Carbohydrates are an important part of our diet. They help give us energy, and they can be found in all sorts of food, including vegetables, fruit, grains, and dairy products. But what do carbs do to the body? Can eating too many carbs cause high blood sugar? How does this affect diabetes? And how much should you limit your carbohydrate intake if you have diabetes or prediabetes?
In this blog post, we will dive into that and look at the following:
- How do carbs affect blood sugar?
- How does carb intake affect diabetes?
- What is the recommended daily carbohydrate intake per person?
Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar - How Are They Related?
Carbs are sugars, so it is no wonder that they can affect blood sugar levels. Basically, carbs are broken down into glucose in the digestive system before being absorbed into our bloodstreams. This is why blood sugar levels rise after eating carbs.
Now, the body uses the glucose in our bloodstream as energy, but it also needs to be controlled so that it doesn't get too high or too low. Insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, plays a very important role in regulating glucose levels. During and after eating, insulin gets released into the body to transport glucose to cells, where it is used for energy. Glucose then goes up after eating because carbs get broken down and released into the bloodstream as sugar. Some carbs (like white rice, sweets, and pasta) are considered fast carbs which release at once rather than being slowly released over time.
The Glycemic Index and Carb Intake
The glycemic index (GI) is a numerical system that ranks foods based on how quickly and how much they raise blood sugar levels. High glycemic index foods are broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream more quickly than low-GIs.
This means that if you eat high glycemic index carbs like white bread, pasta, and sugary foods, your body will absorb the glucose from those carbs faster than food items with a low glycemic index, such as vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
The difference in how carbs affect the body is not just about their speed of absorption, but it also has a lot to do with how they are digested.
Foods that are high in fiber have a low glycemic index because the digestive process takes longer. For this reason, people with diabetes are advised to eat foods that have a low GI rating for more consistent blood sugar levels throughout the day.
Low GI Food (10 or under)
Low GI foods are those with complex carbohydrates. These include:
- Whole grains such as oats, rye bread, and bran cereal
- Legumes like kidney beans and lentils.
- Fruits like apples, pears, and oranges
- Vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and cucumber provide antioxidants to fight off cell-damaging free radicals in the body
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
Medium GI Food (10-19)
Medium GI foods are those that have a slightly higher glycemic index. These include:
- Whole wheat bread, pancakes, and whole-grain cereal
- High-fiber foods such as bran flakes, shredded wheat, and cornflakes
- Dried fruits like raisins or prunes
- Sweet corn, bananas, and raw pineapple
- Rice cakes are a good choice for those who want to eat something sweet but don't want the high GI carbohydrates.
High GI Food (20+)
High GI foods include:
- White bread, white rice, or potatoes
- French fries, potato chips, pretzels, corn chips
- Sugary drinks like regular soda and fruit punch
- Condiments like ketchup, barbecue sauce, and chocolate syrup
How Do Carbs Affect Blood Sugar?
Carbs affect blood sugar levels in different ways. The food's glycemic index is very important, but so are the portion sizes you eat at each meal. If your body doesn't use all the carbohydrates, it receives from foods with high GI ratings. Then they will be stored as fat instead of being broken down into glucose for energy.
What carbs can raise blood sugar levels?
Basically, any carbs can raise your blood glucose levels. It’s important to note that each person is a bit different and blood glucose responses vary from person to person.
What carbs can lower blood sugar?
Foods with a low glycemic index, particularly leafy green vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, can lower blood sugar levels. Additionally, meat is also good for stabilizing insulin resistance which helps the body maintain its blood sugar levels. Another method to curbing glucose is pairing your carbs with protein, fiber, and fat. Pairing your carbs so they aren’t “naked” makes it take longer to break down carbs into sugar so it releases into your bloodstream more slowly.
How Does Carb Intake Affect Diabetes?
Carb intake affects diabetes because it can affect blood sugar levels. Experts advise people with diabetes to avoid simple carbohydrates such as white bread and other sugary treats. And instead, stick to complex carbs for a more regulated blood sugar control.
