There's a dizzying amount of information (and misinformation) online about the best diet for diabetes, to the point that cutting through the noise can feel overwhelming. However, the consistent carbohydrate diet for diabetes may be one of the best options to help you manage your blood sugar levels.
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The consistent carbohydrate diet for diabetes, also called the controlled carbohydrate diet or the CCHO diet, is based on the principle of evenly spreading out your daily carb intake across all that day's meals and snacks. This helps to reduce blood sugar highs and lows, according to Blake Metcalf, RD, CDE, a clinical nutrition manager for Morrison Healthcare in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
"It was really popular in the past to say that people with diabetes needed to follow a 'diabetic diet' in order to control their blood sugar," Metcalf says. "However, it was later found that the total amount of carbohydrates in a given meal was more important and allowed more flexibility in the diet."
Carbohydrate-rich foods, like grains, potatoes, sugar, fruits and certain dairy products, have the largest effect on your blood sugar levels because they break down into glucose, the sugar that your body uses for energy, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). Eating a large amount of carbs in one sitting can lead to an extreme spike in your blood sugar level. Alternatively, going too long without eating carbs may cause your blood sugar levels to become too low.
With the consistent carbohydrate diet, you eat the same amount of carbs at each meal and snack, promoting a more even and stable blood sugar response. "I find this diet strategy to be helpful when people are deciding how much insulin they need because insulin often needs to be matched to the carbohydrates in the diet. If you eat the same amount of carbs at each meal, it will be easier to plan your insulin," Metcalf says.
How much do you need? Depending on your blood sugar levels and how active you are, your carb needs can vary significantly. Your health care team can help you figure out how many carbs you need each day and at each meal, especially if you follow an exercise plan because heavy workouts can affect how you use energy, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
To ensure you're keeping your intake consistent throughout the day, you'll also need to have a basic understanding of carb counting so you'll know that you're getting the right number from the various foods you eat at each meal and snack.
For whole foods, like winter squash or green beans, it's helpful to use a carb app or counter. For packaged foods, you'll need to read labels. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the two most important things on the nutrition facts label when counting carbs are:
- Serving size.
- Total carbohydrate count.
Remember, if you eat more than one serving as defined by the food label, you'll need to do some simple math: Multiply the number of servings you ate by the total carbs per serving. This will tell you the actual number of carbs you ate.
When you're first getting started on the consistent carbohydrate diet, always check for the carb count and serving size for each food you eat. As you learn the carb content of your most commonly eaten foods, it will become easier to keep a running tally of the carbs in each meal without having to meticulously check each label every time.
Although the consistent carbohydrate diet offers a degree of flexibility that many other diets don't, you should still try to limit added sugars and refined carbs in your diet. These include:
- Sugary sodas.
- Fruit juices.
- Cookies and cakes.
- Potato chips.
- White bread or pasta.
These foods are very high in carbs, and they can rapidly increase your blood sugar levels, according to the ADA. They're also fairly low on the nutrients scale.
- American Diabetes Association: “Types of Carbohydrates”
- Blake Metcalf, RD, LD, BC-ADM, CDE, clinical nutrition manager, Morrison Healthcare, Fort Smith, Arkansas
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Carb Counting”
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Diabetes Diet, Eating, & Physical Activity”
- ADA: "Understanding Carbs"