When you think of carbohydrates, you probably think of bread, pasta and potatoes. But carbs are also in grains, legumes, starchy vegetables, milk, yogurt and fruit. They’re one of the three main energy sources in our food and they provide the body’s preferred fuel source for the brain, nervous system, and exercising muscle: glucose.
Unfortunately, patients with diabetes have difficulty converting that glucose into energy.
“The body needs the hormone insulin to convert glucose into energy, but for patients with diabetes, they either don’t make enough insulin or the insulin they make doesn’t work properly,” says nutritionist Joyce Patterson, M.P.H., R.D.N., B.C.-A.D.M.
When glucose can’t be used, it stays in the blood and results in high blood sugar. Patients with diabetes take medications to help increase their insulin levels or make insulin function properly so their bodies can get the energy it needs.
So if fat and protein are energy sources for the body too, why not just eliminate carbs from your diet? Well, there’s a lot of reasons, actually.
“There’s a common misconception that carbs are bad or should be cut out,” Patterson says. “However, cutting carbs out can initially lead to uncomfortable side effects, like low energy and headaches.”
In addition to glucose, carbs also contain other important nutrients. Fruit and starchy vegetables are rich in vitamins and minerals. Beans and lentils are an excellent plant source of protein, in addition to cholesterol lowering fiber, B vitamins, iron and calcium. Dairy provides protein, calcium and potassium. And finally, whole grains are a great source of fiber and B vitamins. “Cutting out all of these foods puts us at risk of nutrient deficiencies,” Patterson says.
For those who take insulin or other medications that increase the risk of hypoglycemia, eliminating carbs, or even following a low carb diet, can lead to dangerously low blood sugar. So, having carbs in your diet is a good thing. Choosing high-quality carbs that are high in fiber and/or protein will provide the body energy without a large spike in blood sugar levels.
Low Carb Do’s and Don’ts
The Mediterranean, DASH or plant based diets have all shown benefits in people with diabetes beyond diabetes management, like lower cholesterol, better blood pressure and overall heart health, according to Patterson, also a diabetes educator in the Adult Diabetes Education Program.
She adds that the Mediterranean and DASH diet offer a great variety of foods with very little restriction – the emphasis being on portion control, balance and healthy food choices.
Similarly, plant-based diets offer many different plant sources of protein to replace animal products.
“Very low carb diets, like the keto diet, have also shown benefits for blood sugar. However, many find the lack of flexibility difficult to stick with, leading to frustration and yo-yo dieting, which can be harmful to health in the long run,” Patterson says.
To learn more about diabetes education and management, or gather a general understanding of how food affects medical conditions and overall health, seeing a registered dietitian can help explain how food choices, portions, balance and timing of meals can all affect blood sugar.
To apply some of that information to meal planning, try this budget and blood sugar friendly lentil stuffed peppers recipe.
“Lentils are a plant-based protein, rich in both fiber and protein which help keep blood sugar from rising too high or too fast after a meal,” Patterson says. “Together with the sweet peppers and lean chicken, it’s a well-balanced meal.”