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Diabetes: Understanding Carbohydrates

A car needs the right type of fuel to run. And you need the right kind of food to function. To keep your energy level up, your body needs food that has carbohydrates. But carbohydrates raise blood sugar levels higher and faster than other kinds of food. Your dietitian will work with you to figure out the amount of carbohydrates you need.

Bread, pasta, and grains.


Starches are found in grains, some vegetables, and beans. Grain products include bread, pasta, cereal, and tortillas. Starchy vegetables include potatoes, peas, corn, lima beans, yams, and squash. Kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, garbanzo beans, and lentils also contain starches.


Sugars are found naturally in many foods. Or sugar can be added. Foods that contain natural sugar include fruits and fruit juices, dairy products, honey, and molasses. Added sugars are found in most desserts, processed foods, candy, regular soda, and fruit drinks. These are very helpful for treating low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia. They provide sugar quickly.


Fiber comes from plant foods. Most fiber isn’t digested by the body. Instead of raising blood sugar levels like other carbohydrates, it actually stops blood sugar from rising too fast. Fiber is found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, peas, and many nuts.

Carb counting

It’s important to keep track of the amount of carbohydrates you eat. This can help you keep the right balance of physical activity and medicine. The amount of carbohydrates needed will vary for each person. It depends on many things such as your health, the medicines you take, and how active you are. Your healthcare team will help you figure out the right amount of carbohydrates for you. You may start with around 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per meal, depending on your situation. Ask your dietitian to teach you a method called carb counting. This system helps you keep track of the carbohydrates you eat at each meal.

Carbohydrates come from a variety of foods. These include grains, starchy vegetables, fruit, milk, beans, and snack foods. You can either count carbohydrate grams or carbohydrate servings. When you count carbohydrate servings, 1 carbohydrate serving = 15 grams of carbohydrates.

Here are some examples of foods containing about 15 grams of carbohydrates (1 serving of carbohydrates):

  • 1/2 cup of canned or frozen fruit

  • A small piece of fresh fruit (4 ounces)

  • 1 slice of bread

  • 1/2 cup of oatmeal

  • 1/3 cup of rice

  • 4 to 6 crackers

  • 1/2 English muffin

  • 1/2 cup of black beans

  • 1/4 of a large baked potato (3 ounces)

  • 2/3 cup of plain fat-free yogurt

  • 1 cup of soup

  • 1/2 cup of casserole

  • 6 chicken nuggets

  • 2-inch square brownie or cake without frosting

  • 2 small cookies

  • 1/2 cup of ice cream or sherbet

Carb counting is easier when food labels are available. Look at the label to see how many grams of total carbohydrates the food contains. Then you can figure out how much you should eat.

It’s also important to be consistent with the amount and time you eat when taking a fixed dose of diabetes medicine.


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