Carbohydrates 101

Carbohydrates 101

Foods that have carbohydrates turn into glucose (blood sugar) when your body digests them. If you have diabetes, you know that managing your blood sugar is essential. Which means managing carbs is key, too.

But there’s a lot of confusion when it comes to carbs. What are complex carbohydrates? Are they really healthy? Is it okay to eat them?

Table of contents

  1. What is a Carbohydrate?
  2. What is a Simple Carb?
  3. What is a Complex Carb?
  4. Healthy Carbs to Add to Your Diet

What is a Carbohydrate?

Carbohydrates, often just called carbs, are a macronutrient found in many foods and drinks. Carbs include starches, fiber and sugars. Protein and fat are other macronutrients. The body needs all of them to stay healthy.

When you eat carbs, the digestive system breaks them down into blood sugar. As the level of sugar rises in the blood, the pancreas makes a hormone called insulin. This hormone helps the body’s cells absorb sugar to store or use for energy.

For people with diabetes, the pancreas may not produce insulin — or the cells may not respond well to insulin. This means that sugar stays in the blood, causing high blood sugar.1 That’s what makes controlling carbs so important.2

What is a Simple Carb?

Simple carbohydrates are sugars like glucose or fructose. The body can quickly and easily use them for energy, which means they can lead to a fast increase in blood sugar.

Most simple carbs are added to foods. These include:

  • Corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Brown sugar
  • Raw sugar
  • Sucrose, fructose and glucose

What is a Complex Carb?

Complex carbohydrates are harder for the body to break down and take longer to digest. So they don’t affect blood sugar levels as quickly. In fact, complex carbs like whole grains may even help lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.2

There are two basic kinds of complex carbs: fiber and starch.

Fiber helps keep you feeling full and can help regulate blood sugar.3 Foods high in fiber include:

  • Fruits
  • Seeds and nuts
  • Vegetables
  • Legumes and beans
  • Whole grains

Starch is found in some of the same foods as fiber. High-starch foods include:

  • Whole-wheat bread
  • Cereal
  • Corn
  • Oats
  • Peas
  • Rice

Healthy Carbs to Add to Your Diet

It’s always important to talk to your healthcare team about the amount of carbs you should eat each day. However, it’s good to focus on healthy, complex carbs like:

  • Fruits rich in fiber. Good options include bananas, apples and berries. Skip the canned fruit, since most canned fruit usually has added sugar or syrup.
  • Beans. They don’t just offer fiber, but they’re a good source of other important nutrients.
  • Whole grains. They’re an excellent source of fiber and nutrients like magnesium and potassium. Go with options that are less processed — such as whole-wheat pasta, buckwheat or quinoa.
  • Veggies rich in fiber. Carrots, broccoli and leafy greens are all excellent choices.



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