You might be cutting out excess sugar out of your diet, but are you paying attention to the amount — and more importantly, type — of carbs you’re consuming?
Doctors and researchers now know that simple, refined carbs like sweets, white bread, white grains and cereals and even fruit juice all contribute to high levels of blood sugar, inflammation and disease, including heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Paying attention to the type of carbs and how much you are consuming should be a priority for everyone, not just diabetics.
All carbs break down to provide glucose (blood sugar). How fast and how much they end up in your blood depends on the type.
Simple carbs (sweets and sugars, white refined breads, grains, and cereals, sugar sweetened beverages and juice) raise blood sugar faster and higher than complex carbs (whole grain/high fiber breads and cereals, beans, legumes, lentils, whole fruits and vegetables).
A well-balanced diet provides about 50 percent of total calories from carbohydrate (even for diabetics) — ideally, from complex food sources.
Counting carbs is a good practice for everyone. When glucose is present in the blood, insulin is released to carry that sugar into the body’s cells, where it can be used for energy, a primary function of carbohydrates. People with diabetes either don’t produce enough insulin, their cells are resistant to the insulin they do produce, or the muscles are filled up and can’t accept any more glucose until some is burned for energy (thus the huge importance of exercise in order to “drain the tank” so to speak).
But over-consumption of carbs — especially simple carbs — means high levels of blood glucose and, for non-diabetics, high levels of insulin present in the blood (hyperinsulinemia). Insulin is a fat-promoting hormone and causes an inflammatory response that increases inflammatory markers in the body, increases body fat accumulation, and can damage the blood vessel wall.
Having diabetes is not the only reason to monitor carbohydrate intake. Everyone benefits from this practice.
So how much is OK? The servings per day is based on calorie needs, which is based on age, height, sex and weight, with a goal of getting weight into a healthy range.
A general recommendation from the American Diabetes Association is three to four carb servings per meal (or two to three if trying to lose weight), based on three meals and one or two healthy snacks (zero or one for weight loss) daily. This equates to a wide range of six to 14 servings maximum per day for most adults.
Note: Very active children or adults with type 1 diabetes can eat more as they burn off more, so this general recommendation is for most type 2 diabetes.
A serving of carbs is 15 grams, so you should be aiming for 45 to 60 grams of carbs per meal, and 15 to 30 grams per snack. Foods that contain carbohydrates are breads, cereals and grains, starchy vegetables, fruit, milk and yogurt, and desserts/sweets. A general rule is half a cup of carbs is equal to one serving. This means one-serving portions include just one slice of bread; one 6-inch tortilla; 1⁄2 cup hot cereal, beans, potato, fruit, and starchy vegetables like corn and peas; 1⁄3 cup rice and pasta; 3⁄4 cup dry sugar-free cereal; 1 cup of melon or berries; 1⁄4 of a standard large bagel; 8 ounces of milk; 6 ounces of most light yogurts; 3 cups of low-fat popped popcorn; 1 cup most casseroles; 1⁄2 cup no added sugar or light ice cream; or two small cookies.
Though not meant to be part of your daily diet, you can see that even sweets, when managed by portion control, can be worked into the count. Get out your measuring cups, read labels and do the math — 15 grams of carbs is one serving.
Managing how much and what type of carbohydrate we eat will help those with diabetes better manage blood sugar levels, and can help others to prevent hyperinsulinemia. Unlike sugar and refined, processed grains (nothing good about these), healthy carbohydrates are not the enemy but still need to be managed.
Teri Spring is a registered dietitian.