Carbs—The Slow & Fast of It
Last updated: March 2022
Carbs. Carbs. Carbs. Seems like that’s all we talk about. Well, not quite, but we talk about it a lot. And for good reason. Carbohydrates, whether big or small in number, are very important when living with diabetes. The quality of the carb is also very important. So is the speed at which a carbohydrate works in your body. Does it provide a slow and steady response to avoid spikes in blood sugar? Does it give an immediate or relatively quick response to the need for blood sugars to be raised? Does it give a quick or immediate response for fun or pleasure? Let’s break all of this down, just like your body will break down the carbs you choose to eat.
Understanding carbs and type 2 diabetes management
We need some carbs in our body for our brain and the rest of our body to function properly. That’s a given. As I said above, the number of carbs needed varies from person to person. Many people have been successful in following recommendations for a higher number of healthy carbs at each meal. These are the mainstream recommendations of organizations such as American Diabetes Associations or Diabetes Canada to name a couple. Like with most other conversations, mainstream doesn’t work for all. Many other people have found that the recommended amounts of carbs are too high for their bodies to tolerate. They have found solutions in eating very, or sometimes very, very low carb amounts for the whole day. There is certainly a battle amongst the professionals as to which, mainstream vs non-mainstream, is best suited to be the recommendations to start with for all. But there are a couple of things all of these have in common: the quality of the carbohydrate we are eating and how fast it works.
How do carbs work in our bodies?
When we think of quality, we often think of healthy vs unhealthy. A good thing to consider, right? We don’t often think of how fast the carbs work in our bodies. So let’s talk about that.
Healthy carbs are the ones that give a slow and steady rise to our blood sugars. They are packed full of nutrients. They help our brain to function properly, to think clearly, to instruct our organs to do their jobs. Carbs give us energy. They provide us with the stamina to get through our busy days. They help us to stay healthy by giving us the nutrients we need. Have you heard of the expression ‘too much of a good thing is not always good’? That has proven to be an issue for some diabetics. The quantity we eat is very important.
Then there are the unhealthy carbs. When we think of these we usually think of the pleasurable carbs, the ones we don’t need but enjoy having. These are the carbs that cause a fast rise in our blood sugars. They also give us energy and instruct our various organs to do their job. These are the carbs that if eaten regularly, affect our organs in a negative way. They can cause us to gain weight making our diabetes harder to control and set us up for diabetic complications. Again, too much of a good thing...
Carbs and our blood sugar levels
Most of us can identify whether food is healthy vs unhealthy. But what we can’t always determine is if slow is good and fast is bad. In the simplest terms, slow is usually best. We want our blood sugars to rise and fall slowly. Some examples of these foods are whole-grain foods, nonstarchy vegetables, and some fruits. Again in the simplest terms, fast can be bad. They cause our blood sugars to rise rapidly and stay high for an extended period of time. Some examples of these foods are what I refer to as junk carbs: cakes, cookies, potato chips, chocolate, etc.
My experience with carbs in fruit
So does that mean all foods that cause your blood sugar to rise fast are bad? No, not at all. Some of this is determined by how your body tolerates it, which may be different than the person sitting next to you. For example, I love fruit. I can eat an apple and my blood sugars will rise and fall within the 2 hour time period we test. I also love grapes. Give me a bowl full and I’m a happy girl. But not only does it cause my blood sugars to rise rapidly because of the inherent sugar content in grapes, but it also doesn’t allow my sugars to come back down in that test period. That’s not to say grapes are unhealthy. There are healthy nutrients in grapes so I can still enjoy eating them from a health standpoint. The quantity is the issue. A bowlful is not great; 10 to 15 might be. Will quantity make the grapes less of a fast carb? No. In this case, I may need to eat something with it to slow the absorption; a piece of cheese or protein.
The role of carbs in hypoglycemia
One very important thing I didn’t mention. A fast carb may be necessary to save a life. Some people with diabetes experience hypoglycemia. Sometimes they can feel it coming on, sometimes they can’t. Hypoglycemia can be very dangerous. The only way out of a serious hypoglycemic event is with sugar...the not-so-good stuff: candy, juice, etc. In this case, it will save a life.
So where does that leave us? First, the quantity of any food should be considered. Second, a slow rise in blood sugar is pretty much always good. Third, fast is usually not good. Consider: Should I have a fast carb less frequently or at all? What else do I need to do if I choose to have a fast carb? Fourth, fast carbs can be life-saving.
Yup. A lot to consider. I’ve learned a lot in the 15 years I have lived with diabetes. If all of this is still confusing, consult your diabetes team. They will help to guide you through.
How often do you find yourself craving sweet snacks?