When you find out you have diabetes or pre-diabetes, it can be difficult to know where to start. It’s an overwhelming feeling. You know that you’ll have to make some major life changes, some of which you’ll need to make immediately, others you can begin making gradually. But, which ones are which? With November’s American Diabetes Month observance winding down, it’s important to remember just how prevalent diabetes, particularly type 2 diabetes, has become in our country. Approximately 30 million adults and children in the United States have it, with another 86 million people experiencing pre-diabetes, many of whom don’t even realize it. Recent estimates project as many as one in three American adults will have diabetes by 2050 if we don’t take significant action. So, whether you have been given a diabetes diagnosis or not, we all can and should be looking at ways to better ourselves and our habits.
Blount Memorial registered dietitian Angie Tillman says one way to do so is to begin looking at your carbohydrate intake. “Most of us are aware that we probably should be taking steps to reduce our carb intake, whether we have diabetes or not,” Tillman said. “I find, however, that many of my patients are confused about exactly what carbohydrates are, which foods contain carbohydrates and how to really get started reducing them. Carbohydrate is, quite simply, a nutrient found in foods that we eat that provides energy in the form of glucose. The two main forms of carbohydrates are sugars, such as fructose, glucose, and lactose) and starches, which are found in foods such as starchy vegetables, grains, rice, breads and cereals. The body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, which is absorbed into the bloodstream. In diabetes, excess glucose builds up in the bloodstream and is not able to get into the cells to be used for energy,” she explained. “Reducing carbohydrate in the diet, along with exercise and medication, is one of the primary ways to lower our blood glucose levels,” she added.
“Carbohydrates primarily are found in four categories of foods,” Tillman continued. “First, we have starches, which are the foods most people usually associate as having carbs. These include breads; starchy vegetables, such as corn, peas, winter squash, potatoes and sweet potatoes; pasta; rice; crackers; chips; and beans and legumes. The second category includes fruits and fruit juices. Any fruit contains fructose and, therefore, is a carbohydrate. Juices and dried fruits are very concentrated sources of carbohydrate. Next, we have milk and yogurt. Milk and yogurt contain lactose, or milk sugar. Cheese typically is lower in carbohydrate and higher in protein, so it doesn’t contribute significant carbohydrate. And finally, we have sweets, which nearly all of us fall victim to from time to time. These, of course, include candy, desserts, sodas, sports drinks, and even things like honey or maple syrup,” Tillman explained.
To begin reducing carbs, Tillman says you should look at reducing those last things first. “Sweets, desserts and sugary drinks are a great place to start reducing your carb intake,” she said. “Remember, though, any action you take should be sustainable and individualized for your specific needs, which is why you should consult a registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator before you begin. A ‘lower carbohydrate’ diet is generally in the range of 30-100 grams per day. Depending on where you are when you’re starting the diet, it may be more beneficial to reduce that level even more. The standard American person’s diet typically contains 300 grams of carbohydrate or more daily,” she said. “To put that into perspective, a large burger value meal from a typical fast food restaurant contains approximately 180 grams carbohydrate,” she added.