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What exactly is a carbohydrate?

November 28, 2012
By Cheryl Rude , Marshall Independent

November is American Diabetes Month, a time to communicate the seriousness of diabetes and the importance of diabetes prevention and control. For years, the American Diabetes Association has used this month as an opportunity to raise awareness of the disease and its serious complications.

Most everyone probably knows someone who has diabetes. The statistics really are quite staggering. According to the ADA, nearly 26 million children and adults in the United States have diabetes. Another 79 million Americans have prediabetes and are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Recent estimates project that as many as one in three American adults will have diabetes in 2050 unless we take steps to stop diabetes.

Diet has always been a cornerstone in the management of diabetes, along with exercise. Some people are able to control their blood sugars with just these two strategies while others require medications in addition to diet and exercise. Many advances have been made in the treatment of diabetes and the management of the diet has changed as new research and treatments become available. Many years ago, we used what was termed the "Exchange List" diet where foods from each food group could be exchanged for each other. That method of managing the diet has now evolved into counting carbohydrates - a bit more liberal approach to exchanging carbohydrate-containing foods.

Different medications and treatment plans have helped allow for individualization of the meal plan for a person with diabetes. Meal plans now are tailored to fit your goals and specific lifestyle needs. Carbohydrates are one of three key nutrients, or building blocks, which make up all of the food you eat and are a part of your meal plan. The other two building blocks are protein and fat. Your body needs all three to be healthy and strong. However, carbohydrates get the most attention when it comes to diabetes because they directly raise blood glucose levels when digested by your body.

Many carbohydrate foods are healthy foods. Foods like bread, cereals and grains contain carbohydrate. Fruits, vegetables, crackers, beans, peas, lentils, milk and yogurt also contain carbohydrates. Sweets, desserts and regular pop are comprised of carbohydrates, too, but these are not as good of choices and should be used occasionally and not as a regular part of a healthy diet.

When you eat food with carbohydrates, your body breaks down the carbohydrates, and your blood glucose levels start to rise. Different amounts of carbohydrates have different effects on blood glucose levels. A high carbohydrate meal (such as a plate of pasta and a breadstick) will raise your blood glucose more than a low carbohydrate meal (such as grilled chicken breast, salad and broccoli).

Most foods can fit into a healthy meal plan. Whether you have diabetes, or know someone who does, one of the main treatment goals is to manage the blood glucose and keep it as close to normal as possible. Spending a little time planning your meals and snacks can go a long way in helping meet this goal.

Cheryl Rude is a registered dietitian at Avera Marshall Regional Medical Center. In addition to her column, you can also find nutrition tips and ideas on the blog she writes at



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