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Enjoying Carbohydrates made Possible in Diabetes

Written by: Dr Lee Ching Li, Dietician & Lecturer, International Medical University (IMU)

The food and drink we enjoy, contain three major nutrients called carbohydrate, protein, and fat. While each nutrient plays different roles in keeping us healthy, carbohydrate has the biggest effect on blood glucose levels. The interesting part is that we can manage how quickly blood glucose accumulates in our blood stream by eating intelligently. Eating a meal with a moderate amount of carbohydrates may increase your blood glucose by 2 to 3 mmol/L. Eating a meal with a huge amount of carbohydrates can potentially increase your blood glucose by 5 to 9 mmol/L. This is why managing carbohydrate in the diet is a fundamental step towards good blood glucose control for anyone living with diabetes.

Key Takeaway:

Achieve good blood glucose control by managing carbohydrate in your diet.
Where is carbohydrate in our diet?

The Malaysian diet contains food that many people instantly recognize as carbohydrate rich food. This includes staples such as rice, noodles, bread, cereals, flour, and root vegetables (e.g.- potatoes, yam). Popular carbohydrate rich culprits also include sweetened drinks (e.g.- Teh Tarik, Kopi Susu, Bubble Tea) and confectionery (e.g.- kuihs, cakes, desserts, chocolates, sweets). You may be surprised to find out that foods such as fruit, legumes and pulses (e.g.- dhall, beans, peas, chickpeas), and dairy products (e.g.- milk, cheese, yoghurt) also contain carbohydrate. With such a long list of carbohydrate containing food, you are probably wondering if there is any food left to eat. The good news is that you do not need to avoid any carbohydrate containing food. Excluding such a long list of food from your diet is unhealthy as this can leave your body deficient of other healthy nutrients (e.g.- vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients). What you need to do is to eat a controlled amount of carbohydrate rich food.

Key Takeaway:

Instead of avoiding carbohydrate rich food, control the amount you eat. Carbohydrate rich food include:
  • Rice, noodles, bread, cereals, flour, root vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Legumes and pulses
  • Dairy products
  • Sweetened drinks and confectionery
Tips to control the amount of Carbohydrate in your diet
1. Downsize your food

Choose to eat smaller portions of carbohydrate rich food.

Large plate of rice

Large bowl of noodles

Two pieces of chapati

One doughnut





Small plate of rice

Small bowl of noodles

One pieces of chapati

Share the doughnut with a friend

Roadblock: When you start to eat less, you may feel hungry.

Solution: Fill up with low-calorie carbohydrate-free non-starchy vegetables. Including non-starchy vegetables into each meal will also supply your body with nutrients that help you effectively use glucose. As a bonus, vegetables introduce colour and texture to make for a more interesting diet.

2. Watch out for liquid energy

Thirsty? Choose non-sweetened beverages to rehydrate. Here is a list of beverages from least to most carbohydrate content:

Roadblock: You have a sweet tooth.

Solution: Start by using less sugar in your drinks or placing an order for ‘kurang manis’ beverages. You can also use non-nutritive sweeteners that provide a sweet taste without the carbohydrates. Small steps go a long way.

3. Be a nutrition label detective

Most packaged food and drink come with a nutrition label at the back of the pack. Reading the nutrition label will help you make informed decisions to purchase food or drink with less carbohydrates.

Here are two easy steps to reading the nutrition label.

Step 1: Look at the serving size. The example given for both chocolate and regular milk shows that a serving size is 250 ml or 1 glass of milk.

Step 2: Look at the carbohydrate content per serving size. Compare the serving with what you will be consuming. The example given shows that 250 ml of chocolate milk contains 27.5 g of carbohydrates while 250 ml of regular milk contains 12.8 g of carbohydrates. Drinking the chocolate milk will raise your blood glucose more than drinking the regular milk.

Roadblock: I have no time to read nutrition labels.

Solution: Give the ingredient list a 10-second glance through. Ingredients are listed in order of quantity, from highest to lowest amount. The first three ingredients usually make up the largest part of what you will be eating or drinking. Choose food products that do not have sugar and its various forms as the first three ingredients. Many forms of sugars end in the suffix ‘ose’ (e.g.- glucose, sucrose, fructose, dextrose, maltose, lactose).

Key Takeaway:

Take control of the carbohydrates you eat by downsizing your portions, being aware of liquid energy, and reading nutrition labels on packaged food and drink.
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