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Carbohydrates and Diabetes

Learn how carbohydrates, your body’s preferred source of fuel, affect blood sugar.

Image Credit: Photo: Jonny Valiant

Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of fuel. The brain depends exclusively on carbohydrates for its energy when that fuel is available. If there are no carbohydrates available (either from the foods that are eaten or stored in the liver or muscles), the body will convert protein and/or fat to glucose (the form of carbohydrate the body uses for energy).

But if you eat more carbohydrates than your body needs for fuel, a small amount of it is stored in the liver or the muscles to be used later for energy. The rest of it gets changed and is stored in the body as fat.

Understanding Carbohydrates

  • Ideal Carbohydrate Level 

There’s no specific recommended amount of carbohydrates. The amount you need depends on many factors, including the following:

• current weight and height
• physical activity level
• gender
• health status
• diabetes medications

  • Preferred Carbohydrates

Most diabetic eating plans don’t completely restrict carbohydrates—they allow a specific amount of the right kinds. The ideal carbohydrates in terms of weight loss and disease prevention have the following characteristics:

• high in fiber
• absorbed slowly
• do not cause rapid increase in blood glucose

The carbohydrates in fruits and vegetables are good for you because when you eat them, you get a whole package of disease-fighting vitamins and minerals. Fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains and cereals, also contain carbohydrates in the form of fiber. Because fiber isn’t digested by the body, these foods are absorbed slowly and don’t cause a rapid rise in blood glucose. When blood glucose rises slowly, the carbohydrates aren’t stored as fat as easily.

Carbohydrates can be classified two ways: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are sugars such as glucose, sucrose, lactose, and fructose that are found in fruit and refined sugar.

Complex carbohydrates (or starches) are chains of simple sugars bonded together and are found in starches such as beans, vegetables, and whole grains. After they’re digested by the body, complex carbohydrates (starches) are broken down into simple sugars. Complex carbohydrates are considered healthier because they contain fiber and are digested more slowly, providing a steady energy source.

See below for a general list of food groups that can impact blood glucose and a list of those that usually don’t. Some of the foods in the second group can increase blood sugar if they’re eaten in large quantities.

Food groups that can increase blood sugar: 

• Breads, cereals, pasta, rice
• Starchy vegetables
• Beans, peas, lentils
• Fruit
• Juice
• Regular soda, carbonated beverages
• Candy
• Chocolate
• Milk, yogurt

Food groups that usually don’t increase blood sugar: 

• Meat
• Fats, oils, salad dressing*, butter, margarine
• Seeds, nuts, peanut butter*
• Cream cheese, sour cream
• Sugar-free hard candy and gum*
• Sugar substitutes
• Coffee, tea, sugar-free soft drinks
• Herbs and spices

*Check the label for carbohydrate content because some products do contain a significant amount of carbohydrates.