For those of us with diabetes, carbohydrates are a big deal. They are the nutrient in food that converts to glucose most easily. And that glucose is exactly what raises your blood sugar.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t eat carbohydrates. It does mean, however, that we need to be conscious of the amount of carbohydrates we consume each day, and of the quality of those carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates can definitely be part of a healthy diet for people with diabetes. Let’s take a closer look at the healthiest sources of carbohydrates.
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What Are healthy carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are the main source of quickly released energy for the body. They are not only essential for maintaining your metabolism and overall energy levels, but also for your brain functions. You can live without carbohydrates on a ketogenic diet but I don’t recommend it for people living with diabetes.
Carbohydrate-rich foods are often divided into three groups based on how quickly the carbs are converted into energy:
Simple carbohydrates (high-glycemic)
Simple carbohydrates break down quickly during digestion and raise your blood sugar quickly, too. Examples of simple carbohydrates include sugar, most fruit, dairy, and highly processed grains like white flour.
Complex carbohydrates (low-glycemic)
These carbohydrates have a higher fiber content which helps slow down the rate of digestion and how quickly that meal raises your blood sugar. These carbohydrates tend to also contain more nutrition overall and are generally of higher quality.
Complex carbohydrates include quinoa, beans, most vegetables, and most whole grains as long as they haven’t been heavily processed.
Dietary fiber is included in the “total carbohydrate content” on the nutrition label of any food. Generally speaking, this form of carbohydrate does not break down into glucose which means it doesn’t raise your blood sugar either.
That being said, large quantities of dietary fiber can still contribute to the digestible carbohydrate content that impacts blood sugar.
With the abundance of high-fiber low-carb foods on the market today, you should assume that some of the fiber in those products is still going to impact your blood sugar.
The glycemic index
The glycemic index measures how quickly carbohydrates are converted to glucose in your body. It’s measured on a scale of 0 to 100.
Pure sugar is the highest with a glycemic index of 100, while more slowly digested carbs such as brown rice have a glycemic index of 50.
I recommend that you generally stick with low-glycemic carbohydrates since they won’t spike your blood sugars, leave you full longer, and minimize fat storage. The only time high glycemic carbs are preferable is right after a hard workout where you need to re-fill your body’s glycogen stores quickly.
In addition to the healthy carbohydrates below, you’ll also get healthy carbohydrates from fresh vegetables like salad, asparagus, broccoli, etc.
When I create meal plans, I generally consider most vegetables to be “free” food, in the sense that I don’t count the calories or macros in my daily total. You can eat as much salad and broccoli as you like, unless you are on a VERY strict diet, such as prepping for a fitness competition.
Low Glycemic Healthy Carbohydrates
Let’s take a look at a list of some of the best sources of healthy low-glycemic carbohydrates.
While a cup of brown rice contains the same number of calories and carbohydrates, it contains half as much fiber and protein.
- Magnesium: This mineral is critical for helping your body manage the function of your muscles and nerves. It’s also essential for managing your blood sugar and blood pressure, as well as making protein, bone, and DNA!
- Phosphorus: Your body cannot function without phosphorus. It enables your cells to transport energy, creating DNA and RNA, and building strong bones!
- Folate: One of the B vitamins, folate is added to many foods and prenatal vitamins because it plays such an important role in so many functions within the body. Most of the “genetic material” produced by your body, including muscle, relies on folate. It also contributes to the production of DNA, reduces birth defects in babies when taken by a pregnant mother, and deficiencies are linked to depression among other things.
Recipe with quinoa: Marinated Turkey Breast with Quinoa
Sweet potatoes are packed with valuable nutrition — especially compared to their relative, the white potato. One cup of sweet potato contains about 180 calories, 41 grams of carbohydrates, and 6 grams of fiber.
The health benefits of sweet potatoes include:
- Carotenoids (beta-carotene): A highly valuable form of Vitamin A, this is especially important for people with diabetes because it keeps your eyes healthy! It’s also a natural antioxidant and is responsible for the orange pigment of sweet potatoes, carrots, and butternut squash. Too much of it can actually turn your hands and eyes a little orange!
- Vitamin B6: Especially important for people with autoimmune disorders, B6 also helps a baby’s brain development during pregnancy, and supports a healthy metabolism.
