What You Need to Know about Simple and Complex Carbohydrates

Simple vs Complex Carbohydrates

oatmeal and fruit
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If you have type 2 diabetes, you know that carbohydrates matter. Although carbohydrates are necessary for a healthy diet, eating too many carbohydrates at a meal can make blood sugar levels soar. 

But as you probably know, not all carbs are created equally. There are simple and complex carbohydrates. And within each of these categories, there are options that are better and worse for you and your blood sugar levels.

Striking a balance in your eating will help keep your blood sugars in an acceptable range.

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates are simply sugar. They are made up of just one or two sugar molecules. As such, it doesn't take much for your body to break them down and absorb them (as glucose) into the bloodstream. For this reason, simple carbohydrates raise blood sugar much faster and usually higher than complex carbs.

Single sugars include:

  • Fructose (found naturally in fruit and added to some processed foods as a sweetener) and
  • Galactose (found in dairy products).

Double sugars include:

  • Lactose (found in milk and other dairy products)
  • Maltose (found in some vegetables and grains).

Simple carbohydrates are found in processed foods, such as table sugar, candy, syrups and soda pop. These simple carbs don't have additional components to slow digestion and they lack nutritional value. Natural sources of simple carbohydrates, such as fruit, vegetables and milk, also contain vitamins, minerals, protein (in the case of milk) and fiber (in fruits and vegetables).

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates are starches. They're made up of longer chains of sugar molecules, which makes them take longer to digest. Since complex carbs are digested more slowly than simple carbs, blood sugars don't rise as high or as fast

Just as with simple carbohydrates, some are healthier than others.

The healthiest complex carbohydrates are the least processed. Whole grains (rather than refined grains), starchy vegetables and legumes are the best complex carbs.

Examples of these foods are brown rice, oatmeal, other whole grains, whole wheat pasta and high fiber cereals. Potatoes and sweet potatoes, corn and legumes (kidney beans, chick peas), are also complex carbs.

Whole grains, legumes and starchy vegetables all provide significant amounts of fiber. Fiber is an important part of your diet: it helps keep your blood sugar levels from spiking too high, it can help regulate your cholesterol levels and is important for intestinal health.

Refined starches, on the other hand, such as refined grains, are quite low in fiber. They may have vitamins and minerals if they've been enriched, but whole grains naturally have vitamins and minerals in them because they have not been stripped through processing.

Meal Planning with Simple and Complex Carbohydrates

When planning your meals, focus on getting more of your carbohydrates from natural, less processed sources, whether from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy or legumes.

This will ensure that you're getting the most nutritious, fiber-filled foods in your diet, which will help you control your blood sugar levels.

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