How Low Should You Go? The Pros and Cons of a Low-Carb Diet for Diabetes

November 2018

Over the past few years, low-carb diets—defined as diets high in protein that limit intake of carbohydrates commonly found in grains, fruit, and starchy vegetables—have been touted as a way to successfully shed extra pounds. But can this type of diet also help those with diabetes better manage their blood sugars?

Before insulin treatment was widely available, a low-carb diet was the gold standard in diabetes treatment. Avoiding high-carbohydrate foods was one of the only ways diabetics could avoid high blood sugars and the medical problems that result from them. Even with the advent of insulin therapy, research studies suggest that adhering to a low-carb diet, like the popular Atkins or South Beach diets, can help keep your blood sugar in check. When lowering your carb intake, how low should you go?

Low-carb guru and author Dr. Richard Bernstein, a type 1 diabetic, suggests restricting your carbohydrate intake to 30 grams per day to maintain optimal blood sugar control. That’s the equivalent of a medium-sized banana or about two slices of whole grain bread. But several studies suggest more moderate restrictions (70-90 grams of carbohydrate per day) can be just as effective—and won’t result in common low-carb side effects like muscle weakness, constipation and feelings of irritability.

What factors should you consider before giving up high-carbohydrate foods?

1. Can you stick to it? It’s not easy to follow a low-carb diet. Carbohydrates are present in most people’s favorite foods. To eat low-carb, you have to severely limit foods like white flour breads and pastas, as well as sugary treats like cookies and ice cream. That’s why the American Diabetes Association doesn’t champion this diet. It’s a hard regimen to maintain over time. And with such strict guidelines, it’s easy to slip up.

2. Do you have other health conditions? Low-carb diets can be high in fat, which can negatively affect cholesterol and blood pressure readings. This type of diet can also make it harder to get certain nutrients (such as folate, vitamin C and fiber) that you need to maintain overall health. Those who do take on this diet need to carefully monitor their food intake to make sure they are getting all the vitamins and minerals they need to stay healthy.

3. Have you talked to your doctor? If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, talk to your doctor before committing to a low-carb diet. They may recommend you connect with a nutritionist, who can help you determine whether it’s right for you—and help you figure out a plan to better manage your blood glucose levels over the long term.

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