Good Carbs and Bad Carbs: How Do They Affect Diabetics?

Dr. Pakhi Sharma (MBBS)
Dr. Pakhi Sharma (MBBS)

General Physician | 6+ years

Good Carbs and Bad Carbs
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For years now, changing food trends have been alternatively vilifying and glorifying carbs and their role in the diabetic diet. There’ve been numerous articles over the years claiming carbs are both helpful and harmful for diabetics. So what’s correct? Is there such a thing as good carbs and bad carbs? Can diabetics safely eat carbohydrates without worrying about spiking their blood sugar levels? Let’s find out.

Contents:
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    Carbs 101: What Exactly are Carbohydrates?
  • blog_single_bullet_icon
    So Which Carbs are Good and Which are Bad?
  • blog_single_bullet_icon
    Are Carbs a No-No for Diabetics?
  • blog_single_bullet_icon
    How to Pick the Right Carbs for Managing Your Blood Sugar?
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    Don’t Have Time To Read?
  • blog_single_bullet_icon
    FAQs
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Carbs 101: What Exactly are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates, or ‘carbs’ for short, are one of three macronutrients, which are foods your body needs in larger amounts to produce energy. The other two macronutrients are protein and fats.

Carbohydrates are basically made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, and are found in most of the foods you eat.

For most people, carbohydrates are the major source of energy. This is because the end product of carbohydrate digestion, glucose (sugar), can be easily utilised by your cells. Though some people can function on a low-carb diet, the nutritional requirements of each body may differ.

Before understanding how to differentiate between good carbs and bad carbs, let’s first get to know the different types of carbs.

Fibre

Derived from plant-based sources like fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, whole grains, etc., fibre is a type of carbohydrate that does not get completely digested in your gut. As such, it releases a smaller amount of glucose into your bloodstream, and at a more slow and stable pace.

Fibre also takes longer to digest, and can absorb water to swell up. This makes you feel full for a longer period of time, which prevents overeating.

Starch

Starches are long-chain compounds that are made up of several smaller sugar molecules. They are the most common carb found in your food. Starch is quite similar to fibre in function, i.e. it takes longer to digest.

Examples of starchy foods include vegetables like plantains, peas, corn and potatoes, rice, legumes, beans, bananas, and dried fruits like figs, peaches, apricots, etc.

Sugar

Sugars like glucose, fructose, sucrose, lactose, dextrose, etc., are the simplest form of carbohydrates that are found in food. They get digested easily and quickly, which leads to increased absorption from your gut and results in a sharp and sudden rise in your blood sugar levels.

Sources of natural and added sugars include table sugar, honeyjaggery, fruits, milk, and processed foods like candy, chocolates, baked goods, juices, sodas, etc.

 

So Which Carbs are Good and Which are Bad?

Now that we’ve gained a basic understanding of carbs and their types, let’s try and figure out which carbs are beneficial for your health and which aren’t.

Good Carbs AKA Complex Carbs

Complex carbs are foods that are made up of longer chains of carbohydrates and take longer to digest. They include fibre and starch which raise your blood sugar levels gradually. Complex carbohydrates are also more nutrient-rich and filling. This makes them good for diabetics.

Bad Carbs AKA Simple Carbs

Simple carbs are made up of sugars, which as we previously saw, are smaller compounds that are easily digested. They are not as rich in fibre or nutrients as complex carbohydrates, and can cause drastic spikes and dips in your blood sugar levels. This can make you feel hungrier much sooner, and even lead to sugar cravings, which can further increase your calorie intake. For this reason, simple carbs can be termed as bad for diabetics.

Food GroupGood Carbs ExamplesBad Carbs Examples
Vegetables

Cooked vegetables

Raw vegetables

Fried vegetables

Canned vegetables

FruitsFresh fruits  

Candied fruits

Fruit juices, sodas

Grains & starches
  • Whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat, millets
  • Oatmeal
  • Beans, legumes, pulses
  • Whole wheat bread and pasta
  • Refined grains like white rice, wheat, refined flour
  • Processed cereal
  • Baked goods and fried food
  • White bread and white pasta
Dairy
  • Low-fat milk
  • Low or non-fat yoghurt
  • Low-fat cheese
  • Butter
  • Ghee
  • Ice cream

Good Carbs vs Bad Carbs Chart 

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Are Carbs a No-No for Diabetics?

Not really. Since carbohydrates are a major food group that are an important source of energy, it can be impractical and not quite possible to completely avoid them without making drastic changes to your diet. 

Instead of completely cutting out carbs from your diet, you can increase the amount of other macronutrients like protein and healthy fats in your diet, while including more of the ‘good carbs’ in your daily meals and limiting the amount of ‘bad carbs’ you are consuming.

How to Pick the Right Carbs for Managing Your Blood Sugar?

