The importance of carbohydrates to the diabetic

Nothing assumes so much prominence in a diabetic’s diet than starch and sugar. Dieticians talk about it and diabetics dread it all the time. Is it the villain in the life of a diabetic?

Carbohydrate is what humans eat in abundance and is an instant source of energy unlike protein or fat. It is what keeps our body functioning during day and night, work or rest, gives sportsmen a boost of energy and keeps off hypoglycemia in the diabetic. It is what makes our buffets and feasting happier and complete in various forms of desserts and sweets. It is also what most of us reach for when depressed or stressed out. It is what people break their fast with and naughty children are bribed with!

In the right quantity, it is both essential to the diabetic, life saving and adds value to his/her living.

Carbohydrates can be classified from the diabetic’s perspective as

  • Simple sugars like fructose, lactose and sucrose, found in candy, honey, jelly, table sugar, juices, milk
  • Complex starches like those found in pulses, cereals, whole grains, vegetables

Both classifications of carbohydrates give 4 calories per gram.

How starches and simple sugars become an essential part of the diabetic meal plan

  • Consuming more of complex starches and limiting use of simple sugars can help maintain a favourable blood glucose level in the diabetic.
  • A meal lacking in sufficient carbohydrates will cause hypoglycemia.
  • Simple sugars like juices, soft drinks, honey or glucose powder is faster absorbed thus increasing the blood glucose effectively in an event of hypoglycemia than complex starch foods.
  • Once the sugars have raised the blood glucose after a hypo attack, then eat a complex starch food so that the blood sugar level is maintained until the next meal
  • About 15 to 20 gm of carbohydrate will raise approximately 1 mmol of blood sugar.
  • For every half hour of exercise or extra activity, a snack equaling 15 gm of starch should be consumed by the Type 1 diabetic
  • The indigestible part of carbohydrates which is the fiber inhibits glucose absorption from the small intestine thus helping in steady blood glucose level. It confers many additional benefits like reduces cholesterol, avoids constipation, prevents certain types of cancer, reduces hunger between meals and causes satiety.
  • Glucose is the sole source of energy for brain under normal circumstances
  • All complex carbohydrates are also the major sources of minerals and vitamins required for proper carbohydrate metabolism and other bodily functions.
  • If sufficient carbohydrates are not available to the body, then fats are metabolized for energy leading to acidosis and therefore sodium imbalance and dehydration.
  • Carbohydrates also “spare” tissue proteins from being broken down for energy. This is of importance to the exercising diabetic.

The carbohydrate requirement may range anywhere from 50% to 60% based on his physical activities, age and weight. It is a very personal requirement as each diabetic is differently sensitive to carbohydrate uptake.

A bedridden diabetic needs carbohydrates on the lower range while an active labourer, soldier or athlete will have a higher percentage of requirement.

It is clear that the diabetic should get sufficient amount of carbohydrates in his diet relevant to his needs.

Parvathy R Krishnan