Forget what you’ve been told—a diabetes diagnosis does not mean you’ve been sentenced to a life without carbs. Well, donuts may be off the list, but the right carbs can and should be part of a balanced diet for everyone, explains Anna Taylor, RD, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic. In fact, for those with (type 1 or 2) diabetes, getting enough good-for-you carbs is essential for keeping blood sugar levels under control.
The key is to pick carb-containing foods that are also rich in fiber and/or protein, nutrients that actually slow down the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates, resulting in a more gradual rise and fall for blood sugar levels. Here are Taylor’s top 10 diabetes-friendly carb picks, all of which pack additional nutrients that can help prevent chronic conditions or diabetes complications down the line.
Lentils & Beans
Lentils and beans are an excellent source of protein and fiber. The 19 grams of carbs from a half cup serving of cooked lentils come with 9 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber (3 grams per serving is considered a “good” source of fiber; 5 and up is considered an “excellent” source, per FDA guidelines). One thing to note: you get the same benefits from canned beans as you do from cooked, dried beans—but you may want to rinse them first, which can eliminate more than 40% of the sodium.
The black-eyed, split, and classic green peas yield similar protein and fiber benefits to beans and lentils. One cup of green peas (before cooking) packs 8 grams of protein, 7 grams of fiber, and 21 grams of carbohydrates. Bonus: They have more than 20% of your daily value of vitamin K, manganese, thiamin, copper, vitamin C, phosphorus, and folate—all important for general health. Plus, some studies suggest manganese and vitamin C may help reduce diabetes-related blood vessel damage.
And pears, too—but make sure they’re fresh. Both of these fruits are good sources of fiber, making them worth their naturally occurring sugar. One medium apple has 19 grams of carbs and 3 grams of fiber. Better yet, eat your apple or pear slices with some protein-packed peanut or almond butter to keep blood sugar even more stable. Just skip the juice, Taylor says—”it’s a sugar bomb and devoid of fiber”—and dried fruits, which sometimes have added sugars and tend to be calorie-dense either way.
Blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries have a low sugar content compared to other fruits, and they’re packed with fiber, too, so they don’t spike blood sugar quickly. You get 4 grams of fiber in one cup of blueberries, and 21 grams of carbs. Plus they have phytonutrients like phenols, flavonoids, and anthocyanins, which studies suggest help boost immunity—important for people with diabetes because colds and other illnesses can raise blood sugar levels. Bonus: phytonutrients can help reduce inflammation and protect against certain cancers to promote general health, too.
These squashes—including the acorn, butternut, spaghetti, and pumpkin varieties—are high in fiber that helps keep blood sugar levels in check. One cup has 6 grams of fiber and 18 grams of carbs. Plus, squash are a good source of vitamin C and manganese, and they’re packed with beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A—essential for healthy vision, skin, teeth, and the body’s soft and skeletal tissues for everyone.
When it comes to spuds, the orange variety are digested more slowly than white potatoes and don’t raise blood sugar as quickly, thanks to the fiber they serve up (one cup of cubed sweet potatoes packs 4 grams). Plus, they’re packed with beta-carotene—you can get your day’s worth in just one serving.
Greek yogurt does have some carbs that come from dairy’s natural sugar, lactose, but its protein and calcium make it a smart pick when it comes to carb expenditure. Getting enough calcium—essential for bone health—is a must for people with diabetes, who may have low bone density because of lack of exercise and other factors. One cup of plain, fat-free Greek yogurt has 7 grams of carbs, 18 grams of protein (more than twice the protein in regular yogurt) and 20% of your day’s worth of calcium.
Looking for an alternative to another quinoa salad? Bulgur is packed with fiber and protein, so it won’t spike blood sugar levels as quickly as refined grains like pasta—making it one of the healthiest whole grains out there. Bulgur is made from whole-wheat kernels that have been boiled, dried, and cracked—and it’s ready in about 10 minutes. One cup serves up 6 grams of fiber, 4 grams of protein, and just 25 grams of carbohydrates.
We’re talking about the steel-cut, classic rolled, or quick oats here—without the added sugars and flavors in the instant packets. Like other whole grains, oatmeal delivers a good dose of fiber and studies suggest, regularly eating oats may even help lower (bad) LDL cholesterol levels. Keeping cholesterol down is key for people with type 2 diabetes because the condition is a serious risk factor for heart disease.
That’s right—even pasta is on the “eat” list. It gets a bad rap, but the whole-wheat variety serves up the same phytonutrients as other whole grains (B vitamins, folate, magnesium, and selenium), plus plenty of fiber. But remember, portion control is key, Taylor says. “Just because it’s a whole grain, doesn’t mean you can eat more of it.” Stick to one cup of cooked whole-wheat pasta at a time, which has about 6 grams of fiber and 40 grams of carbs—and bulk up the rest of your plate with a big serving of non-starchy veggies (mushrooms, broccoli, bell peppers, and zucchini), and some lean protein.