Fast-Acting Carbohydrates to Treat Hypoglycemia

Learn How to Deal with Low Blood Sugar

jelly beans
Elizabeth Watt/Photolibrary/Betty IMages

Fast-acting carbohydrates are mainly something you hear about in relation to hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, occurs when blood sugar levels go below 70 mg/dL. It is important to treat this condition promptly without over treatment. That could start a cycle of highs and lows that make it difficult to regain control.

What Are the Symptoms Hypoglycemia?

Symptoms of low blood sugar include shakiness, anxiety, irritability, headaches, sweating, heart palpitations, hunger and tiredness.

If it's extreme it can even lead to unconsciousness. Everybody has different reactions to hypoglycemia. So it's important to get to know which symptoms you experience so you can recognize and treat hypoglycemia when it happens.

Hypoglycemia can occur with diabetes, particularly if you are taking insulin to manage diabetes. If your carb intake hasn't matched the amount of insulin you've taken in, it can result in overly low blood glucose levels.

If you think you're experiencing hypoglycemia, diabetes experts recommend first checking your blood sugars if possible before treating it.

What Are Fast-Acting Carbohydrates?

Fast-acting carbohydrates are simple sugar-based foods that absorb rapidly into your bloodstream after eating. They absorb so quickly that they can change your blood glucose levels within five minutes. 

Treating Hypoglycemia Through Fast-Acting Carbohydrates

To avoid overtreating hypoglycemia, a good strategy is the "Rule of 15," which basically means to eat 15 grams of fast-acting carbohydrates, wait 15 minutes, and check your blood sugar again.

Repeat until blood sugar is within recommended levels. Once your blood sugar has stabilized, eat a small, balanced snack if your next meal is more than an hour or two away.

The fastest-acting carbs are simple sugars, without additional fat, which slows down the absorption of glucose into your bloodstream.

This is why foods such as chocolate or frosting might not work as quickly.

Fast-Acting Carbohydrate Options

Here are some choices that provide 10-15 grams of fast acting carbohydrate. You may want to keep this list on hand to be prepared for hypoglycemia episodes.

  • Corn syrup (1 tbsp)
  • Crackers (4-5 saltine crackers)
  • Fruit juice (usually 1/2 to 3/4 cup, or 4-6 ounces)
  • Glucose gel (one small tube is usually 15 g)
  • Glucose tablets (3-4)
  • Honey (1 tbsp)
  • LifeSavers (6-8)
  • Orange juice (1/2 to 3/4 cup, or 4-6 ounces)
  • Raisins (2 tbsp)
  • Nonfat milk (8 oz.)
  • Soda with sugar (1/2 to 3/4 cup, or 4-6 ounces)
  • Sugar (1 tbsp or 5 small sugar cubes)
  • Syrup (1 tbsp)
  • Hard candies, jelly beans and gum drops (check the nutrition facts label to what serving size provides 15 grams of carbohydrate)

Note that the glucose gel and tablets should be used if you take Precose (acarbose) or Gyset (miglitol) for your diabetes treatment. These medications slow digestion, so rapid-acting glucose or dextrose is needed.

Other Strategies for Treating Hypoglycemia

The smartest strategy is prevention.

Proper diabetes management, including being vigilant about testing your blood sugars, controlling the amount of carbohydrates you eat and taking your medication, can help keep your blood sugars within an optimal range and ward off episodes of hypoglycemia.


Living with Diabetes. American Diabetes Association. Accessed: July 20, 2011.

Continue Reading