It’s been a busy week for 17-year-old Lauren Stanford. She had powder puff practice, a Model United Nations meeting, soccer practice, and a dinner date with her dad. In between all these activities she still managed to go to the gym four times and work a few shifts at her part-time job. On top of all that, Lauren took time each day (as she does every day) to manage the carbohydrates in her diet. This is a major priority for Lauren because, since being diagnosed at age 6, she has been living with type 1 diabetes. Actively involved in JDRF’s Children’s Congress, Lauren is an advocate for diabetes awareness and a strong proponent for diabetes research.
Diabetes: Know Your Carbs
It’s important for people with type 1 diabetes to know how many carbs they eat. That way they can match their insulin dose with what they eat and ultimately have better control over blood sugar levels. Foods that are highest in carbohydrates are starches, fruits, and dairy, as well as combination-type foods like beans and rice, lasagna, and pizza. Non-starchy vegetables like carrots also contain carbs, but in smaller amounts (5 grams per serving). Each serving of starch, fruit, and milk contain 15 grams of carbs. A serving size can be one slice of bread, a small container of unsweetened yogurt or a 1/2 cup of strawberries. Protein and fat do not contain carbs.
Lauren says she often overhears her friends talking about how many carbs are in different foods. “I want to interrupt and say there are way more carbs in them than you think!” she says. Lauren has had plenty of practice reading labels and watching portion sizes. Even though she now uses an insulin pump, which gives her a lot of flexibility with food, carb counting has stuck with her. She’s comfortable calling herself “a label reading expert.”
Eating for Your Type-1 Lifestyle
So how many carbs should a person with type 1 diabetes eat at a meal? It all depends on the individual’s goals and lifestyle. How much do you exercise? Are you trying to gain or lose weight? How many times per day do you eat? How old are you?
In Lauren’s case, she is a young, active teenager who eats several times during the day and exercises regularly. She may have up to 70 grams of carbs at lunch, usually 45-55 grams at breakfast, and 50-70 grams at dinner, along with two snacks per day. Lauren has been adjusting her insulin and fine-tuning her diabetes management plan for years. She is aware of which foods affect her blood sugar and feels that certain foods are off limits for her. For example, donuts and maple syrup are items she knows make her blood sugar go up. She also avoids eating at certain fast food restaurants where past experiences have led to elevated blood sugar levels.
Over time, individuals can pinpoint certain foods that may cause “spikes” in their blood sugar levels. A person who is trying to match their insulin intake with how many carbs they eat would benefit from keeping a food diary. This will help you decipher which foods have the greatest impact on your blood sugar levels and help you make the best choices.
The Bottom Line
Lauren can attest to the fact that living with type 1 diabetes makes you more aware of what you are eating. Carb counting allows people to enjoy a variety of foods that they may have avoided in the past. The flexibility that carb counting provides can be used to your advantage when planning meals, going to social events and even when exercising. You can better predict what your body will need to achieve normal blood sugar levels and then be consistent with your carb intake. If you ask Lauren she will say, “plan, plan, plan” to help you be at your best.
Sejal is a registered dietitian, a certified diabetes educator and she holds a masters degree in nutrition and health. Sejal was the project coordinator for the Veteran’s Administrations (VA) national weight loss program and previously worked for the VA hospital in Tampa, FL as a Spinal Cord Injury dietitian.
Sejal has had numerous clinical and community education experiences, including pediatric and intensive care nutrition support. She has also had the opportunity to teach nutrition courses at the community college level to students interested in pursuing health professions. One of her favorite areas of education is diabetes management.