If you are living with diabetes, you’ve probably gotten the message that you should avoid carbohydrates and build your diet on protein and fat instead. Not only is this extreme approach lacking in scientific evidence, but it can also make people feel so restricted by having to eliminate their favorite foods that they end up weight-cycling, binge eating, or developing an overall unhealthy relationship with food.
So, how do you keep carbs in the mix but still stay on track with your type 2 management? Here are 4 tips for incorporating carbohydrates into your healthy eating plan:
1. Remember that carbs are not your enemy!
Carbs get a bad reputation for causing weight gain and wreaking havoc on blood sugar. But, in reality, carbohydrates are a critical part of the human diet – they provide the body with energy to perform everyday functions.
When living with diabetes, it is important to remember that carbs, in and of themselves, are not the enemy. You can maintain a healthy diet while still incorporating carbohydrates; it’s simply a matter of choosing nutrient-dense sources of carbohydrates, eating mindfully to keep portion sizes in-check, and pairing carbs with good sources of protein and healthy fats, when possible.
2. Know your carbs
Many people are surprised to learn that there are different kinds of carbohydrates, each categorized by their chemical structure:
Simple carbs – These sugars are comprised of single molecules like glucose, galactose, and fructose (found in fruit). When these single molecules join together, they form a new chemical structure called “disaccharides,” which are things like lactose (milk sugar) and sucrose (table sugar).
Starches – These “complex carbs” are made up of long chains of glucose molecules, which the body breaks down more slowly to produce energy.
Fiber – Found in plant-based foods, such as whole grains, fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables, fiber is different than other carbs in that it is not digestible by the body and, therefore, is not used to produce energy (so it won’t hit your bloodstream like simple or complex carbs would). Although it doesn’t provide energy to your body, fiber is critical in aiding digestion and gut health and regulating blood sugars.
Oligosaccharides – These carbs are somewhere in between a simple sugar and a complex carb. They are formed when three to ten sugar molecules are joined together and occur naturally in certain plant foods like leeks, asparagus, and garlic. Similar to dietary fiber, oligosaccharides are not easily broken down by the digestive system. Different bacteria feed off of this fermentable starch, which is why it’s considered a “prebiotic” and also beneficial to digestion and gut health.
Incorporating a variety of plant-based carbohydrates into your diet is a great way to make sure you’re getting plenty of nutrient-dense sources of energy with a good dose of fiber and prebiotics to aid in digestion and maintain stable blood sugar. Aim to get the majority of daily carbs from things like fruit, whole grains, legumes, and veggies and minimize refined or processed carbs—things like white bread, pasta, crackers, cookies, and other sugary foods or beverages.
3. Understand your personal needs and tolerance
Possibly the most important consideration when incorporating carbs into your diet is your personal tolerance to carbohydrates. Everybody has their own unique genetic makeup and dietary needs, so the way carbohydrates impact your blood sugar levels may differ from somebody else. This is why it’s not simple enough to say, “one diet fits all.”
If you’ve tried low-carb diets without much success or just want to have a healthier relationship with food so that you’re able to incorporate carbs without overdoing it, start by journaling your carbohydrate intake and its impact on your blood sugars.
For one week, measure your blood sugars after each meal, noting how many grams of carbs you ate. It might be helpful to also track protein and fat intake to see how they influenced the impact on your blood sugars when combined with carbohydrates (it should theoretically reduce a blood sugar spike). After a week, notice if you see any trends in blood sugar variance. What foods and amounts of carbs influenced blood glucose levels more than others? Did you see a greater spike later in the day than in the morning? Understanding how your body reacts to carbohydrates can be so beneficial in establishing normal eating habits without relying on measuring cups or food scales to feel comfortable eating carbs at every meal.
4. Eat carbs mindfully
Eating mindfully is not just about being mindful of your carbohydrate choices (although that is important as well) – it’s about slowing down and eating food without distractions, so that your meal gets your full attention and you are better able to taste and enjoy your food, as well as listen to hunger and fullness cues that your body is sending to your brain. Mindful eating applies to almost any food, but can be especially helpful when trying to incorporate carbohydrates in your diet and maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
The next time you eat a meal or snack, turn off the television, set down your phone, or step away from your computer and try to focus on the taste and texture of your food. Mindful eating not only allows you to enjoy your meals more fully, but it also reduces the likelihood of overeating, which can wreak havoc on blood glucose levels.
Remember—living with diabetes does not mean that you have to sacrifice the joy of eating certain foods or eliminate entire food groups. Learning to incorporate carbohydrates in a way that keeps your blood sugars in range will allow you to have more freedom with food while also enjoying an overall healthy lifestyle.