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Carb-ucation: Get the Most out of the Carbs in Your Diet

We are becoming more mindful of sugar in our diets, and with rising rates of diabetes that’s not a bad thing. But anyone familiar with a nutrition label knows that sugars are filed under carbohydrates, one of the primary sources of energy in our diets. This has created some confusion around carbohydrates: Are carbs bad? Should I cut as many carbs as possible? We turned to OhioHealth dietitian Cheryl Waller, MS, RDN, to take us from carb-confused to carb-conscious.

What is a carbohydrate?

Cheryl: Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are what we call macronutrients. Carbohydrates are the primary energy source in our diet. Whether we eat carbohydrates in the form of sugar or starch, they will eventually be converted to glucose in the body to be used as fuel. When our blood glucose levels rise, our bodies respond by releasing insulin, which allows the glucose to enter our cells and be used for energy.

For people with diabetes, the insulin they produce is either insufficient or ineffective, so being aware of the carbohydrate levels in food becomes very important. When we think of carbohydrates, we usually think of sugars and starches, but fiber is also a source of carbohydrate that has value in providing extra nutrients and incomplete absorption by the body. Fiber contributes to added fullness and better blood glucose control. Blood glucose levels in excess of what the body can use are ultimately stored as fat for later use.

Which foods have carbohydrates?

Cheryl: You will find carbohydrates in varying levels in many foods we eat. Sugar naturally occurs in fruits and dairy products. Starches form the basis of foods like potatoes, corn, bread, pasta, rice and beans. Whole grain starches and dried beans provide more fiber in our diets.

Highly processed foods with added sugar and processed grains with the fiber removed will cause sharp spikes in your blood sugar, as will candy and sugar-sweetened beverages that provide no other nutritional value.

If all carbohydrates convert to sugar, what is the difference between eating candy and fruit?

Cheryl: The difference is that fruit will provide additional nutrients in the form of vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber and water. That fiber will modify your body’s glucose response in a very good way. It slows the absorption of carbohydrate into your body allowing your body to make more efficient use of the energy. You will also feel fuller longer. That’s what makes sweets, particularly beverages sweetened with sugar, a poor choice. They provide only processed sugar and little else of nutritional value.

So it’s good to include other foods when eating carbohydrates?

Cheryl: Yes, here’s an example: If you eat a potato alone, you’ll absorb the carbohydrates pretty quickly, and your blood sugar will spike. But if you eat that same potato along with a protein such as grilled chicken breast, your blood sugar will come up more slowly and stick with you longer. The incorporation of healthy fats and lean protein can help to modify your body’s response to the carbohydrate you are eating in a positive way. People who have diabetes become very familiar with this approach to eating because it helps regulate their blood sugar. So if you’re going to eat rice, try brown rice which has more fiber, add some olive oil, seasoning and a lean meat such as chicken. If your snack is an apple, adding a tablespoon of natural peanut butter can make it more satisfying.

Are low-carb diets safe?

Cheryl: You shouldn’t overindulge in carbs, but you shouldn’t be afraid of them either. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. Eliminating or minimizing one major group of foods can throw off the balance of nutrients in your diet. My concern with low-carb diets is that you end up eating a disproportionate amount of protein and fat. Also, you are omitting a major source of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals (which includes antioxidants) and fiber in your diet. They are also an excellent source of energy, which you can balance with portion control and exercise.

Speaking with a registered dietitian can help to dispel the many misconceptions people have about carbs and to personalize your approach to carbohydrates in your diet.

What should people look for at the grocery store or on nutrition labels?

Cheryl: First, you want to avoid foods that include nearly all of their carbohydrates as sugar. You should look for a balance between sugar and fiber, especially if you have diabetes since fiber helps reduce the impact of the carbohydrate in the food. When reading a food label, it is important to look at the Total Carbohydrate content, as this includes sugar (both added and natural), fiber and the starches contained in the food.

Get the majority of your carbs from fruit, dried beans, lentils, and whole grains. Don’t forget to fill up on non-starchy vegetables as well—they provide a perfect balance of vitamins, minerals, water and fiber without contributing additional carbohydrate to your diet. Balance is the key, not only in the types of foods you eat but in the types of foods you eat together.

If you want extra help, join us for one of our nutrition classes at OhioHealth!