This leaflet discusses what a carbohydrate is, what different kinds there are, and the effect they can have on your diabetes.



The Role of Carbohydrate

Carbohydrates are an important source of energy and are the brain’s preferred source of energy.

Carbohydrate comes from two main sources, starch and sugar. All types of carbohydrate that you eat and drink are broken down into glucose and will cause a rise in your blood glucose levels. 

Starchy Carbohydrates 

Starchy carbohydrates can be found in bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, cereals, chapattis, pastry, noodles and flour. The table below outlines key sources of starchy carbohydrates, highlighting preferred options.

Table 1: Starchy Carbohydrates

Starchy Carbohydrate to Limit

Starchy Carbohydrate to Choose

Sugar or honey coated breakfast cereals e.g. Coco Pops, Frosties, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes

Wholegrain breakfast cereals e.g. porridge, unsweetened muesli, Shredded Wheat

Fried chips, instant mash, roast potatoes

Boiled potatoes, baked potatoes, sweet potatoes, new potatoes

Fried rice, pilau rice, naan bread, cheese/cream based pasta sauces

Basmati rice, wholegrain rice, chapatti, tomato based pasta sauces

White bread, baguettes, rolls 

Wholegrain or seeded bread/baguettes/rolls

Although starchy carbohydrates are healthy foods and should be eaten at each main meal, it is important to consider the points below: 

  • Eating carbohydrate will increase your blood glucose levels. The larger the portion, the higher the rise in blood glucose. In reverse, if you eat smaller amounts, the effect on your blood glucose levels will be less.
  • Choosing starchy carbohydrates which contain fibre and wholegrains and those that have a lower Glycaemic Index may have less of an effect on your blood glucose levels as they are digested more slowly. They can also help to keep you fuller for longer, so can help with weight loss too.
  • Try to aim for an even distribution of carbohydrate intake throughout the day, rather than saving for one meal. This approach normally leads to better controlled blood glucose levels.
  • Having more carbohydrate than you need will lead to weight gain. If you are trying to lose weight, consider reducing your portion sizes, although this may need a review of your diabetes medication.

Sugary Carbohydrates

Sugar is found in many foods. It can be added ingredient, for example sugar in fizzy drinks, cakes and confectionary or naturally in foods like fruit and milk. The table below outlines key sources of sugars, both natural and added, highlighting recommended options.

Table 2: Sugary Carbohydrates

High Sugar Items

Lower Sugar Items

Sugar, glucose, glucose raising syrup, dextrose, sucrose, icing sugar, Light Spoon, Half Spoon

Non-Nutritive Sweeteners for example, Candarel, Sweetex, Stevia, Hermesetas, Splenda

Sweet squash, Normal fizzy drinks, energy drinks for example Lucozade, , Ribena, drinking chocolate

Diet/free/zero fizzy drinks, no added sugar squash, low calorie drinking chocolate

Chocolate, fudge, tablet, mints, chocolate and cream filled biscuits, marzipan

Plain biscuit, crackers, oatcakes, crackerbreads

Sugar or honey coated breakfast cereals e.g. Coco Pops, Frosties, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes

Wholegrain breakfast cereals e.g. Shredded Wheat, Branflakes, porridge, unsweetened muesli

Cheesecake, gateaux, crumbles, milk puddings, tinned fruit in syrup

Fresh fruit, diet/light yoghurts, tinned fruit in natural juice

Marmalade, jam, honey, syrup

A thin scrapping of reduced sugar jam/marmalade

The safety regarding the use of Non-Nutritive Sweeteners is often a topic of discussion. All the sweeteners listed have undergone rigorous safety checking. It is your personal choice whether to include, but it is always advisable to check the food label and ensure that you are using a variety of different types.

Although it is recommended to limit the amount of added sugars in foods, the occasional treat is allowed.

Listed below are different options which may help to limit the impact on blood glucose levels. 

Reduce Carbohydrate Portion

It is the total amount of carbohydrate (starch and sugar) and the type (Glycaemic Index) that will affect the blood glucose. So if you do have a dessert after your evening meal, the total amount of carbohydrate at your meal is higher, which is likely to cause higher blood glucose levels. To minimise this, you could reduce the portion of either starchy food at your main meal or your dessert or reduce both portions to minimise the rise in blood glucose levels.

Be More Active

If you are able to be active after having a treat or pudding this can help minimise the rise in your blood glucose levels. This is because activity helps your insulin to work better at lowering your blood glucose levels. Of course this can also help you manage your weight. 

Adjust Diabetes Medication

If your diabetes is managed with insulin, some insulin regimens allow you flexibility to adjust your dose around your food choices. If you wish to pursue this option, speak with your specialist diabetes .

For more information about other aspects of the diet please see Fats, Salt, Wholegrains, Fruit and Vegetables, The Eatwell Plate.

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