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The 5 Best Carbs to Eat If You’re Living with Diabetes

"Carb" may seem like a four-letter word for people with diabetes. But not all carbs are bad. Many carbs are beneficial and needed when managing diabetes.

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With a diagnosis of diabetes comes an almost immediate enrollment into carb school. Suddenly, you’re learning which foods have high or low amounts of carbohydrates, how your body processes carbs, how to count carbs and perhaps even how to dose insulin according to your carb intake. But a lesson that’s often missing is the one where you learn that carbs aren’t all equal – and they aren’t all bad. 

Yes, even people with diabetes need to eat carbs. 

Why carbs matter so much for diabetes

Why do people with diabetes often have a laser focus on carbohydrates over other nutrients? It’s because carbs have the biggest and most direct impact on blood sugar. 

Once digested, carbs break down into glucose, which is what your body uses for energy. In response to glucose, your pancreas releases insulin, which helps your cells absorb the glucose. In people with diabetes, either the pancreas is not producing enough insulin or the cells are not reacting to the insulin. This results in an accumulation of glucose in the blood (aka: high blood glucose, or high blood sugar).  

A natural response to manage chronic high blood glucose is to cut back on carb-containing foods so there won’t be as much circulating glucose in the blood. Some high-carb foods (such as sweets, white bread and pasta, and soda) are good choices to limit since they don’t provide any nutritive value. However, other high-carb foods, such as grains, fruits, and beans, also contain beneficial nutrients that – when ingested together – naturally lower the amount and slow the release of glucose. 

Learn which carb choices are good ones when you’re managing blood glucose. 

If you have diabetes, try these 5 healthy carb foods

With such a focus on carbs, cutting back on most carb-containing foods may seem like a good thing to do. But people with diabetes need a consistent intake of healthful carb-containing foods, such as the following, to balance blood glucose and also to avoid blood sugar lows. 

1. Beans

All varieties of beans and legumes are excellent choices because they provide protein and significant fiber, two nutrients needed for balancing blood sugars. Soluble fiber, the type found in large amounts in beans, has been connected to improved gut bacteria and reduced insulin resistance, both of which are important for people with diabetes. A ⅓-cup serving of beans has 11 to 15 grams of carbohydrates, depending on the type. 

2. Quinoa

This quick-cooking whole grain with a slightly nutty flavor is a good choice for people with diabetes. Quinoa contains 20 grams of carbohydrate per ½ cup, as well as being high in fiber and complete protein. This grain is considered to be low on the glycemic index, which means it doesn’t cause as big or as fast of blood sugar spikes as other grains. 

3. Oats

The soluble fiber in oats is beneficial for heart health (particularly lowering cholesterol), as well as regulating blood sugar. Oats also digest slowly and provide a feeling of fullness for longer, making you less likely to crave foods after a meal that contains oats. A 1-cup serving of cooked oats contains 27 grams of carbs.

4. Greek yogurt 

Unsweetened Greek yogurt doesn’t contain any added sugar, plus it’s high in protein. Recent research has connected yogurt to low levels of insulin resistance and blood glucose. Because it is a fermented food, yogurt contains beneficial probiotics that play a factor in improved gut health, which can benefit people with diabetes. A 6-ounce serving of unsweetened Greek yogurt contains 7 grams of carb, and it also makes a healthy stand-in for sour cream as a topper and in dips. 

5. High-fiber fruits

As a group, fruits have more natural-containing sugars than other plant-based foods like vegetables and grains. But fruits can still be a healthful choice for people with diabetes because they contain other beneficial nutrients like fiber and antioxidants. Go for the highest-fiber choices, such as 1 cup of berries, an apple or pear, citrus fruits or a banana. These fruits contain 15 to 25 grams of carbs, depending on the type and size, and come with 4 to 8 grams of fiber each. 

Learn more about nutrition for diabetes:

Featured recipe: Apple Pie Overnight Oats

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