Carbohydrates and Diabetes
Carbohydrates, found in foods such as bread, fruit, and candy, make your blood sugar rise. So if you have diabetes, you might think you shouldn't eat carbohydrates (carbs) at all. But carbohydrates are one of the three main components of food (the others are proteins and fats). All kids, including those with diabetes, can and should eat carbs as part of a healthy diet.
Kids with diabetes will need to pay closer attention to what they eat, though. Why? Because the more carbs you eat, the more insulin your body will need. Why? Because your body turns carbs into the sugar glucose (say: GLOO-kose), which is used for energy by your cells. And glucose can't get into your cells without insulin (say: IN-suh-lin).
Following a meal plan can help kids balance carbs with medications and exercise so that they maintain a healthy blood sugar level. Like exercising and taking medications, it's just another step many kids with diabetes take to stay healthy.
Why You Need a Plan
It's a little easier for people to control their diabetes if they eat about the same amount of carbs at about the same times each day. That's where a meal plan comes in. Your parents and diabetes health care team can help you create a meal plan that maps out what you will eat.
You might say, "I don't even know what a carbohydrate is!" Don't worry. The adults in your life can help you figure it out and can spell it out in your meal plan. But just to give you a taste of carbohydrate knowledge: Carbs are not found in just one kind of food. Carbs are found in many foods, such as soda, candy, breads, crackers, fruits, vegetables, and milk. Some carb-containing foods, like whole-grain bread, are healthier than others, such as candy. These healthy carbs should be included in your meal plan.
Let's talk a little more about what happens to carbs after you eat them. You know the body turns carbs into glucose. Then the glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream, which makes the sugar level in the blood go up. As the sugar level rises, the pancreas (say: PAN-kree-us) releases the hormone insulin into the blood. Insulin is needed to move glucose from the blood into the cells, where it can be used as a source of energy.
But for kids with diabetes, the pancreas does not make enough insulin (type 1 diabetes) or the body can't respond normally to the insulin that is made (type 2 diabetes). This makes blood sugar levels go up. And when blood sugar is too high, a person won't feel well and his or her body won't work as it should.
How Many Carbs Should I Eat?
In your meal plan, there's no "right" amount of carbs to eat every day. Your meal plan will take into account your age, size, how much you exercise, the medicines you take, and other medical problems you might have. You'll be happy to hear that the meal plan will definitely include plenty of the foods you love to eat. Your meal plan might also suggest when you should eat.
If you're not sure how many carbohydrates a food contains, check the food label or ask your parent. You should also remember to check the labels of diet foods. Sometimes these foods contain extra sugar.
You might be tempted to "cheat" on your meal plan by eating sugary snacks. It's OK to have soda and cookies once in a while, but eating too many sugary foods could be a bad idea. If you overdo it, don't hide it — talk to your mom or dad. Your parent or your doctor can help you get your blood sugar levels back on track.
Better yet, stick to your meal plan. If some foods you like aren't currently in your meal plan, ask your parent or health care team how to include them. By taking a smart approach to balancing carbs with insulin and exercise, you can love your food and stay healthy, too.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: August 2013
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