Raise your hand if the word “carbs” haunts your dreams.
With all the testing and meal planning and retesting and injecting and sobbing over that plate of cookies you can’t have, managing diabetes can be a real challenge — especially when it comes to counting carbs.
We can’t explain why some of the most delicious foods also happen to be sugary, carby monsters at the top of the Glycemic Index. But we can promise you that cutting out carbs is much less painful than you think.
In fact, a low-carb diet includes tons of tasty foods and is an important part of managing diabetes.
But what exactly is “low-carb,” and how do you make sure you’re staying healthy and feeling full? Allow us to explain.
The reason carbohydrates affect your blood sugar levels is because they’re broken down in your body as glucose.
This translates directly into your blood sugar levels, which can spike and then drop if you’re eating carbs often or in large quantities.
Carbohydrates take two major forms: simple carbs (refined sugars or starches) that break down quickly in your body, or complex carbs (nutrient-rich, fiber-rich carbs) that take longer for your body to process.
Generally, you’ll notice that simple carbs affect your blood sugar more dramatically because they hit your bloodstream fast. Complex carbs, however, are higher in fiber and more filling, which lessens the likelihood you’ll over-consume them.
The major food groups that contain carbohydrates are grains, fruits, starchy vegetables, legumes, dairy products and natural sweeteners like honey, agave nectar and maple syrup.
The complex carbs in this list — like starchy vegetables, whole fruits, and legumes — are important parts of a healthy diet, so you won’t want to cut them out.
But being aware of their nutrition profile — and the fact that they can cause blood sugar to rise — will help you understand the right portions, when to eat them and when to cut back.
The amount of carbs to eat daily will vary from person to person, so it’s important to talk to your doctor or dietitian before starting any new diet that may affect your health.
But in general, scaling back on carby foods will help you manage blood sugar levels more easily.
The research about exactly how many carbs you need to manage diabetes is inconclusive. Because every body is different, there’s no magic number of daily carbs that will work for each person.
Some studies show that the ketogenic lifestyle, a super low-carb approach that limits your intake to around 20–50 grams of carbohydrates per day, is effective at lowering diabetes symptoms.
But this can be a bit extreme for the average person and can actually make symptoms worse if you’re not following the diet correctly.
Other studies have shown that restricting carbs to 20 to 45 percent of your daily calorie intake, or around 90–180grams, is an effective long-term strategy for managing diabetes.
Since the average person eats about 45 to 65 percent of their daily calories as carbohydrates, this will mean cutting your carb intake by about half to help manage diabetes.
If you’re not already counting carbs, this is a good place to start.
The American Diabetes Association recommends carbohydrate counting as a way to give you more flexibility when planning your meals — not to mention, it’s empowering to understand how your body will react to different foods.
This also helps you know how much insulin you’ll need to take throughout the day. When possible, take a peek at nutrition labels before eating and log your carbs accordingly.
For unlabeled foods like produce, check out the United States Department of Agriculture’s food database. You can look up the nutrition information of just about any food by keyword and manufacturer.
Lastly, if all this logging feels overwhelming, try a carb counting app to simplify the process.
Once you’ve figured out exactly how many carbs you’re eating daily, and what times you’re eating them, you’ll be in a better place to know how much you should limit.
Ideally, you should space your meals evenly throughout the day to avoid spikes or crashes in blood sugar.
The American Diabetes Association says this balance is a bit different for everyone, but you won’t be set up for success if you graze constantly or wait until the end of the day to eat one huge meal.
Generally, if you can keep a consistent amount of fuel in your system throughout the day, your body can manage blood sugar levels more easily.
Always check your blood sugar levels to determine how many carbs your body can handle at any given time.
What works for you may not work for everyone, so don’t dive headfirst into carb restriction without being mindful of your body and your needs.
It may take some trial and error to get to a place that feels right for your body.
If you’re new to limiting carbs, it’s best to start small and ease into the change. Focus on eating high quality, whole foods and limiting your intake of processed products.
A diet rich in healthy fats, like nuts, olive oil, avocado, coconut, and high-fat dairy products, will help you feel fuller longer and rely less on carbs. And yes, you can still eat bread on occasion!
As long as you’re monitoring your daily carb intake, taking oral meds as prescribed or adjusting your insulin doses accordingly.
As long as your doctor hasn’t specified otherwise, you never have to stick to a strict plan with no exceptions. It’s all about moderation.
Generally, if you keep your grocery trips focused on non-starchy plants and high-quality animal products, you’re well on your way to living a low-carb life.
Fun life hack: Try shopping around the outside edges of the grocery store so you can avoid the processed food, which is usually concentrated inside the aisles.
Add or subtract carbs as needed until you find your perfect balance — which you’ll know once your energy levels stay consistent throughout the day (i.e. no midday crash or late night surge).
For recipe inspo, there are seriously tons of options, so you shouldn’t ever freak out about changing your cooking routine. Eggs, avocado, or full-fat yogurt make great breakfast meals, or paleo bagels — yes, they’re a thing.
For lunch, prep some stuffed peppers or lettuce wraps to take with you to the office — they’re a great way to shake things up from your sad desk sandwich situation.
And for dinner, you can get super creative with it. Try eggplant lasagna, tacos bowls with cauliflower rice, or even zucchini noodles to sub for pasta.
PSA: Make sure you’re not eating less just because you’re eating differently.
If you decide to eat fewer grains, for instance, you’ll want to replace those calories with healthy fats, protein, and fiber, assuming you weren’t eating king-size portions to begin with.
The number of calories you need depends upon your weight management goals.
It can be easy to get in the mindset of limiting foods without remembering to replace them, but your body needs adequate nutrients to keep you functioning.
Starving your body can translate into slower metabolism and difficulty losing weight, which is an issue if your doctor has recommended weight loss.
When in doubt, your doctor or nutritionist can help you hammer out the details of what, how much, and when to eat. Stick to it, and you should be able to successfully keep your diabetes symptoms in check.