If you or someone you know has just been diagnosed or is living with diabetes, there can be some confusion around how to eat carbohydrates, so they are beneficial and what "net carbs" are. Read on to learn more about net carbs and what you need to know if living with diabetes.
Understand the different types of carbohydrates
Understanding the different types of carbohydrates is essential for understanding how to incorporate the concept of net carbs for individuals living with diabetes. Carbohydrate-containing foods come from produce (fruits and vegetables), dairy, sugars, and starches. For the scope of this article, we are discussing why fiber is relevant in the conversation of net carbohydrates.
You can calculate net carbs by taking the total carbohydrates in a food and subtracting the amount of fiber and/or sugar alcohols that that food has. Research shows that focusing on slow-digesting, whole higher fiber carbohydrates helps manage blood sugar levels in individuals with diabetes. This is because of the “slow-digesting” component of these carbohydrates, meaning that blood sugar levels do not spike up and come back down as quickly, leading to more stable blood sugar levels and sustained energy levels.
One reason that these types of carbs help stabilize blood sugar is that they tend to be higher in fiber. Fiber is an indigestible type of carbohydrate, meaning that it passes through the body without being broken down or digested. Fiber helps to regulate blood sugar as it slows the rate of digestion of carbohydrates, lowering blood sugar spikes. Some foods that are high in fiber include:
- Whole grains
For example: if a food product has 20 grams of total carbohydrates in a serving and 10 grams of fiber, to find the net carbs in a serving, you would use the equation:
Net Carbs = 20 grams (carbs) – 10 grams (fiber) = 10 grams net carbs
One important consideration to take when discussing net carbs is that, although this is a good formula to use, everyone’s response to carbohydrates varies based on their insulin sensitivity. For this reason, it is important to self-monitor your blood sugar readings to see how you respond to foods.
How to measure carbs
Once you have a fundamental understanding of what net carbs are or how to calculate them, if you are living with diabetes, you may wonder how many carbs to consume daily. One carbohydrate serving is 15 grams, and two is 30 grams.
Depending on the type of diabetes you have, recommendations vary. For example, people living with type I may have different recommendations than someone recently diagnosed with type II. For this reason, it is best to work with a qualified healthcare professional to obtain personalized, relevant suggestions that work for you.
As a general rule of thumb, individuals living with both types of diabetes should consume carbs consistently throughout the day rather than just at one time. It is usually suggested to try to include 2-3 servings of carbs with meals and 1-2 servings with snacks.
Pairing carbohydrates with a source of protein and/or fat is also a critical concept, as protein and fats help slow blood sugar increase when you eat carbohydrate-rich foods. This will also help to positively benefit your average blood sugar levels over time, leading to more desirable Hgb A1c levels (the average of your blood sugar over three months).
Use these meal and snack ideas to pair carbohydrates with a source of protein and/or fat:
- Breakfast: oatmeal (carbs) + peanut butter (fat) + protein powder (protein)
- Snack: apple (carb) + cheese cubes (fat)
- Lunch: quesadilla with high fiber tortilla (carb) + cheese (fat) + chicken cubes (protein)
- Snack: Greek yogurt (protein) + granola (carb)
- Dinner: stir fry with veggies (carb) + shrimp (protein) + avocado slices (fat)
If you have recently been given a diabetes diagnosis, try modifying your diet and lifestyle to help bring the control of your health and well-being back into your own hands. While this can often feel overwhelming, enlisting the help of qualified experts can help bring more comfort and clarity. Starting with one small, positive change daily will help you make the progress you are hoping for reliably over time.
Jordan Stachel holds a Master’s degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from The University of Southern California and is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She has several years of experience helping clients reach their health goals through her clinical work within private practice. Jordan is most fulfilled when guiding others toward making stepwise, sustainable changes that add up to big results over time. Jordan works with a wide variety of individuals, ranging in age from children through the elderly, with an assortment of concerns and clinical conditions. She helps individuals optimize overall health and/or manage disease states using personalized medical nutrition therapy techniques.