What is a low-carb diet?
A low-carbohydrate diet involves lowering or completely removing foods with high GI ratings from your meal plan. This means that instead of eating large portions of refined grains and carbohydrates (e.g., potatoes, pasta, and white bread), you should focus on whole-grain bread, dairy products, fruits, and vegetables.
These carbs work well when paired with proteins or fats so that insulin does not spike too quickly after eating high-carbohydrate items. The total amount of carbohydrates consumed should be less than 45% of one's daily caloric intake if eaten by someone who has diabetes.
A low carb diet can result in:
- Lower blood sugar levels
- Increased insulin sensitivity
- Improved cholesterol and triglyceride levels
- Decreased risk of cardiovascular disease
- Weight loss
What is a high-fiber diet?
A high-fiber diet is a great way to regulate your blood sugar levels and maintain good health. Fiber helps slow down digestion so that enough insulin can work more efficiently in the body, providing more consistent energy throughout the day.
Fiber sources include:
- Fruits such as oranges
- Vegetables such as broccoli and carrots
- Whole-grain bread, pasta, and cereals
- Nuts like almonds or peanuts
- Beans and legumes like kidney beans and lentils.
The health benefits of a high-fiber diet include:
- Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease
- Fewer gastrointestinal issues like constipation and bloating
- Increased satiety after meals due to the high volume of food eaten. This can help prevent overeating or snacking throughout the day, which would result in more calories consumed than needed for energy purposes.
- Reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by preventing blood clotting.
How Many Carbs Should You Eat?
According to research published in The Journal of Nutrition, an adult's daily carbohydrate intake should not exceed 40% of their daily caloric intake. This means that if you are eating 2000 calories per day, then no more than 800 calories (40%) should come from carbs.
This may seem extreme; however, it is important for people with diabetes because sugar levels need to be stable throughout the day. Consuming too many carbohydrates will cause your blood glucose level to spike quickly after meals, making controlling insulin difficult for those who have type-I or even type-II diabetes.
Nonetheless, the standard daily total carbohydrate intake recommendation varies by country and region. What works best for one person may not work well for another due to differences in their bodies' needs and lifestyles. Here are some general guidelines:
- Type I Diabetes (insulin-dependent) - 50 grams max/day
- Type II Diabetes (non-insulin-dependent) - 100+ grams max/day
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women - more than 200 grams max/day
- Children aged five years to 18 years of age - 300+ grams max/day.
- For infants, the recommended carbohydrate intake is between 30g and 45 g per day, depending on their weight.
Counting Carbs and Healthy Eating
Carbohydrate counting involves keeping a food diary to record the amount, type, and brand name for each item consumed to determine its GI rating or carbohydrate content. This way, you can plan your meals accordingly throughout the day to ensure that you are not overeating when it comes to your carb intake.
Overall, there are a number of smartphone apps that can assist you with this. There are free apps that can be downloaded onto your phone in order to track all of the food and drinks consumed throughout the day in real-time. It also provides nutritional information about each item, along with total calories burned during exercise, etc.
Make sure that when counting carbohydrates:
- You get between 45-65% of your total calories from carbohydrates
- You get around 20-35 grams (or about 200kcals) per meal
- And 30-60 grams (about 300 to 600 kcals) for snacks
- Breakfast - cereal with milk; yogurt; orange juice = 125 carbs + 100 protein at 200 calories each = 425 total calorie breakfast
- Snack - banana and peanut butter
- Lunch- whole wheat spaghetti with meatballs, tomato sauce, and salad.
- Dinner - chicken stir fry on brown rice or sweet potato with steamed broccoli.
This is a good example of balanced meals that include protein (chicken), carbohydrates (pasta, brown rice), and vegetables (broccoli).
When it comes to carbs and blood sugar, make healthy choices, stay active, and use tools to help you stay on track.