Carbohydrates are sugar-based molecules found in many foods, from cookies to cantaloupes.
If you have diabetes, planning your carb intakeand sticking to the planis critical to keep blood sugar on an even keel and to cut your risk of diabetes-related problems like heart disease and stroke.
Whether or not you have diabetes, you should aim to get about half your calories from complex carbohydrates (which are high in fiber), 20-25% from protein, and no more than 30% from fat, says Lalita Kaul, PhD, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
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How to read a food label
The Nutrition Facts label lists the total amount of carbohydrates per serving, including carbs from fiber, sugar, and sugar alcohols. (If you're counting carbs in your diet, be aware that 15 grams of carbohydrates count as one serving.)
Sugar alcohols are often used in sugar-free foods, although they still deliver calories and carbs. Sugar alcohols and fiber don't affect blood sugar as much as other carbs, because they're not completely absorbed.
If you eat 2,000 calories a day, you should consume about 250 grams of complex carbohydrates per day.
A good starting place for people with diabetes is to have roughly 45 to 60 grams of carbs per meal and 15 to 30 grams for snacks. While snacks are key for people with diabetes who use insulin or pills that increase insulin production (otherwise, they run the risk of low blood sugar), they aren’t essential for non-insulin users.
The goal for anyone with diabetes, whether or not they use insulin, is to keep their blood sugar as steady as possible and to maximize their intake of nutritious carbs and minimize consumption of less healthy ones.
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Fine-tune your intake
You may need to work with a nutritionist or diabetes educator to fine-tune your carb requirements, based on your activity level, whether you want to lose weight, and whether or not you use insulin.
Checking your blood sugar before and after meals is also important as you test-drive your carb-counting plan. If certain foodslike fruit juice or pastacause your blood sugar to spike, you’ll need to consume these in smaller portions.
Here’s a rough guide to figuring out the amount of carbs that can be found in 10 everyday foods. Get your measuring cup and scale ready!
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1 slice of bread = 15 grams or 1 serving of carbohydrate
Although white and wheat bread have similar carb content (check the food label for details), whole-wheat bread is your best bet; it typically has more than twice as much fiber as white bread, meaning you digest it more slowly and your blood sugar will rise more gradually after you eat it.
People with diabetes should aim to consume 30 grams of fiber daily, even though this can be hard on the digestive system for some people, says Kaul, a professor at Howard University College of Medicine, in Washington, D.C. She also suggests trying extra-thin bread, which can slice your calorie intake in half.
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One-third cup of pasta = 15 grams or 1 serving
Again, opting for whole-wheat noodles rather than pasta made with white flour is a healthier choice. But it’s important to rememberand easy to forgetportion size.
Just one-third of a cup, which is about half the size of a baseball, contains 15 grams of carbohydrate. If you overload your pasta bowl, you could easily get a day’s worth of carbs in a single meal.
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3/4 cup of dry cereal = 15 grams or 1 serving
Eating breakfast is important for all of us, but especially so for people with diabetes; a balanced morning meal helps you start the day healthy and energized.
A bowl of cereal with skim milk is a great choice for the first meal of the day, says Kaul, but you should avoid sugary, low-fiber cereals like corn flakes.
Oat bran cereal is a better option, the nutritionist says. Try it, and if you don’t like it, choose something else.
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4-6 Saltines = 15 grams or 1 serving
When you snack on crackers, checking the label for trans fat and sodium is just as important as looking out for carb content, Kaul notes. Even relatively low-carb crackers may contain unhealthy fats and too much salt.
Choose crackers with no more than 200 milligrams of sodium per serving of carbs, and leave the ones that contain trans fat on the supermarket shelf.
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One small piece = 15 grams or 1 serving
You really can’t go wrong with fruit, says Kaul, as long as you keep an eye on portion size. However, if you have diabetes, fruits like apples, bananas, berries, cantaloupes, strawberries, and peaches are the best choices. Pears and grapes can have too much sugar, she explains.
A medium banana has about 15 grams of carbs, plus it is filling and chock-full of potassium. Berries are rich in fiber and antioxidants. But just remember how much fruit you’re eating.
One serving of berries is just 3/4 of a cup, but it’s easy to eat three times this muchor moreif you’re not careful.
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1/2 cup fruit juice = 15 grams or 1 serving
Kaul tells her clients to choose fruit instead of fruit juice, because fruit contains fiber. And juiceeven the unsweetened, natural kindis high in calories. “Three glasses will give you 300 to 400 calories,” she says.
People who don’t want to give up their OJ should have a small glass with breakfast, she says. And instead of consuming giant-size bottles of sweetened drinks, drink water or unsweetened tea.
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1 cup nonfat skim milk = 15 grams or 1 serving
Dairy foods provide calcium, protein, vitamin D, and other key nutrients, so if you like them, definitely include them in your diet.
But skip full-fat milk for skim, and choose low- or no-fat dairy products.
People with diabetes frequently have high cholesterol and high triglycerides, and weight is often a concern, hence avoiding dairy fats is important, Kaul explains.
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1 cup of light or plain yogurt = 15 grams or 1 serving
Yogurt is a great, healthy choice, as long as you go the nonfat route.
Flavored yogurt is frequently full of sugar, so check the carb content. You may want to skip it and make your own by adding chopped-up fruit and nuts to plain, nonfat yogurt (which is also likely to be less expensive if you buy a quart-size tub).
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2 cookies = 15 grams or 1 serving
Being diabetic used to mean being told to kiss tasty treatslike cookiesgood-bye.
But these days, says Kaul, diabetes experts agree that indulging in sweets now and then is okay, as long as you consume them in small portions, and with meals.
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1/2 cup of ice cream = 15 grams or 1 serving
Kaul advises her clients to stay away from ice creamif they canand try low-fat alternatives like frozen yogurt, sherbet, and even sugar-free popsicles.
Because ice cream contains so much fat, it should only be an occasional treat, enjoyed in small portions, she adds.
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