Now that we’ve understood what makes some carbs good and others bad, let’s see how you can make healthier food choices. 

Quality of Carbs

As already mentioned, including more unprocessed, whole, and complex sources of carbohydrates in your diet can help control your blood sugar, manage your weight, and improve your general health. These carbs are a more complete source of nutrition and are unlikely to have other unhealthy additions like saturated or trans fats. 

Another way to ensure the quality of carbs you are consuming is by checking the glycaemic index (GI) score of that particular food. The GI score of a food is a number assigned to it based on how much it raises your blood sugar levels two hours after eating. The lower the GI score of a food, the smaller blood sugar spike it causes, and the better it is for diabetics.

Quantity of Carbs

Most doctors and nutritionists recommend that diabetics stick to consuming 45 to 60 g of carbohydrates for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and have one snack with about 15 g of carbs between meals. This quantity may vary slightly from person to person, but it is thought to be the ideal amount of carbs for a diabetic adult on a 2000-calorie diet. 

You can determine the amount of carbs you are consuming by reading the labels and measuring your portion sizes. Also known as carb counting, this practice can make managing your blood sugar levels much simpler. Carb counting is very important for diabetics that have been prescribed insulin, as it helps them calculate the dosage of insulin to be taken.

Don’t Have Time To Read?

  • Carbohydrates or carbs are one of the three major sources of energy found in your food.
  • Carbs are digested in your gut and broken down into glucose. Based on the ease of digestion and their structure, carbs can be divided into three types: fibre, starch and sugars.
  • Fibre and starch are classified as complex carbohydrates, as they are not completely digested in your gut, which keeps your blood sugar levels stable.
  • Sugars like glucose, fructose, sucrose, etc. are classified as simple carbohydrates, as they are easily digested and absorbed into your bloodstream, which leads to a sharper spike and dip in blood sugar.
  • Complex carbohydrates are more nutrient-dense, and keep you satiated for longer, whereas simple carbohydrates do not have much nutritional value and can lead to frequent hunger.
  • Diabetics need not cut out carbs from their diet completely. Choosing healthier, “good” complex carbs over “bad” simple carbs can help you better manage your blood sugar.
  • Use the Phable Care App to consult India’s leading diabetologists, order medicines, book lab tests, integrate blood sugar monitoring and other devices to get real-time remote care from the comfort of your home. Also, check out our Diabetes Management Program which provides ‎360º care. Let’s treat diabetes together.

Frequently Asked Questions

Whole carbs (carbs from unprocessed or minimally processed foods) and complex carbs (fibre and starch) are some of the healthiest carbohydrates that you can eat. Including more unprocessed sources of carbohydrates in your diet like whole grains (brown rice, whole wheat, oats, millets, etc.), vegetables, beans, legumes, lean meats, nuts, and seeds can help you better manage your sugar levels.

No one particular type of food or carbohydrate can help you lose belly fat. A balanced diet and exercise can help you burn more fat and contribute to weight loss. Since consuming refined carbs and simple carbs can make you gain weight, including more complex carbs and whole carbs in your diet can help you maintain or lose weight.

Carbs like fibre and resistant starch, which have a low glycaemic index (GI) score and take longer to digest, are much less likely to spike your blood sugar levels, as they release glucose into your bloodstream at a much slower and stable rate. Some examples include leafy green and non-starchy vegetables, whole grains, low GI fruits like apples, oranges, berries, nuts and seeds, dairy products like cheese and yoghurt, popcorn, lean meat like fish and chicken, etc.

You should avoid carbs that have a high glycaemic index (GI) score, have no fibre content (refined carbs), and carbs that are completely made up of simple sugars like glucose, fructose or sucrose. Some examples of unhealthy carbs include candy, cakes, chocolates, fast food, chips, deep-fried food, sugary cereal, refined flour and foods made from it like white bread, pasta, pizza, etc.

Any carbs that are overly processed, made up of simple sugars and have no fibre content should be avoided by diabetics, as they can spike your blood sugar levels. Examples include starchy vegetables like potatoes, high GI fruits like watermelon, junk food, fried food, refined flour, store-bought juices, sodas, foods with added sugars, etc.

Complex carbs like fibre and starch that do not digest quickly, do not spike your blood sugar, and keep you feeling full for longer are known as “good” carbs. Simple carbohydrates like sugar that are digested and absorbed into your blood quickly and raise and drop your blood sugar suddenly are known as “bad” carbs. 

Dr. Pakhi Sharma
Dr. Pakhi Sharma, MBBS
(General physician, 6+ years)
An expert in obstetrics and medical emergencies, Dr. Pakhi Sharma, an alumni of Sri Devaraj Urs University of Higher Education and Research Centre, is a general physician working at Phablecare. She has 6+ years of work experience spread across gynaecology and obstetrics, family medicine, and medical emergencies at renowned hospitals and clinics.

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