Anyone living with insulin dependent diabetes knows that the amount and type of carbs you eat has a major effect on how much insulin you need to keep your blood sugar in range. However, there are a lot of different opinions in the diabetes community about the optimal amount of carbs to eat for good diabetes management.
I don’t believe that there is a single right answer to this question, as we all react differently to carbs (both physically and mentally). I feel that it’s up to each of us to find the diet and carb model that best fits our lifestyles and bodies.
But regardless of whether you eat every carb you come across or limit them as much as possible, I believe that there are (as a minimum) three situations where carbs can truly be your friend.
Before and after resistance training
I recommend eating a small meal consisting of complex carbs and protein before and after your resistance training workouts.
The pre-workout meal is meant to ensure that you have enough energy to really push yourself during your workout, and having a little active insulin on board (IOB) during a resistance training session can also help prevent blood sugars from rising during the workout.
I like something sweet like protein pancakes before a workout, since they taste great and I don’t feel stuffed after eating them. I generally recommend about 20 g of protein and a minimum of 15-30 g carbs pre-workout. My pancake recipe packs 22 g of protein and 16 g of carbs so it fits right into that recommendation.
Post-workout, your meal can simply be a main meal (typically dinner) or something easy like a shake. It’s ok to include high-glycemic carbs in your post-workout meal because the goal is to get energy into the muscles quickly so your body can recover from the workout and get stronger.
Protein is also super important in your post-workout meal. Protein is the building block for muscles and ligaments and is essential for muscle growth. When you work out (lift weights), you actually damage your muscle fibers slightly. After your workout, your body starts repairing the damaged muscle fibers by fusing them together. This process is what makes your muscles both larger and stronger. To complete this process, your body needs protein.
I recommend eating up to 35 grams of protein and 15-25 grams of carbs in your post-workout meal
It should be a no brainer that you need carbs when your blood sugars tank, but I’m often surprised to hear what people use to treat lows. In my opinion, a hypoglycemic episode (<70 mg/dl) is a medical emergency and should be treated as such.
To treat hypoglycemia, I recommend as high of a glycemic carb source as you can get your hands on. I find glucose tablets to be optimal (and very hard to overeat), with juice being a good second option. By choosing a high glycemic carb and not including any fats, your blood sugars will quickly rise and the chance of passing out or overeating is reduced.
If your blood sugar is trending low but you don’t have hypoglycemia yet, I recommend something like a rice cake or a fruit snack, since they are easy to carry with you and are already portioned out for you.
Throughout the day
Some people thrive on very low-carb diets while others (like myself) prefer to eat at least a moderate amount of carbs.
If you include carbs in your diet, I suggest that you choose low or medium glycemic carbs in moderate amounts.
Low and medium glycemic carbs have a glycemic index below 69. What that means is that they will cause a slower and less dramatic spike in blood sugars than high glycemic carbs (for reference, pure glucose has a glycemic index of 100). That does not mean that you can’t ever eat high glycemic carbs, but sticking with low/medium glycemic carbs can make diabetes management easier.
I generally recommend spreading your carbs out throughout the day. This approach reduces the amount of insulin needed to cover each meal and I’ve found it to be very effective for maintaining stable blood sugars and reducing the risk of hypoglycemia.
One of my go-to medium glycemic carbs is brown rice, which you can eat with pretty much anything. I recommend that you pair your carbs with a good source of protein and healthy fat, like my stuffed chicken breast or a nice piece of salmon.
Christel is a Los Angeles based blogger, certified personal trainer, and diabetes advocate. She has been living with type 1 diabetes since 1997 and at an early stage decided that it wasn’t going to slow her down. Her motto is “There is Nothing You Can’t do With Diabetes”. She writes about Health and Fitness on DiabetesStrong.com. She also trains people with diabetes from across the globe, online and in person, and supports them in meeting their health and fitness goals.