Monitoring carbs is an essential part of planning a healthy diabetes diet. Here’s what diabetes caregivers need to know.
If you’re caring for a friend or family member who has diabetes, tracking daily carbohydrates is necessary in order to keep your loved one’s blood sugar levels within his or her recommended target range. That’s because a carb-heavy meal can send blood sugar sky-high.
“If you eat a big plate of spaghetti with garlic bread, that has about 120 carbs in it, so you'll get a big blood sugar spike," explains Tami Ross, president-elect of the American Association of Diabetes Educators and a registered dietitian in Lexington, KY. Blood glucose levels start to increase within about 15 to 20 minutes of eating a high-carb meal and peak one to two hours later.
Here’s what you need to know to help your loved one who has diabetes manage carbohydrate intake:
Know the carb budget. Recommended daily carb counts vary, depending on the type of diabetes and how it’s being managed. Ross says that most women should eat 45 to 60 carb grams per meal, with a 15-gram snack (half a banana or a cup of plain yogurt) if needed. Men should eat 60 to 75 carb grams per meal, with up to two snacks of 15 to 30 grams each if necessary.
“An analogy that I’ll use with my patients is a checking account," says Ross. "You have your carb goal for each meal and snack, and you can spend that on whatever you want. But when it’s gone, it’s gone. And the penalty for overdrawing the account is that your blood sugar is above target.”
Become a carb connoisseur. To learn the carbohydrate amount in packaged items, look at the Nutrition Facts label on the packaging. “The total carbohydrate count is a ‘one-stop shop’ of information,” Ross says. Be mindful of serving size—if the label lists a serving as half a cup, and you know your loved one normally eats a full cup, double the carb amount.
For fresh foods or those eaten away from home, look up the estimated carbohydrate count online, either on a restaurant website or on a site presented by a reputable organization, such as the American Diabetes Association (ADA). For example, according to the ADA, a small piece of fresh fruit, a slice of bread, six chicken nuggets, or one cup of soup contains around 15 carb grams each. If you have a smartphone, there are many free apps available that list carbs and other nutritional information.
Dish out carbs wisely. Although some carb choices are better than others, Ross says “it’s all about how much you eat and how often you eat it—one scoop of ice cream instead of three.” When planning your loved one’s meals and snacks, then, it’s a good idea to favor carbs that give the most “bang for the buck”—higher-fiber, lower-sugar options, such as whole-grain pasta and brown rice.
Remember, counting carbs shouldn't take the pleasure out of mealtime for your loved one, says Ross. "Food is an important part of life, and so is figuring out how to fit in favorite foods and still enjoy life." Bringing your know-how to the table, will help make dining less of a hassle and more healthful.