Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Skinny Diabetes: What is a carbohydrate?

daily lunch ritual includes canned tuna, lots of non-starchy veggies and avocado

The other day I was talking diet with a friend and she said "I don't really eat carbs, I hardly ever eat bread," then she proceeded to eat her usual breakfast of Activia fruit yogurt, light granola and a ripe banana. Unbeknownst to her, this breakfast was pretty much all carbohydrates and high in sugar. It dawned on me then that the definition of carbs can be a bit murky for some and sometimes limited to hamburger buns, pasta and cookies. Carbohydrates are so much more than this and today we are going to do a 101 on carbohydrates, which is really important for skinny diabetics and anyone wanting to reduce their overall glycemic load.

The Science

Scientifically a carbohydrate is a compound made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and nutritionally it comes in two forms: simple form as in sugars and complex forms as in starches and fiber. All carbohydrates, with the exception of fiber, get broken down into a simple sugar called glucose in the body. Fiber is an indigestible carb which is why high-fiber foods are especially good for diabetics and moves things along in the large intestine. In essence all carbohydrates are sugars and if you need to reduce your sugar intake, then you must look at your overall carbohydrate intake.

Defining Carbs

As a skinny diabetic, I'm sensitive to all carbohydrates which I only discovered by measuring my blood sugars post meals. Not only do I have to be mindful of the quality of my carbohydrates, but the quantity plays an equally important part in keeping my blood sugars stable and in a healthy range. However, in my experience this advice isn't emphasized enough and what I find are Type 2 diabetics eating wholewheat bread and whole grain cereals with reckless abandon. 

In the beginning of my diabetic journey, my definition of carbs was limited to the usual suspects like cookies, desserts, french fries and anything bread-y. Now when I hear the word carbohydrates the following comes to mind:

  • healthy whole grains including gluten-free grains, whole wheat bread & pasta, all breakfast cereals
  • starchy beans including black beans, lentils and dips like hummus
  • dairy which includes all milks, yogurts especially the non-Greek variety with fruit and anything creamy
  • root vegetables especially when cooked like carrots
  • all fruit
  • any processed food claiming health or marketed as low-fat, fat-free, low-sugar or sugar-free

If you're a skinny diabetic or have blood sugar issues, then you've got to be careful with even the healthiest of carbohydrates as I've listed above. My doc told me to get a blood glucose meter and to learn how my body reacts to various carbs and portions and I recommend the same to you. Also as a rule of thumb always eat your carbs with healthy fats and/or protein and limit your servings. My doctor said a serving size of starchy carbs is 1/2 cup, but I find this challenging and tend to overeat. In general I swap out carbs for non-starchy vegetables which are low-carb and high in fiber.

It's now been three years since being diagnosed as pre-diabetic and it's taken this long to finally get where I am in terms of understanding it all and managing my blood sugars. Am I perfect? No. Have I reversed my diabetes? No, but I'm much better at being consistent and accepting what is. Next I'll talk about various ways you can approach a low-carb diet, but I'll wrap this up with some advice. One of the first things my doctor said to me was that if I focused on the foods I couldn't eat, I would lose. Instead focus on all the wonderful foods that you can enjoy and in recent months, this really has sunken in. 
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