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Understanding Carbohydrates

You’ve heard it all. From carb-free to low-carb, to whole and empty carbs, it’s hard to know what it all means.1

Get smart on carbs1

The main purpose of carbs in the diet is to provide energy as your body’s main fuel source. The carbs plus the amount of insulin you have in your body determine your blood sugar levels and have a big impact on how you feel.

Whether you’re trying to lose weight or simply balance your blood sugar, carbs play a big role. Refined carbs are things like white bread and sugar-sweetened drinks that tend to cause spikes in blood sugar. You’ve probably heard these called empty carbs, or even ‘empty calories.’

Get to Know Carbs2

Carbohydrates or “carbs” get a lot of attention these days and you may wonder if you should even eat them at all. The fact is that food is made up of three main things: carbohydrate, protein, and fat. You need all of these to stay healthy, but the amounts that each person needs or chooses to eat may be very different. The most important thing is choosing the carbs that give you the most bang for your buck in terms of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Processed foods tend to be high in carbohydrate while very low in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, giving carbs a bad rap. But choosing less processed carb foods and paying attention to how much you are eating can make a big difference in your blood sugar and overall health.

Carbs come in many different forms, but let’s focus on the top three: starch, sugar and fiber.


Foods high in starch include:

  • Starchy vegetables like peas, corn, lima beans and potatoes
  • Dried beans, lentils and peas such as pinto beans, kidney beans, black eyed peas, and split peas
  • Grains like oats, barley, rice, wheat, and others.
  • Whole grains are just that, the whole plant that has been harvested and dried with little processing. They provide fiber as well as essential vitamins including B and E and other minerals needed for optimal health.

Refined grains are processed to remove the most healthful parts including fiber, vitamins, and minerals.


Sugar is another source of carbohydrate. There are two main types of sugars:

  • Naturally occurring sugars such as those in milk or fruit
  • Added sugars that are added during processing, such as fruit canned in heavy syrup, sugar added to make a cookie, and table sugar to name a few.

There are many different names for sugar. Examples of common names are table sugar, brown sugar, molasses, honey, cane sugar, powdered sugar, and maple syrup.


Fiber comes from plant-based foods and is important for our gut health. Fiber also makes us feel full and helps lower cholesterol. Aim for 25-30 grams per day.

Fiber is found in plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and pulses (dried beans, peas and lentils). Fiber is like your body’s natural scrub brush, passing through your digestive tract carrying a lot of bad stuff out with it.

For optimal health, adults need to eat 25 to 30 grams of fiber each day. While it is wise to aim for this goal, any increase in fiber in your diet can be helpful. Most of us only get about half of what is recommended.

Eating foods higher in fiber can improve your digestion, lower your blood sugar, and reduce your risk of heart disease.

Good sources of dietary fiber include:

  • Beans and legumes. Think black beans, kidney beans, pintos, chick peas (garbanzos), white beans, and lentils
  • Fruits and vegetables (for example, apples, celery and beans) and those with edible seeds (for example, berries)

Whole grains such as:

  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Whole grain cereals
  • Whole grain breads (To be a good source of fiber, one slice of bread should have at least three grams of fiber. Another good indication: look for breads where the first ingredient is a whole grain. For example, whole wheat or oats.)
  • Nuts — try different kinds. Peanuts, walnuts, and almonds are a good source of fiber and healthy fat, but watch portion sizes, because they also contain a lot of calories in a small amount.

If you haven’t been eating a lot of foods high in fiber on a daily basis, it’s important that you increase your intake slowly. Even though they are good for you, it can take time for your body to adjust. A sudden increase in eating foods high in fiber can cause gas, bloating, or constipation. Be sure you are drinking enough water too, because fiber needs water to move through your body!

Count your carbs3

Carbohydrate counting, or “carb counting,” helps many people with diabetes manage their food intake and blood sugar, and it’s most often used by people who take insulin twice or more times a day.
Carb counting may give you more choices and flexibility when planning meals. It involves counting the number of carb grams in a meal and matching that to your dose of insulin. With the right balance of physical activity and insulin, carb counting can help you manage your blood sugar. It sounds complex, but with help from a dietitian or your doctor, you can learn how to find the right balance.

How much carbohydrate?3

The best place to start is to figure out how many carbs you are eating at your meals and snacks now. Tracking your food intake and your blood sugar before and about 2 hours after your meals for a few days can provide useful information for you and your diabetes care team to see how different meals impact your blood glucose and determine the right amount of carbs.

Using food labels3

Carb counting is easier when the information is on the food label. You can look at how much carbohydrate is in the serving of food you plan to eat. The two items on the label that are most useful are the serving size and the total carbohydrate amount.

  • Look at the serving size. All the information on the label is about this amount of food. If you will be eating 2 or 3 servings, then you will need to double or triple the information on the label.
  • Look at the grams of total carbohydrate.
  • Added sugars and other bullets below the total carbohydrate listing are included in the total carbohydrate. They are called out to provide more information about what you are eating.
  • Finding the right balance of carbs, calories and portions that will satisfy you can take time and may also change as other factors in your life change.

References: 1. Understanding carbs | ADA [Internet]. 2020 [cited 19 September 2020]. Available from: 2. Get to Know Carbs | ADA [Internet]. 2020 [cited 19 September 2020]. Available from: 3. Get Smart on Carb Counting | ADA [Internet]. 2020 [cited 19 September 2020]. Available from:

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