Some Truths about Carbs

Let’s talk about healthy carbs, including starch. There is such a thing – even for people with diabetes or prediabetes. In recent years, eating has become fear-based. To many people, eating healthy is all about avoiding whatever food or ingredient is the villain of the day. Relax! Food is good! And yes, people with diabetes or prediabetes CAN eat carbs, even starchy carbs.

hummus, crackers and bread

I want you to enjoy eating and to focus on choosing health-boosting, nutrient-dense foods instead of wasting your energy on a list of “bad carbs” or other foods to avoid. It’s waaaaay more fun to think about what to eat instead of worrying about what not to eat.

5 Ways to Pick Healthy Carbs

  1. Know that not all foods with carbohydrates are the same. Of course, you know this, but I want you to really embrace this. Over the years, many of my patients who’ve followed low-carb diets learned to put all foods with carbs in the same category. But kidney beans and jelly beans don’t belong in the same category. Neither do quinoa and biscuits even though they are both starchy foods. I put quinoa in a healthy grain category and biscuits in the “let’s-have-this-rarely” category. So how do you know if your pick is a healthy carb or not? Just ask yourself if it’s loaded with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber. If the answer is yes, then yay, you’ve got yourself a healthy carb. Did you notice that I asked about what’s IN the food, not what’s MISSING from the food? That’s what I mean about giving up fear-based food choices. You can learn more about why I Eat Carbs in an older blog post.
    • You might even be surprised by the vast array of healthy carbs. Really what I mean is the vast array of healthy foods that contain carbohydrates because carbohydrate is a nutrient, not a type of food. You’ll find carbohydrates in nuts, non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, fruits like blueberries, roasted chickpeas, yogurt, milk, tofu and lots more. These nutrient-dense foods don’t belong in the same category as cola, sweet tea, ice cream and toaster pastries. Also, I’m not saying that you should never eat these nutrient-poor foods, but I do suggest limiting them.
  2. Know that not all starches are the same. I talk about resistant starch a good bit because it’s pretty cool. As a reminder, resistant starch is resistant to our digestive enzymes. Instead of being digested and absorbed and adding to blood sugar levels, resistant starch journeys down to the large intestine where it makes our gut bacteria happy. Microbes in our colon make a meal out of this unique fiber and thrive. In the process, beneficial compounds like butyrate are formed. Lentils, black beans, and uncooked oats are some of my favorites sources of resistant starch.
  3. Rein in large portions. Whether it’s a bowl of spaghetti, a toasted bagel, a salad of mixed fruit, a side of quinoa or any favorite food, portion size matters. A typical bagel store bagel is the equivalent of 4 or 5 slices of bread! Crazy, right? It just doesn’t look like it. A platter of spaghetti is nearly always too large. Right size your portions by making a starchy side dish about 1/4 of your plate. If you’re a carb counter for diabetes management, learn the carb counts of various carb-containing foods in reasonable portions sizes. Swap one carb-containing food for another. For example, enjoy 2 slices of bread (~30 grams carbs) for your sandwich, but skip the macaroni salad side dish. A piece of fruit the size of a tennis ball provides about 15 grams of carbohydrate. Here’s How to Count Carbs.
  4. Look for higher-fiber starches. There are so many different types of fiber, and we need all of them. And for people with diabetes or prediabetes, fiber is no less important. In fact, diets with an abundance and variety of fibers is linked to less type 2 diabetes. And consuming various viscous fibers helps people who have type 2 diabetes. Resistant starch type of fiber doesn’t contribute to blood sugar. Yet people with blood sugar concerns often consume low amounts of fiber because of their worry about carbs in general and starchy foods in particular. Don’t fear carbs. Make your carbs count. And one way to do that is to choose healthy carbs that have lots of fiber: lentils, beans, barley, quinoa, and popcorn.
  5. Learn your individualized blood sugar response. Your diabetes is not the same as your neighbor’s or your friend’s. Your response to various foods and amounts of food is also uniquely yours. And muddying the picture even more: your blood sugar response to various foods and amounts of food changes from meal to meal and under different conditions. To learn how food affects, you’ll need to measure your blood sugar levels. Learn more with Test Blood Sugar Twice and Blood Sugar Basics.

Healthy eating works!

Here’s just one example showing that a wholesome, health-boosting diet really makes a difference. A slim, active woman in her late 50s came to me with new diagnosis of prediabetes and a very strong family history of type 2 diabetes. Her diet was already pretty good, but we tweaked it to make it better. She started eating meals instead of grazing. She included high-fiber foods with most meals and snacks – more fruits, vegetables, and healthy starches like lentils, oats and others. Within just weeks, she dropped her A1C (a measure of average blood sugar levels over about 3 months) from 6.2% to 5.5%, which is in the normal range! With her genetics, there’s no guarantee that she won’t move back to the prediabetes or diabetes range, but this story is proof that a wholesome diet including carbohydrates  – healthy carbs – can be quite helpful.

Jill Weisenberger

I'm Jill, and I believe simple changes in your mindset and health habits can bring life-changing rewards. And I don't believe in willpower. It's waaaay overrated. As a food-loving registered dietitian nutritionist, certified diabetes care and education specialist and certified health and wellness coach, I've helped thousands of people solve their food and nutrition problems. If you're looking for a better way to master this whole healthy eating/healthy living thing or if you're trying to prevent or manage diabetes or heart problems, you'll find plenty of resources right here.

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  1. Nancy Huss on May 28, 2019 at 10:28 am

    Hi Jill,
    I just posted this on fb. Love this article! It’s crazy how many of my friends talk about how they can’t and won’t eat carbs. You have helped me turn the corner to a much healthier lifestyle. I feel more and more liberated everyday instead of feeling deprived from “fear” based choices!

    • Jill Weisenberger on May 28, 2019 at 10:38 am

      Your comments make my day! Yes, isn’t it much better to approach eating in a positive way instead of from a position of fear! Bravo to YOU for being open to this change.

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Hi there! I'm Jill, a nutrition & diabetes expert and the author of 4 books.

Jill Weisenberger

I believe simple changes in health habits can bring you life-changing rewards.

And I believe willpower is way overrated.

Right here is where you can discover the mindset and habits to stick with healthy lifestyle choices most of the time - and drop the guilt when you don't.

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