Carbohydrates and Diabetes: What’s the Big Deal?

carbohydrates and diabetesInterestingly, there are fewer topics that seem to cause more controversy than carbohydrates and diabetes. Some popular experts advocate some form of a low carb diet, such as Dr. Robert Atkins, Dr. Arthur Agatston and The Diabetes Diet by Dr. Richard Bernstein .

These experts also debate the type of carbs you should or should not eat. Meanwhile, the American Diabetes Association historically has refused to endorse low carbohydrate diets.

However, starting in 2008, the ADA did seem to soften prohibition on low carb diets. The ADA’s Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes 2008 suggest that a low carbohydrate diet may be useful as a temporary method to help people lose weight, but stopped short of endorsing this type of diet for long term use.

So, what’s the big deal about the carbohydrates and the diabetes diet? First, let’s ask: what is a carbohydrate and are they created equal? A carbohydrate is one of the three main sources of energy in your food (the others being protein and fat).

The key issue with carbohydrates is that they can pack a lot of quick energy which can spike your blood glucose levels. Obviously, you are trying to avoid sharp spikes in your glucose levels. This effect is also dependent on the amount of exercise and insulin (naturally produced or injected) a person has.


There are three main types: Complex Carbohydrates (Starches and Grains), Sugar and Dietary Fiber.

Complex Carbohydrates

bakery full of breadStarch is the main storage form of carbohydrates in plants. Examples include:

Peas, corn, lima beans and potatoes.

Dry beans (lentils, kidney beans, black eyed peas)

Grains (wheat, oats, barley, rice)

Grains are further subdivided into whole grain or refined grain. Whole grain includes all three parts of the grain (bran, germ, and endosperm). Refined grain only includes the endosperm.

Whole grains are popular today because the bran (contains fiber, B vitamins and minerals) and germ (contains essential fatty acids and vitamin E) portions of grain contain valuable nutrition not found in the endosperm. Unfortunately, most Americans consume the refined grains only. A refined grain example is white flour, white pasta, white rice, etc.


Sugar is another form of carbohydrate, sometimes referred to as fast acting or a simple carbohydrate. There are two types of sugar: naturally occurring and added. Naturally occurring sugar is found in milk and fruit. Added sugar is commonly found in processed food such as cookies, certain breakfast cereals, etc. A prime example of added sugar would be high fructose corn syrup.

Dietary Fiber

Fiber is the indigestible portion of plants. The body uses fiber to aid the digestive process (moving food through the intestines and helping to keep you regular) and help fill you up so you do not overeat. Fiber is found in vegetables (e.g., black, kidney, white and pinto beans), fruits (e.g., apples and berries), and whole grains.

As you can see, the diabetes diet and carbohydrates are strongly linked. It really matters what type of carbohydrate you eat. It is not enough to say all carbohydrates are “bad” and then start on a low carb diet.

In fact, I think the best research currently available suggests that a whole food plan based diet is the best way to control, if not reverse your diabetes. This diet has plenty of “good” carbohydrates and no animal products. Check out the article to learn more.