Want to master your blood sugars? Here’s what you’ll want to learn about diabetes

  • 7 Minutes Read
Katherine Isacks
Katherine Isacks, MPS, RDN Registered Dietitian

If you have been recently diagnosed with diabetes, then perhaps you're suddenly navigating an alien world, trying to learn everything you can about diabetes. You probably already know that managing blood sugar is most prominent in your treatment plan. The healthiest management requires a balance between diet, medication, and physical activity. Read on to learn how to achieve your best health while managing diabetes.

Learn about diabetes

To learn about diabetes, you need to get to know your blood sugar level

Diabetes is a condition involving insulin levels or production. A person with diabetes may not have enough insulin, or the body cannot correctly use insulin to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. It may also mean the body no longer makes insulin.

When blood sugar is high, it causes damage to a variety of organs in your body.

What's the difference in the two types of diabetes?

There are two major types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. There are also two conditions that cause elevated blood sugar and increase the risk for type 2 diabetes: prediabetes and gestational diabetes.

Your dietary strategy for effective blood sugar control will depend partly on your diagnosis, type of diabetes medication (if any), and whether or not you exercise. Whatever strategy you choose, you must have a solid understanding of carbohydrates and their source from your diet.

There’s a lot to learn about diabetes! Let’s move on to carbs

Carbohydrates ("carbs") are found abundantly in grains, grain products, fruit, juice, milk, yogurt, dried beans and peas (legumes), starchy vegetables (e.g. potatoes), sugars, syrups, and sweets. The carbs that you eat and drink directly affect your blood sugar level.

All digestible carbs eventually convert to glucose or sugar in the body. Glucose travels through the bloodstream to provide cells with energy. The hormone insulin (made in the pancreas) is required for glucose to enter the cells.

How to keep track of carbs

Although not a medical device, the MyNetDiary app is a powerful tool that can help you keep track of the foods you eat and their carbohydrate content. Take a look at the different ways you can keep track of carbs with the app.

Total Carbs. The most common carb counting method is to count the total carb grams listed on the Nutrition Facts label. This is a widespread and accurate method to use.

Net Carbs. By subtracting all fiber and sugar alcohol grams from total carb grams, you get the net carbs value. This method is no longer taught in diabetes education classes since it underestimates the whole digestible carb load and, therefore, the expected rise in blood sugar after eating. Although not digested in the small intestine, some soluble or viscous fibers can be broken down in the large intestine, absorbed, and then converted to sugar.

Some sugar alcohols (low-caloric sweeteners) can also be broken down and converted to sugar. Net carb counting is fine for low-carb diets. Still, suppose you take rapid-acting insulin and find that your post-meal blood sugar is too high. In that case, you might want to get help adjusting your insulin-to-carb ratio or choose a different carb-counting method.

Please talk with your diabetes educator to find the best method for you!

How many carbs can I eat per meal?

Your carb goal depends upon your blood sugar response to the foods you eat, your diagnosis, your diabetes medication, and your level of physical activity.

If you have personalized carbohydrate goals for meals and snacks that are working well for you, stick with them. But if you want general guidelines, you can start with 30-45 grams total carbs per meal (for women) or 45-60 grams total carbs per meal (for men). Most people do well with a snack limited to 15 grams of total carbs, but some active people might need 15-30 grams per snack.

If you have gestational diabetes, please follow the nutrition guidelines that your healthcare provider recommends so that you maintain safe blood sugar levels to support and sustain the pregnancy.

If you take medication to increase insulin production or inject insulin, your risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) increases if you consume too few carbohydrates. Hypoglycemia can be life-threatening–if your blood sugar falls too low, you can pass out.

Skipping meals, extended gaps between meals (e.g., >4-5 hours between meals), and engaging in more exercise than typical can increase your risk for hypoglycemia.

How do I know if I am eating the right amount of carbs?

You won’t know if you are eating the right amount of carbs for your body unless you keep track of carbs and then check your blood sugar.

Meet with your doctor or a diabetes educator to learn how and when to check your blood sugar and to discuss blood sugar target values.

What type of carbs can I eat?

Although your meal or snack's total carbohydrate content will directly affect your blood sugar level most, the type of carb you consume also makes a difference.

To learn more about how certain foods impact blood sugar levels, check out the glycemic index. The glycemic index ranks how carbohydrate-containing foods impact blood sugar levels.

