ­­­­–– contain some carbohydrates, and it is almost impossible not to eat some carbohydrates unless you are eating nothing but meats and pure fat.

Carbohydrates provide needed fiber, necessary vitamins and minerals such as potassium, vitamin C, vitamin A, calcium, and phytochemicals, and help provide food variety.

There are foods that have more carbohydrates in them than others that people with diabetes need to portion control but not necessarily avoid. These include dense starches (grains, potatoes, corn, rice, beans), fruits, milk and other dairy products such as yogurt, sweets, and sweetened drinks.

All of these foods are made into glucose as mentioned before, but there are “good carbohydrates” vs. “bad carbohydrates.” You might be thinking, “What is the difference between a good carbohydrate and a bad carbohydrate?”

A “good carbohydrate,” otherwise known as a complex carbohydrate, contains fiber and is unprocessed. This is important because the body will absorb these carbohydrates more slowly into our systems, avoiding spikes in blood-sugar levels. Examples of foods that contain “good carbohydrates” include whole grains, vegetables, and beans.

A “bad carbohydrate,” known as a simple carbohydrate, contains refined and processed sugars. This carbohydrate can cause a quick spike in blood sugar levels, which is why it is important to monitor the amount that is consumed. Examples of foods that contain “bad carbohydrates” include sugar-sweetened beverages, pastries, and snack cakes.

It is always important to remember that not all carbs are created equal. The plate method is a quick way to judge what should be on your plate at mealtime and is an effective way to manage blood glucose levels.

With this method, half of the plate should be non-starchy (low carb) vegetables like peppers, spinach, and carrots. The other half of the plate is divided into two sections, with one-fourth of the plate reserved for a protein source, and the other fourth of the plate reserved for starchy vegetables and grains like potatoes, or rice. This is a simple way to judge your foods and create a plate that is fit for blood-sugar control.

In conclusion, it is important to remember that not all carbohydrates are bad, and that carbohydrates are necessary for the body to function properly. Carbohydrates are found in most foods, so they are almost impossible to avoid.

Remember, there are not any foods that are forbidden, just foods that require portion control. We hope we have shed some light on the truth about carbohydrates.