Diabetes is a condition that affects the body’s ability to process carbohydrates. In this article, we’ll explore the relationship between diabetes and sugar / carbohydrates, including the causes of insulin resistance and the role of carbohydrates in a diabetes-friendly diet.
What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes is when our body can’t, or is very slow to, process carbohydrates in our diet. Those carbohydrates can be in the form of individual sugars or long starches. Long starches are when 8, 10 or 12 sugar molecules attach together and form a string. When starch molecules hit your stomach the ‘string’ breaks apart releasing individual sugar molecules, which are then absorbed into your bloodstream. Your body then needs insulin to get the sugar into your cells to burn as fuel.
Diabetes is when this insulin doesn’t work, either because your cells are not sensitive to it, known as Insulin Resistance (IR), or your body doesn’t produce enough/any insulin, referred to as Type 1 Diabetes. Whether it’s Gestational Diabetes, Pre-Diabetes or Type 2 Diabetes, they’re all fundamentally caused by a high amount of insulin resistance. This means your body can’t process the glucose in your blood in a reasonable time frame, leading to higher amounts of sugar in your blood.
So, let’s make this clear from the get-go – diabetes is when your body can’t process sugars / carbohydrates. It is NOT caused by sugar.
Causes Of Insulin Resistance
There are a lot of factors that cause insulin resistance. Some of them you can change, some you can’t. The things you can’t change are your genetics, racial background and life experience (aka age). The things you can change all have to do with your lifestyle. Your movement (exercise), alcohol consumption, smoking status and weight. This is where food comes into play. So, if you eat a poor and unbalanced diet with limited-to-no exercise, it’s likely your weight will be elevated and your risk of IR increases.
It’s important to note that IR is not diabetes. If your doctor has mentioned your insulin levels are high, that’s your wake-up call! The alarm’s going off and it’s time to make a change. Like, now! Get moving, reduce the amount you get takeaway food, quit the cigarettes or vapes and increase your fruit and vegetable intake!
Can People With Diabetes Cut Out Carbs?
It’s understandable to think if your body can’t process carbs then just don’t eat them. While this makes logical sense when purely thinking about your body’s ability to stabilise blood sugar levels, it completely dismisses multiple other body processes (particularly brain function) that rely on carbohydrates. Your body needs carbs to fuel your brain and gut microbiome, and to provide energy for daily life.
Cutting carbohydrates too much will leave you feeling exhausted, moody and forgetful. Furthermore, carbs are also a key source of insoluble dietary fibre (important for bowel function, regulating blood pressure and cholesterol levels). So, cutting carbs out of your diet often leaves people either constipated or with very loose bowel motions. Statistically, Australians eat too many carbohydrates but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be eating any.
Evenly Distributing Carbohydrates
Diabetes is a condition where your body has difficulty processing large amounts of carbohydrates. Therefore the most important dietary factor is how much carbs you’re eating at any one point in time rather than how many you’re eating across the entire day. So, to best manage diabetes from a dietary perspective, we aim to have small amounts of carbohydrates at each meal and snack rather than a large amount at say dinner time.
Which Foods Contain Carbohydrates?
In answer to this question most people naturally think about what we used to refer to as ‘complex carbohydrates’. These are foods such as rice, pasta, potato, corn, sweet potato, bread, legumes and cereal. However, sugar is also a carbohydrate. So foods such as milk, yoghurt and fruit contain carbohydrates too, as well as lollies, chocolate, juice, soft drink, ice cream, biscuits, cakes etc.
Is Fruit High In Sugar?
This is a crazy-common question we get asked all the time. The short answer is absolutely not! A typical piece of fruit contains between 10g – 20g of sugar (or grams of carbohydrate). Bananas often get a bad reputation regarding sugar as they sit on the higher end of that scale. However, when you start to consider 600ml of coke is 64g, a blueberry muffin is 70g and a Boost Juice is often well over 100g the poor old banana isn’t looking so high. While it’s possible to be a “fruit-a-holic”, most Australians typically don’t eat enough fruit. Fruit-a-holism would be eating 5+ pieces of fruit a day, most days of the week!
Is Fructose Bad For Diabetes?
There’s a lot of research linking fructose (which is a type of sugar) to diabetes, however most of this research is based in America. In the USA, the main source of sugar in the food supply is High Fructose Corn Syrup. Such foods, with large amounts of added sugars, are high in fructose. Note, it’s not actually the fructose that causes the problem with diabetes. Rather, it’s a large amount of added sugar. When Australians read about fructose research online, we typically link “fructose” to fruit, which is incorrect.
The Best Diet To Prevent Or Manage Diabetes
There is no one single ‘type’ of diet to manage diabetes. There is no need to intermittently fast, cut out carbohydrates, go keto or become vegetarian. None of these are typically beneficial to prevent or manage diabetes. The best strategy to manage diabetes is a diet that:
- Contains small amounts of high fibre, low GI wholegrain carbohydrates at each meal
- Contains lean amounts of proteins, primarily from fish/seafood sources
- Contains 2 serves of fruit daily
- Ensures a high intake of vegetables and salad (only 4% of Australians eat enough vegetables!)
- Has 2 to 3 serves of low-fat dairy each day
- Uses vegetable-based oils (avocado oil, nut oil or olive oil)
- Contains 2 – 3 snacks per day (typically based around whole foods with limited packaged snack choices).
So, we’ve covered the relationship between diabetes and sugar / carbohydrates, the causes of insulin resistance, the role of carbohydrates in a diabetes-friendly diet, and the best diet to manage diabetes. We know that diabetes is when the body can’t process carbohydrates/sugars and is caused by a high amount of insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is caused by a poor and unbalanced diet with limited-to-no exercise, as well as other lifestyle factors.
While it may be tempting to cut out carbs, the body needs carbohydrates to fuel brain and gut microbiome function, and to provide energy for daily life. Therefore, evenly distributing carbohydrates across each meal and snack is more important than cutting out carbs altogether. Australians typically eat too many carbohydrates and not enough fruit. The best diet to prevent or manage diabetes is one that is balanced, healthy, and sustainable.
If you need help with diabetes and sugar, Julia Phillips can help with this. She’s an extremely knowledgeable dietitian whose specialty, amongst other things, is pre-diabetic and diabetic dietetics. Click to book or send an enquiry.