As a general rule of thumb, when comparing foods/drinks of similar carb content, the higher fiber and lower-sugar foods will help keep blood sugar levels in target range.

However, just because a food contains sugar does not mean it is forbidden. For instance, a small piece of fresh fruit or 1 cup of berries is heart-, weight-, and diabetes-friendly and makes a perfect snack when combined with a little protein such as cheese, nuts, or seeds.

Learn about how sugars, syrups, and honey impact diabetes

Have you wondered if you should cut out all sugars, syrups, and honey from your diet if you have diabetes?

You can still include these foods in your diet in moderation. Most importantly, make sure you keep track of the amount you are eating and pay attention to the number of carbs consumed.

Some common portion sizes are remarkably high in carbs for many of these foods so most people either severely restrict their portion size or avoid them altogether. For example, one tablespoon of maple syrup contains about 52 calories and 13 grams carbs (all sugars), whereas one teaspoon contains only 17 calories and just over 4 grams carbs. So, if you use natural sweeteners, measure portions carefully and prudently and acquire the satisfaction of a less sweet taste.

What about soda?

If you drink soda daily and do not wish to stop, then transition to diet soda, which will have an immediate positive effect on your blood sugar. If you are sensitive to caffeine, consider a caffeine-free diet soda.

Ideally, consume less soda. If you crave something with flavor and caffeine, try unsweetened tea or coffee. If you must add sweetener, try adding just one teaspoon of honey for 20 calories and 5 grams of carbs.

And don't forget–water is the best way to hydrate, so be sure to drink that as a first choice. If you find plain water tasteless, here are some other low-calorie beverage ideas.

Artificial sweeteners

Many people want to know if it is okay to use non-caloric (non-nutritive) sweeteners to cut down on carbs. If you consume the same portion size, then yes, a sugar-free version would lower your carb grams. For example, replacing a regular can of soda (39 grams carbs) with diet soda (0 grams carbs) significantly reduces both your calories and carb intake.

You may find that sugar substitutes are a helpful stepping stone towards making healthier food choices overall. Consider using them to wean yourself off regular sugar. Soon, you may find you no longer desire as much sweetness from your food and drink and can cut out regular sugar and sugar substitutes.

While many health authorities consider artificial sweeteners safe, controversy remains about their health impacts. Here’s some additional information on artificial sweeteners:

Should I be following a specific diet for diabetes?

There is not one specific diet that all people with diabetes must follow. However, people with diabetes have a much higher risk for having a heart attack or stroke, so heart-healthy eating is critical.

Eating more non-starchy vegetables is shared among all healthier eating plans. And having carb goals for meals and snacks in concert with your exercise and medication use helps you keep your blood sugar within a safe range.

Mediterranean style. One of the most heart-healthy eating plans, the Mediterranean diet features a high intake of vegetables, nuts, fish, and extra virgin olive oil. There is a fair amount of research to support this style as a wise choice for people with diabetes as well as to lower one's risk of developing diabetes. However, it is still essential to be aware of carb intake and keep your blood sugar within target range often.

Low-Carb. If you are an otherwise healthy person who is not yet taking medication for your diabetes, then a low-carb diet with heart-healthy choices could help you kick start weight loss and control your blood sugar. If this eating style appeals to you, talk with your healthcare provider and see what type would be best for you, given your medical history or other medical conditions. Contrary to popular belief, not all people with diabetes have to eat low-carb. However, it is wise for people with diabetes to have carb goals for meals and snacks for healthy blood sugar levels after eating.

If you take insulin or a sulfonylurea, then plan meals and snacks carefully to include enough carbs (but not too much) to avoid hypoglycemia. Also keep in mind that if you exercise, you can generally handle a higher carb load than if you are sedentary.

Important diet and lifestyle factors to consider when you have diabetes

Let MyNetDiary help you learn about diabetes to reach your goals

MyNetDiary can help you keep track of food and drinks. You can easily track carbs, blood sugar, medications, and other health markers with the app. To get the most out of tracking with MyNetDiary, download the free app and upgrade to a Premium membership. The benefits of Premium membership include:

You can take the reins and control your diabetes–it is within your grasp!

More Resources

Reviewed and updated by Joanna Kriehn and Brenda Braslow on March 3, 2024.

Still new to MyNetDiary? Learn more today by downloading the app for FREE.

Disclaimer: Please note that we cannot provide personalized advice and that the information provided does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit a medical professional.

Mar 4, 2024
Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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