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Diabetes: Understanding Carbohydrates, Fats, and Protein

Food is a source of fuel and nourishment for your body. It’s also a source of pleasure. Having diabetes doesn’t mean you have to eat special foods or give up desserts. Instead, your dietitian can show you how to plan meals to suit your body. To start, learn how different foods affect blood sugar.


Carbohydrates (carbs) are the main source of fuel for the body. They raise blood sugar. Many people think carbohydrates are only in pasta or bread. But carbohydrates are in many kinds of foods. Carbs include:

  • Sugars. These are naturally found in foods such as fruit, milk, honey, and molasses. Sugars can also be added to many foods. They may be added to cereals, yogurt, candy, and desserts. Sugars raise blood sugar rapidly.

  • Starches. These are in bread, cereals, pasta, and dried beans. They’re also in corn, peas, potatoes, yam, acorn squash, and butternut squash. Starches raise blood sugar, but more slowly than simple sugars.

  • Fiber. This is in foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains. Unlike other carbs, fiber isn’t digested or absorbed, so it can help keep blood sugar from rising too fast. It may also help keep blood cholesterol at a healthy level.

Did you know?

Even though carbohydrates raise blood sugar, it’s best to have some in every meal. They're an important part of a healthy diet.


Fat is an energy source that can be stored until needed. Fat doesn't raise blood sugar. But it can raise blood cholesterol. This increases the risk of heart disease. Fat is high in calories. Eating too many calories can cause weight gain. Not all types of fat are the same.

More healthy:

  • Monounsaturated fats. These are mostly found in vegetable oils such as olive, canola, and peanut oils. They're found in avocados and some nuts. Monounsaturated fats are healthy for your heart. That’s because they lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol.

  • Polyunsaturated fats. These are mostly found in vegetable oils such as corn, safflower, and soybean oils. They're found in some seeds, nuts, and fish. Polyunsaturated fats lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol. So choosing them instead of saturated fats is healthy for your heart. Some unsaturated fats can help lower triglycerides. 

Less healthy:

  • Saturated fats. These are found in animal products such as meat, poultry, whole milk, lard, and butter. Saturated fats raise LDL ("bad") cholesterol. They are not healthy for your heart.

  • Trans fats. These are formed when vegetable oils are processed into solid fats. They are found in many processed foods. Trans fats raise LDL ("bad") cholesterol and lower HDL ("good") cholesterol. They are not healthy for your heart.


Protein helps the body build and repair muscle and other tissue. Protein has little or no effect on blood sugar. But many foods that have protein also have saturated fat. By choosing low-fat protein sources, you can get the benefits of protein without the extra fat:

  • Plant protein. This is found in dry beans and peas, nuts, and soy products such as tofu and soy milk. These foods tend to have no cholesterol. Most are low in saturated fat.

  • Animal protein. This is found in fish, poultry, meat, cheese, milk, and eggs. These foods have cholesterol. They can be high in saturated fat. Aim for lean, lower-fat choices. Don't eat fried foods.

Online Medical Reviewer: Chris Southard RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Rajadurai Samnishanth Researcher
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2024
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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