Who Knew Carbohydrates Could Be So Simple – or Complex?

December 10, 2015 at 10:10 am | Posted in Nutrition, Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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By Shannon Evins
Dietetic Intern

With various medications, glucose tests, and protocols to follow, diabetes can seem an overwhelming subject to master. Doctors, nurses, dietitians, and other health professionals start throwing numbers and words like carbohydrates and glucose at you and telling you what you should and should not eat. By now, most people know that carbohydrates are at the center of what affects blood sugar. To get to the root of the problem and simplify the concept, it is important to understand the different kinds of carbohydrates. They can be split into two main groups: simple or complex.

Simple carbohydrates are the things you normally think of when someone mentions high blood sugar – candy, cakes, cookies, pies, pastries, etc. They are called simple because they are easy for your body to digest and so spike your blood sugar quickly. It is best to avoid or watch the portion size of simple carbohydrates. Here are some other simple carbohydrates that people often overlook although they have the same effect as table sugar on your body: brown sugar, honey, molasses, maple syrup, corn syrup, jams/jellies, fruit juice, and soda.

Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, take longer to break down which means a slower release of energy and less of a spike in your blood sugar. They also often have a higher content of fiber and nutrients, so everyone, not just people with diabetes, should focus on eating complex carbohydrates. Common complex carbohydrates include whole-grain items (whole-wheat bread, whole-grain cereal, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, etc.), corn, beans, lentils, peas, potatoes, winter squashes or pumpkin, and whole fruits.

To better understand the concept of simple versus complex carbohydrates, let’s go back to the days of arts and crafts and imagine carbohydrates this way: say you have some beads and string and want to make a necklace. You have to add the beads one-by-one to the string in order to make the necklace. Each bead represents a sugar molecule. Simple carbohydrates are the equivalent of just two beads on that string. It would take you no time at all to add those beads to the string. Complex carbohydrates, however, have several more beads on the string, meaning it would take longer to put together. Similarly, your body is doing this for digestion but in reverse – each bead is being removed from the string, meaning each sugar molecule is being broken down and digested. It takes only a short amount of time for your body to digest two molecules versus several.

Overall, carbohydrates are very important for bodily functions because they are the main fuel source for your body. Just remember that it is best to eat them as part of a balanced meal with a fat or protein source and vegetables in order to stabilize blood sugar. Simple (or complex) enough?

(Post content reviewed by MGH Department of Nutrition and Food Services)

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