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6 Healthy Carbs for People with Diabetes

Not all carbs are bad carbs—even for people with diabetes. Here are the top dietitian-recommended power carb picks.

Updated November 03, 2020

By Gale Cohen, RD, Registered Dietitian—Virtua Nutrition and Diabetes Care

A person with diabetes faces a dietary dilemma: On one hand, you have to monitor carbohydrate intake carefully to keep blood glucose levels stable. On the other hand, avoiding or drastically limiting carbohydrates is neither healthy nor recommended by most experts or dietary authorities, including the American Diabetes Association.

It's important to know that not all carbs are bad carbs. Heavily processed or refined carbohydrates like those found in white flour and packaged snacks aren’t healthy choices for people with diabetes (or anyone else, for that matter). Instead, it's best to eat a variety of healthy foods in appropriate portion sizes, including sources of lean protein, unsaturated fats, and high-fiber, low-glycemic index “power carbs” that have the greatest overall nutritional value. These carbs, some of which are described below, also help you stay fuller for longer, and may even reduce cholesterol.

  • Quinoa
    Quinoa is a popular gluten-free carb that comes in white, red, and black varieties. It’s also a complete protein and a good source of potassium. Many foods are made with quinoa—including cereal, pasta, and crackers—and it’s also often a base for salads. It can be served hot or chilled. Be sure to rinse it well before cooking, as quinoa grows with a bitter coating.
  • Beans and other legumes
    Beans and legumes are high in fiber and protein. Dried beans are the healthiest as they don’t come with added ingredients: try black, lima, or pinto beans, lentils, or black-eyed peas. Among canned beans, fat-free refried beans also are a great option.
  • Rice
    Choose whole-grain rice over refined white rice. Whole-grain rice is usually brown, but it can also be black, purple, or red. Rice is one of the most easily-digestible carbs, and is also ideal for those on a restricted diet or who are gluten intolerant.
  • Barley
    Hulled barley has the highest fiber content of all grains. Pearl barley is more commonly found in markets, but is more processed. Barley often is used in soup and side dishes like pilafs.
  • Oats
    Prepare steel-cuts oats at home and add your own sweetener, if needed. Whole grain oats also can be prepared in a variety of savory dishes for lunch or dinner. Try to steer clear of the sugar-laden, heavily processed flavored oatmeal packets sold in the grocery store.
  • Bulgur
    Bulgur wheat is a whole-wheat grain that has been cracked and parboiled, or partially precooked. Bulgur is versatile and can be used as a base for all sorts of dishes. It’s best-known for its traditional use in tabbouleh, a minty Middle Eastern grain and vegetable salad. Because it comes precooked, it only needs to be boiled for about 10 minutes until it's ready to eat. Bulgur has more fiber than quinoa and oats, and many other whole grains.

For help in creating a healthy eating plan for your diabetes diet, call 888-847-8823 to make an appointment with a Virtua certified diabetes educator or registered dietitian.