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. In the 2017 Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes, the American Diabetes Association defines clinically significant hypoglycemia as blood sugar less than 54 mg/dL. It is important to treat this condition promptly and carefully and aim to prevent recurrence.

Over treating hypoglycemia can 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 but are not limited to, shakiness, anxiety, irritability, headaches, sweating, heart palpitations, hunger and tiredness. In the instance of severe hypoglycemia, people can lose consciousness in which case they need to be administered glucagon to get blood sugar back to normal. Because everyone has different reactions to hypoglycemia, it's important to understand which symptoms you experience so you can recognize and treat hypoglycemia when it happens. In addition, being able to detect when you experience hypoglycemia, for example, after an exercise session will help you prevent future episodes. 

Hypoglycemia can occur with diabetes, particularly if you are taking insulin or other oral medicines that cause blood sugars to drop to manage diabetes.

If you think you're experiencing hypoglycemia, you should check your blood sugar right away. If your blood sugar is less than or equal to 70mg/dL, you should treat it with fast acting carbohydrates. 

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 to fifteen minutes. ​

Treating Hypoglycemia Through Fast-Acting Carbohydrates

To avoid over treating 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 that contains carbohydrates and protein, 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)
  • 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.


American Diabetes Association. Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes - 2017. Diabetes Care. 2017 Jan; 40 (Suppl 1): S1-132. 

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