Diabetes, Carbohydrates and the Grocery Store

By: Kim Beavers Email
By: Kim Beavers Email

The rate of diabetes in this country continues to rise. Often we are reminded that many of our disease states are related to lifestyle factors, which of course means diet and exercise. However, diet tends to have a more immediate effect on diabetes than, say, cardiovascular disease. The amount and type of carbohydrate you eat immediately effects your blood glucose level. Therefore, understanding carbohydrates and the food label is particularly important in the control of blood sugar levels.

Carbohydrate is a nutrient in food. It is the body’s best form of energy, and we need to eat some every day! Most of the carbohydrate you eat is broken down to glucose (sugar) and absorbed into the bloodstream. When blood glucose level goes up, your pancreas puts out insulin. Insulin helps move glucose into cells (where the cells use it for energy) and blood sugar returns to normal. However in people with diabetes there is either not enough insulin or the insulin in the body does not work properly, and blood sugar remains higher than normal.

Some people may think they should not eat carbohydrates when they have diabetes, but this is not the case. Carbohydrate is our best source of fuel or energy. It is true that we should focus on eating high fiber healthy carbohydrates in lieu of less healthy carbohydrates. Examples include:

  • Whole grain cereal with 5grams fiber

  • Whole grain breads and pasta with 3g fiber

  • Whole fruits and vegetables

  • Beans, peas, legumes

  • Wild rice and brown rice

  • Other healthy carbohydrates include low fat and fat-free milk as well as yogurt (lower sugar varieties preferable)

How do you know how much carbohydrate to eat each day?

Your health care provider and dietitian can help you get the right meal plan to keep your blood glucose in control. For information or an appointment, contact University Hospital’s Diabetes Services at 706-868-3241.

In general, most people can have 3-4 carbohydrate choices at each meal. (This does vary depending on age and activity level as well as gender.) One carbohydrate choice or serving is about 15g of carbohydrate. This is important to remember for label-reading purposes.

Carbohydrates in the produce aisle

Here you will find many healthy carbohydrate-rich foods. Fruit, for instance, is healthy and is primarily carbohydrate. Vegetables are identified as either starchy (having higher carbohydrate amounts) or non-starchy (much less carbohydrate). Fruit and vegetables generally do not have a label, so weighing foods is a great way to learn portion sizes. Here are some portion sizes of commonly eaten starchy vegetables and fruits to get you started.

  • 3 ounces of potato (15g carbohydrate or 1 carbohydrate choice)

  • 5 ounces corn on the cob (15g carbohydrate or 1 carbohydrate choice)

  • 4 ounce apple (15g carbohydrate or 1 carbohydrate choice)

  • 4 ounce banana (15g carbohydrate or 1 carbohydrate choice)

In general, 1 fruit choice is: ½ cup canned or fresh fruit or unsweetened fruit juice, 1 small fresh fruit (4 ounces), or 2 tablespoons of dried fruit.

**Use the food scale in the store to weigh fresh fruits and starchy vegetables. Practice builds portion skills!

Carbohydrate label reading

In terms of label-reading, the most important piece of information I can give you is this: Focus on the Nutrition Facts Label; it is regulated and much more reliable than the other statements on food packages!

Nutrition Facts Label: Cheerios

Nutrition Facts

Serving Size: 1 cup (30 g)
Serving per container: 14
Amount per serving
Calories: 110
Calories from fat: 5
 % Daily Values
Total Fat: 2g
Saturated Fat 0g
Cholesterol 0mg0%
Total Carbohydrate 22g
Dietary Fiber 3g
Soluble Fiber 1g
Sugars 1g
Protein 3g

Step 1: Serving size: Look at the serving size on the label. All the numbers in the Nutrition facts box are based on this serving size.

Step 2: Total Carbohydrate: Look at the grams of total carbohydrate. It is the carbohydrate in food that raises your blood sugar the most. Sugar, fiber and sugar alcohols are types of carbohydrate that are included in the “Total Carbohydrate” grams. You do not need to count sugars separately. You only count the grams of carbohydrate. In a meal plan, one carbohydrate serving = 15 grams of carbohydrate. In this example twenty two grams of carbohydrate equals 1 ½ servings of carbohydrate.

Step 3: Calories: Calories still count! Even if a food is low in carbohydrate it may not be low in calories or be a healthy food. However if one serving of a food has less than 20 calories it is considered a free food. These foods should be eaten no more than 2-3 times a day. Examples are sugar free popsicles and sugar free gelatin.

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