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What Are Fast-Acting Carbohydrates?

Hate them or love them, if you have diabetes, food and beverages with carbohydrates are probably a regular part of your vocabulary. Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients (the other two being fat and protein) that provide our bodies with energy. It is also the nutrient that has the greatest impact on blood glucose levels.

Carbohydrates are commonly classified into three different groups: starch, sugar, and fiber. So which group do “fast-acting carbs” fall into?

What are fast-acting carbs?

Fast-acting carbs are carbohydrate foods or beverages that quickly raise the blood glucose level. Food and beverages that fall into this unofficial category may also be higher in the glycemic index, high in added sugars, and less nutrient-dense than other carb-rich foods.

Examples of fast-acting carbs include juice, regular pop, candy, and jelly. Fast-acting carbs contain little to no fat or protein.

When should I eat fast-acting carbs with type 2 diabetes?

While the above characteristics of fast-acting carbs may not sound appealing, fasting-acting carbs have their place in the diet of a person with diabetes.

When experiencing hypogylcemia

For those who take insulin or an oral medication that carries the side effect of hypoglycemia (hypoglycemia is commonly defined as a blood glucose level below 70 mg/dL), fast-acting carbs are your best form of treatment. You may have been previously instructed on the “15- 15 rule,” which instructs a person experiencing low blood glucose to have 15 grams of fast-acting carbs (such as 4 oz. of juice or 4 oz. regular pop) and recheck their glucose in 15 minutes. In this particular scenario, fast-acting carbs can be a lifesaver as they work to bring the blood glucose back into a safe range within a matter of minutes.

With physical acitivity

Before, during, and after physical activity (in particular, if the duration of physical activity is 1 hour or longer), intake of fast-acting carbs can help maintain blood glucose levels in a safe range (this is especially true for those of you treated with insulin) and provide the body with a fuel source that allows physical activity to be maintained. Following the physical activity, fast-acting carbs can help replenish glycogen stores (the storage form of glucose) in the skeletal muscles and liver. Replenishing glycogen stores following physical activity can help reduce the risk of late-onset hypoglycemia.

If you want to include carbohydrates into your daily diet, most of those carbohydrates should come from nutrient-dense, minimally processed sources such as whole-grains and fresh fruit. However, there is definitely a time and a place for fast-acting carbs, such as when treating a low blood glucose level and during physical activity.

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