Back to basics on carbohydrate foods

Guest Post, Sally Marchini, Dietitian

So many people I see in my practice who’ve had diabetes for a while, when I ask them which foods contain carbohydrates they struggle to answer.  So this is really a back to basics blog to remind us about which foods contain carbohydrate, why it’s important to recognise them, which foods don’t contain carbohydrate (or enough to worry about from a diabetes point of view) and a quick summary on quality and quantity issues. I hope it will also be helpful for those of you newly diagnosed with D.

Why is it important for people with diabetes to understand about carbohydrates?

The billions of cells in our body choose glucose as their fuel to help them keep us functioning properly.  The food that we eat contains energy from carbohydrates, proteins and fats and it’s the carbohydrates that are broken down by our digestive system and becomes glucose in our bloodstream to fuel those busy cells. The proteins and fats play other key roles including repair, protection and communication and we need a quality balance of all three for wellbeing. The words I’ve highlighted here will take you other blogs on those topics if you feel like you need further information about them.

Of course with diabetes we need to manage how much glucose is in our bloodstream, which is why it’s important to understand how much carbohydrate is in different foods, and how both quality and quantity of the carbs we eat makes an impact. The glycemic index of the carbs we choose also makes a big impact, so I encourage you to read this blog to learn more about this important aspect of carbohydrates. The only time we need high-GI carbs is for hypo treatments, and this should be discussed with your D-team.

We can’t just cut carbohydrates out of our diet as our bodies need them for basic energy requirements, and many of the foods that contain carbohydrates also contain essential nutrients for our wellbeing. It’s also not sustainable to just eat protein, fat and non-starchy vegetables. So if we can learn how to choose quality carbohydrates in reasonable amounts it can make an enormous difference to both our diabetes management and our overall wellbeing.

Which foods contain carbohydrates?

A good place to start is the Australian Dietary Guidelines and the five food groups which all contain sources of carbohydrates:

  1. Vegetables – mainly potato, sweet potato, corn and legumes/beans
  2. Fruit
  3. Grains (cereal) foods
  4. Protein foods – really only the legumes/beans and some nuts.
  5. Dairy

Carbohydrates from these five groups are necessary for our overall wellbeing. The idea with diabetes is to take the majority of your carb intake from these groups.  Again, click the highlighted words to link to previous blogs written just on those topics.

Discretionary choices or ‘sometimes foods’

Most of these contain carbohydrates, and (sadly for some) they’re not ‘good’ carbs so you need to be aware when you choose foods like these that you’re likely to upset your blood glucose control and disrupt your wellness.

As outlined in the Australian Dietary Guidelines, discretionary choices include these types of foods below which you’ll notice, along with fats, salt and alcohol, also contain carbohydrates that will affect our blood glucose management:

  • Sweet biscuits, cakes and desserts
  • Processed meats and sausages
  • Ice-cream, confectionery and chocolate
  • Meat pies and other pastries
  • Commercial burgers, hot chips and fried foods
  • Crisps and other fatty and/or salty snacks
  • Cream and butter
  • Sugar-sweetened cordials, soft drinks, fruit drinks and sports drinks
  • Alcoholic drinks

Which foods don’t contain carbohydrates?

Most of the protein foods (other than legumes/beans and some nuts) are carbohydrate free, and fats are carbohydrate free.

Non-starchy vegetables are also fairly carbohydrate free, in that we don’t need to worry about ‘counting’ the carbs in them.

In terms of dairy, the one that tricks many is that cheese doesn’t contain (much) carbohydrate – again not enough to worry us for counting it.

It’s important to remember with these ‘carb-free’ foods, that many of them contain calories/kilojoules so will affect our weight which in turn can affect our diabetes, so it’s important to check with your dietitian as to how much of each you should be consuming.

How do I carbohydrate count?

This subject really depends on the type of diabetes you have as to how accurate you need to be with your carb counting.

As a general rule though, here in Australia we count 15g of carbohydrates in a serve of food as one carbohydrate serve. If it’s 3g less, then it’s half a serve, and 3g more than 15g is 1.5 serves.

For people with type 2 diabetes who are not on insulin, we often suggest a small fist size counts as one carb serve – think one piece of bread, one glass of milk, one piece of fruit, etc.

How many serves you have depends on you and your health professional’s personalised advice for you.  In terms of a minimum amount of carbohydrate, you might like to read this blog discussing low carb diets.

There are some excellent free resources to find out how much carbohydrate is in different foods. There are lots of these available, but a few good examples include:

In Summary

If you can learn to recognise the carbohydrates in the foods you’re eating then you should also begin to see patterns emerging in your blood glucose control. Choosing nutritious, preferably low GI carbs spread evenly across the meals and snacks in your day should make a great difference in your diabetes management.

As usual I recommend that you speak to your own Accredited Practising Dietitian for personalised advice, but hope that you found this blog helpful.

Sally 🙂

Sally is owner of her private practice (Marchini Nutrition), and has had type 1 diabetes for close to 40 years and coeliac disease for many years too.