Counting carbohydrates is an important component of living well with diabetes.
After all, carbohydrates digest in the form of glucose in the body, which is what raises blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.
But there are different types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. How do these differ and how are they similar?
This article will investigate the differences and similarities between simple and complex carbohydrates—as well as what you need to know when incorporating them into your diet.
What is a carbohydrate?
Carbohydrates are sugar biomolecules made up of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen.
Along with protein and fat, carbohydrates make up one of the three main macronutrients in the human diet.
Carbohydrates are essential for many biological processes in the body including:
- Providing energy for muscles
- Fueling the brain,
- Enabling fat metabolism
- Preventing protein from being used as energy
Everyone on earth needs carbohydrates to live and they are the body’s preferred fuel for energy output.
What foods contain carbohydrates?
Many foods contain some amount of carbohydrates, but carbohydrates are mostly found in the following foods:
- Dairy and milk products
- Processed foods
Additionally, any packaged food that has added sugar also contains carbohydrates.
Even most “sugar-free” snacks and candy contain some amount of carbohydrates.
Be careful when snacking and always check the nutrition label of any packaged foods you consume.
Why is tracking carbohydrates important for people with diabetes?
Having diabetes means that your body cannot properly break down glucose in the blood, either due to a complete lack of insulin, or not enough insulin in the bloodstream.
All carbohydrates are broken down as glucose in the digestive process.
Counting carbohydrates and calibrating insulin or other diabetes medications accordingly is the only way to keep blood sugars within a healthy range.
Fat and protein, the other macronutrients, may raise blood sugars slightly, but not in the same way or to the same degree that carbohydrates raise blood sugar levels.
Regardless, even if you eat zero carbohydrates in a day, the human body still requires insulin to live, and taking exogenous insulin will still be required.
However, when creating a meal plan, people with diabetes need to keep in mind the total number of carbohydrates in each meal, and make dosing adjustments accordingly.
What is the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates?
There are two types of carbohydrates: simple and complex.
Complex carbohydrates, found in foods like pasta, bread, and cereals contain longer chains of sugar molecules and take much longer for the body to break down.
On the other hand, simple carbohydrates, found in table sugar, candy, syrups, and fruit have shorter chains of sugar molecules and provide shorter bursts of energy for the body.
Complex carbohydrates raise blood sugar more slowly, usually over the course of an hour up to several hours.
Whereas simple carbohydrates hit the bloodstream immediately, and spike blood sugar fast.
This is why simple carbohydrates, such as candy and juice, are often used to treat hypoglycemia (low blood sugar.)
Is one type of carbohydrate healthier than the other?
One type of carbohydrate is not necessarily healthier than the other.
It is just a matter of meeting what your body needs at the moment.
For example, many people recommend “carbohydrate loading” the evening before a marathon race with complex carbohydrates, such as pasta.
The thought is that the body will “store” that extra glucose in the liver, and dump the energy into the bloodstream the next day during the run when the body needs it most.
In this case, eating complex carbohydrates is more beneficial than eating simple carbohydrates.
On the other hand, if you’re suffering from low blood sugar and need to raise your glucose levels quickly, a piece of candy containing simple carbohydrates would be much better for your body than a plate of pasta.
There are many healthy foods that contain simple carbohydrates, such as fruits and vegetables.
Many healthful foods contain complex carbohydrates, such as brown rice and whole wheat pasta.
Some additional examples of healthy foods containing simple and complex carbohydrates are listed below:
Foods with complex carbohydrates:
- Brown rice
- Whole wheat pasta
- Bulgar wheat
- Wild rice
Refined grains are also considered complex carbohydrates, but they do not contain the bran and germ of the grain, so have lower nutritional value than their whole-grain counterparts:
- White flour
- White bread
- White rice
- Degermed cornmeal
Foods with simple carbohydrates:
- Fruit juice
- Whole fruit (naturally-occurring sugar)
- Milk and other dairy products (naturally contain lactose, which is a simple sugar)
- Sugary drinks
- Baked goods and sweets with added sugars
- Some vegetables (naturally-occurring sugar)
- Most low snacks, such as glucose tabs, gels, and cake icing
It’s healthiest to avoid simple carbohydrates when they contain added sugar or are heavily processed.
Adding sugar to any food increases its calorie content without providing anything more nutritionally.
An exception to this is when treating low blood sugar. It can be appropriate or necessary to eat something with added sugar or to eat something that is processed.
What to keep in mind when eating carbohydrates
Both simple and complex carbohydrates are important elements of any diet.
Keep in mind what your body needs, and how quickly your blood sugars will respond to either a simple or complex carbohydrate.
If your blood sugars are running high, you may want to avoid eating simple carbohydrates.
Whereas if you’re suffering from low blood sugar, you may require simple carbohydrates, and eating a complex carbohydrate may not raise your blood sugar as quickly as you need it to.
When eating for diabetes, you need to keep “total carbohydrates” in mind for dosing decisions and blood sugar management—not just “carbohydrates” on the nutritional label.
Improve the nutritional content of your meals by keeping track of the “added sugars” in foods. Added sugars are now required to be listed on nutritional labels in the United States.
Avoiding added sugars can improve your physical health, help you avoid processed foods, and make your diabetes management easier.
Finally, when thinking about carbohydrates, you may want to factor in fiber.
This can be subtracted from the total carbohydrates so you can figure out the net amount of carbohydrates that would affect your blood sugar level.
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is indigestible and therefore does not have any effect on blood sugar levels.
Talk with your doctor or enlist a registered dietitian if you have questions or concerns about incorporating complex versus simple carbohydrates into your diet.
Both simple and complex carbohydrates are an essential source of energy for the mind and body.
Complex carbohydrates have longer sugar chains and take longer to digest, providing lasting energy.
Simple carbohydrates have shorter sugar chains, are quicker to digest, and provide energy more quickly.
When people with diabetes have low blood sugar levels, they typically treat them with simple carbohydrates in the form of juice, candy, or glucose tablets.
One type of carbohydrate isn’t necessarily healthier than the other.
Simple carbohydrates are found in plenty of healthy foods, such as whole fruits, vegetables, and milk. As well as not-as-healthy foods such as candy, ice cream, and soda.
Complex carbohydrates are found in healthy foods such as brown rice and bulgur wheat—and not-as-healthy refined foods, like white rice and white pasta.
For eating well with diabetes, it’s helpful to think of the overall food instead of just what kind of carbohydrate you’re eating.
You must also consider the total carbohydrates, fiber, and added sugar the food contains.
It can be helpful to think about what your body needs at the moment in terms of complex versus simple carbohydrates as well.
As always, balance is key!