Last updated: March 2022
There is a lot of discussion about a popular macronutrient lately. Coaches tell their players to “carb load” while, dietitians tell their patients to "count carbs” and some people avoid carbs at great lengths. What is a “carb” though? It’s a device on older motors to regulate fuel and air mixture. No, that’s a carburetor and not the carb we care about.
Understanding carbohydrates and type 2 diabetes
A carbohydrate is a nutrient that is a little more complicated to explain. Welcome to a non-opinion analysis of the different types of “carbs” we can ingest, with some ideas about what we should do about carbs as diabetics.
The definition of a carbohydrate
For the purpose of using a non-bias definition, we will use the Merriam-Webster definition of a carbohydrate: "any various of neutral compounds of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (such as sugars, starches, and celluloses) most of which are formed by green plants and which constitute a major class of animal foods".1
The words, “any” and “various” suggest that there are multiple types of carbohydrates. Sure enough, there are lots of types of carbohydrates and they are different in source, structure, and function.
Types of carbohydrates
When we see the "-saccharide" in a carbohydrate classification, it means sugar chain. That’s essentially what they are, chains of sugars. Keep in mind that this is a simplified list, and each category has subcategories and divisions within those subcategories. It can get confusing, so let's keep it simple.
- Monosaccharides - a single unit of sugar; commonly found as the sugar in fruit (fructose) or as glucose in the blood.
- Disaccharides - consisting of two sugars; commonly found in milk (lactose) and table sugar (sucrose).
- Polyols - "Sugar alcohols” a lower calorie count compared to table sugar; commonly used to sweeten gum, mints, drinks and foods.
- Oligosaccharides - consisting of 3-9 units of sugar; occurs naturally in low-sweetness vegetables, grains and honey.
- Polysaccharide - a chain of sugars consisting of 10 or more units of sugar, sometimes up to several thousand; commonly found as starch in root vegetables or as non-starch which is considered dietary fiber.2
The function of carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are a primary source of energy for our bodies. As they metabolize, most break down into glucose, which is used for a variety of functions in the body and brain. They break down at different rates and in different ways though, and that’s where the functionality of carbohydrates changes. Fiber does not even breakdown into sugars, it serves the purpose of managing digestion speed.
Carbohydrates and blood glucose
Different carbohydrates will affect blood glucose levels differently, especially for diabetics, obviously. So, it’s important to be conscious of what carbohydrates you are consuming and in what quantity. Know your carbs and what they will do in your body if ingested.
Blood sugar spikes
Carbohydrates that have been broken down and processed, such as white flours and artificial sweeteners, will often raise blood sugar quickly, leading to “spikes”. This is due to the processed mono- and di-saccharides that metabolize faster than other carbs. A better alternative for more sustained sugar release and avoiding spikes in blood sugars would be polysaccharides and oligosaccharides, which come from whole foods that are also packed full of other nutrients.
Best carbs for hypoglycemia
Some diabetics like to have fast-acting carbs around, in cases of hypoglycemia. In a time like this, it's still better to turn to a small serving of fruit, rather than processed candies or snacks. This way you are absorbing essential vitamins and minerals with the carbs and not just sugar. Fruit juices will raise sugars faster because they are already processed and do not need to be chewed.
*Note: Chewing will actually change the rate at which carbohydrates metabolize! It is the first step in our digestion process.
Low carb diet
If you are eating a low carb diet to manage your diabetes, then it's great to make sure that the few carbs you are consuming are consumed with purpose. Rather than processed foods, look to whole foods. Rather than high carb veggies that might fill your daily quota in a bite, look for lower carb veggies that have a high nutrition density.
A single food can have multiple types of carbohydrates. As consumers, we do not really want to look up the carbohydrate make up of all the different foods we are buying. Luckily there is a handy tool! Look for the food’s spot in the 'glycemic index’.
The higher the number on the index, the more it will affect your blood glucose levels. Be conscious of the foods you are eating and how they influence your blood sugars. If the food is spiking and serves little nutritional purpose, it might be replaceable for a more constructive alternative that is lower on the index.
Conclusion: Know your carbs
Carbohydrates are a buzz word at the moment, so it's important to understand what they are and why they are significant. Different carbs serve different purposes and it's important to understand what we are consuming, especially with diabetes. Carbs can drastically influence blood sugars, so be conscious of what carbs you are eating and in what amount.
Many diabetics choose to limit their carb count, which of course will reflect positively in their blood sugars. Other's don't mind eating carbs and take the "moderation" approach. Regardless of your diet preference, it's important to prioritize carbs that serve more than the purpose of being a carb. I hope that this article is helpful and you are making each carb count.
How often do you find yourself craving sweet snacks?