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Eating a Limited-Carbohydrate Diet

Carbohydrates, or carbs, are a key part of everyone’s diet. When you consume carbs, your body breaks them down into glucose. This glucose is also known as blood sugar. It’s the main source of energy for your cells. But if too much glucose builds up in your blood, it can be harmful. That’s what happens in diabetes. To help manage this problem, your healthcare provider may tell you to limit your carb intake.

What is a limited-carb diet?

This type of diet involves managing how many carbs you consume. It also involves making smart decisions about the kinds of carb foods you choose. You may use different methods of meal planning. In carb counting, you track the amount of carbs in all your meals, snacks, and drinks. In the plate method, carb-rich foods are confined to one-fourth of your plate.

How can this diet help you?

When you have diabetes, taking charge of what you eat makes it easier to manage your blood sugar levels. If you take mealtime insulin, counting carbs also helps you match your insulin dose to your meal. Better blood sugar control can help you feel better and stay healthier. Over time, it reduces the risk for serious diabetes-related problems such as kidney, eye, and heart disease.

Does this diet have any risks?

You still need some carbs, even if you have diabetes. Many carb foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Limiting your diet too much could mean missing out on these benefits. So the idea isn’t to cut out all carbs. Instead, you’re simply choosy about which carb foods you eat and in what amounts.

Which foods should you eat?

Carb-rich foods have the biggest impact on your blood sugar. The amount of carbs you should eat will vary from person to person and depends on your age, weight, activity level, and diabetes goals. . Work with a registered dietitian nutritionist or certified diabetes care and education specialist to set an appropriate carb goal for you.

Starches and sugars are 2 kinds of carbs that can affect your blood sugar level. Fiber is a kind of carb that isn't digested and won't cause blood sugar spikes like other carbs. Starches are found in grains, starchy vegetables, and beans. Fiber comes from plant foods and is found in whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Sugars include natural sugars in fruit and milk as well as added sugars. Both carb types can be part of a diabetes-friendly diet in the right amounts. Choose nutrient-rich options:

  • Whole grains, such as brown rice, oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat or corn tortillas, and whole grain pasta

  • Starchy vegetables, such as corn, green peas, potatoes (all kinds), and winter squash

  • Beans and legumes, such as lentils, chickpeas and black, garbanzo, and kidney beans

  • Fruits, such as apples, bananas, berries, and oranges

  • Milk products, such as low-fat or fat-free milk and yogurt

Non-starchy vegetables should make up about half your plate at every meal. Examples are broccoli, cucumber, green beans, lettuce, and peppers. These foods are packed with nutrients and fiber. But they contain only small amounts of carbs, so they don’t raise blood sugar much.

Healthy protein foods are also important. They should make up about one-fourth of your plate at every meal. Examples include poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, and lean cuts of meat. Beans and legumes are good protein sources, too. Just be aware that they also count toward your carb intake.

As far as drinks go, water is your best option. It has zero calories and no carbs. Other good choices include unsweetened tea, black coffee, and flavored water with no added sugars.

Which foods should you pass up?

Some carb-rich foods are less nutritious. Limit those that have added sugars or are highly processed or refined. These include:

  • Sugary drinks such as sodas, energy drinks, sweet tea, and coffee with added sugars

  • Sweets and snack foods such as candy, ice cream, cookies, pastries and chips

  • Refined grains such as white bread, white rice, and some breakfast cereals

Tips for following this diet

Many people with diabetes should try to eat about the same amount of carbs at each meal. Spreading out your carbs this way helps keep your blood sugar steadier. (You may not need to do this if you give yourself multiple insulin injections each day or use an insulin pump.)

Watch for added sugars hiding in foods you might not suspect, such as spaghetti sauce and bread. Check the ingredients list on packaged foods. Words ending in “-ose” (fructose or maltose) and terms including “syrup” or “juice” are among the names for added sugars. The nutrition facts label will also say how many grams of added sugars are in an item.

Suggestions for planning meals

  • For breakfast, instead of a bagel with cream cheese, have a slice of whole-wheat toast spread with mashed avocado.

  • For a main course, instead of a breaded chicken breast or fish fillet, have grilled chicken or fish.

  • For dessert, instead of blueberry pie topped with ice cream, have Greek yogurt topped with a handful of fresh blueberries.

Online Medical Reviewer: Brittany Poulson MDA RDN CD CDE
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2023
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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