- Vitamin C: This vitamin has a tremendous impact on so many aspects of your daily health. Not only does Vitamin C protect your cells from damage caused by free radicals, but it also helps your body heal wounds, strengthens your immune system, and can help slow down the progression of certain eye diseases.
Recipes with sweet potatoes: Vegetable Noodle Stir-fry.
Beans have a bad reputation because they can be uncomfortable on the digestive system for some people, but they are loaded with nutrition and are actually good for your stomach! One cup of pinto beans, for example, contains 245 calories, 45 grams of carbohydrates, and 15 grams of fiber!
Black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, pinto beans — you name it — they’re all worth including on your plate once in a while.
the health benefits of legumes include:
- Fiber: Beans are one of the most fiber-loaded foods, and definitely the most fiber-loaded carbohydrates. This means that the total carbohydrate content should impact your blood sugar much more slowly and less overall. This high-fiber content also stimulates the growth of good bacteria in your gut, contributing to a healthy digestive system.
- Protein: When it comes to non-animal sources of proteins, beans are a mega-source with 15 grams of protein in one cup of most types!
- Folate (see quinoa above for benefits)
Berries (yes, all berries!)
While most berries taste sweet, they are surprisingly low-carb and low on the glycemic index. As an example, a cup of strawberries contains only 49 calories, 11.7 g of carbohydrates, and 3 g of fiber.
The health benefits of berries include:
- Fiber: All berries are high in fiber, including soluble fiber. Studies show that consuming soluble fiber slows down the movement of food through your digestive tract, leading to reduced hunger and increased feelings of fullness.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C protects your cells from damage caused by free radicals, helps your body heal wounds, strengthens your immune system, and can slow down the progression of certain eye diseases.
Cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, cabbage, etc.)
You may not consider broccoli or cabbage a “carbohydrate” but compared to a bowl of Romaine lettuce, they can pack in quite a few grams of carb. Cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, bok choy, arugula, Brussels sprouts, collards, watercress, and radishes.
One cup of boiled broccoli contains about 55 calories, 12 grams of carbohydrates, and 5 grams of fiber. One cup of shredded raw cabbage contains about 22 calories, 5 grams of carbohydrates, and 1.5 grams of fiber.
The health benefits of cruciferous vegetables include:
- Phytonutrients: These plant-based compounds have been shown in research to reduce inflammation and reduce your risk of developing cancer. Cruciferous vegetables are especially high in phytonutrients, so eat up!
- Low-calorie: Considering the number of vitamins and minerals packed into a small serving of cruciferous vegetables, you can get a lot of high-quality nutrition in a big bowl with very few calories!
- Antioxidants: Most plants, especially cruciferous veggies, contain an abundance of antioxidants that protect your cells from damage caused by free radicals. Heart disease, cancer, and many other diseases are associated with free radicals. Yet another obvious reason why dark green veggies ought to be on your plate every day.
Sprouted grains are essentially a seed of grain that has been allowed to sprout before being milled and baked into a product, like Ezekial bread, for example.
“This germinating process breaks down some of the starch, which makes the percentage of nutrients higher. It also breaks down phytate, a form of phytic acid that normally decreases the absorption of vitamins and minerals in the body. So sprouted grains have more available nutrients than mature grains,” explains Kristina Secinaro, an RD from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
For people with diabetes, this can mean less of an impact from that sprouted grain slice of toast compared to a regular slice of toast. Sprouted grains are also thought to be gentler on the digestive system.
The health benefits of sprouted grains include:
- Iron: The germinating process can increase the amount of iron available in grain, making it an even more valuable source, especially for those who don’t eat red meat. Getting enough iron in your diet is crucial for preventing anemia, for helping your body make hemoglobin, and for carrying oxygen from your lungs to cells throughout your entire body.
- Zinc: Zinc plays a crucial role in your body’s growth from the moment you’re conceived. It’s also very important for a healthy immune system, helping you fight off bacteria and viruses. Sprouted grains contain more zinc than grains processed prior to germination.
For long-term success in following a healthy diet, most people will find they need to include carbohydrates, too. Learning how to balance your insulin or other diabetes medications around carbohydrates takes time, but the more your choices are whole, real food, the easier it will be.