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The Low-Carb Diet: Is It Better?

Yiwen Lu, MS, RD
March 11, 2022
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Is a low-carb diet better for people with diabetes?

Not quite. A diet that consists of an adequate amount of high-quality carbs is better for people with diabetes.

Most processed foods are made of low-quality carbs, giving carbs a “bad name” over the years. A research study that lasted for 17 years found that 42% of calories from an average American’s diet come from low-quality or refined carbs. Meanwhile, only 9% of the daily caloric intake comes from high-quality carbs such as whole grains and fruits.

Each carb has different effects on blood glucose. Let’s take a look below at the recommended amount of carbs some with diabetes should eat to be their healthiest selves!

What is the optimal carbohydrate intake for people with diabetes?

The American Diabetes Association has suggested that carbohydrate intake should be individualized.

The Institutes of Medicine recommends 45% to 65% of calories (kcal) from carbohydrates, 10% to 35% of kcal from protein, and 20% to 35% of kcal from fat for a healthy diet.

Here is an example if your target is to get 45-65% of kcal from carbohydrates.

Kcal/day (kcal) Grams of carbs/day (g) Carbs servings/day (servings) Not Healthy Food Choices
2000 225 - 325 15 - 21 Many processed foods: Chips, cookies, donuts, cakes, fried foods
1800 202 - 292 13 - 19 High fat meats, marbled meats
Bacon (Canadian bacon is lower fat)
Cheese
1500 169 - 244 11 - 16 Animal fats: Butter, lard, cheese, cow’s milk, cream
Plant fats: Coconut oil, chocolate, palm oil, most processed foods
1200 135 - 195 9 - 13 Fried versions

*One carb serving = 15 grams of carbs.

For more information about what foods are considered carbs, check out this article!

What is a low-carb diet and a very-low-carb diet?

A very low-carb diet consists of less than 10% of kcal or 20 to 50 grams of carbohydrates per day. A low-carb diet consists of less than 26% of kcal or 130 grams of carbohydrates per day.

Benefits of limiting carbs

Before insulin was developed, a low-carb diet was a primary intervention to control diabetes. Recent research has shown that participants following a ketogenic diet had a reduction in the use of medications, including oral medications and insulin, and A1C levels. In other words, a well-controlled diet might lead to lower medication costs. Other research has shown that following a low-carb diet has led to improvements in cardiometabolic risk factors.

Risks of limiting carbs

If you decide to follow a low-carb diet, you might experience temporary side effects including constipation, headaches, and muscle cramps. 

In the long run, if you do not consume enough whole grains, you miss out on a lot of important nutrients such as B vitamins, iron, folate, selenium, potassium, and magnesium.

If you are on insulin or insulin secretagogues, following a low-carb diet might lead to hypoglycemia, which is a very dangerous condition that can lead to anxiety, blurred vision, headache, irritability, and even fainting.

Takeaways

Not all people with diabetes need to be on a low-carb or very-low-carb diet to manage their diabetes. Instead, focus on following a diet that consists of an adequate amount of high quality carbs. If you really want to try a low-carb diet for either weight loss or diabetes, consult your primary care physician first.

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