Understanding Carbs and Their Impact on Blood Sugar
If you’ve thought about losing weight at any point in the last decade or so, you probably heard that you have to get rid of carbs to do it. But, it’s not that simple.
You may be aware that carbohydrates are found in bread, pasta salads, and other common foods that people tend to steer clear of when losing weight. But did you know that some of the healthiest foods on the planet — foods that aren’t associated with weight gain — have carbs? And to boot, these are the kinds of carbs your body needs to keep running optimally?
Certain types of carbohydrates can dramatically affect blood sugar, leading to highs or lows throughout the day, followed by cravings and overeating.
Other types of carbohydrates don’t have much of an effect on blood sugar at all, and may have the opposite effect on appetite — making you feel full instead of hungry.
Even though different types of carbohydrates are classified as the same thing, not all carbs are created equal. Complex carbs, starches, and fibers are all considered carbs, but they have very different properties that impact their usefulness in your body.
Our bodies need some carbs to function properly, but how much you need depends on your gender, age, activity level, and more.
What Are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are found in foods that come mostly from plants and in trace amounts in meat products. Milk products contain carbohydrates, the most well-known one being lactose.
Carbohydrates contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms.
Simple carbohydrates like sugar, fruits, and milk contain two molecules of sugars bound together. Complex carbs like bread, cereal grain, or legumes are made up of many linked molecules.
Fiber is also considered a carbohydrate because of its molecular structure, but it passes through the body without being digested.
Carbs are your body's primary source of fuel after your body has gone through the process of breaking down proteins and fats.
Carbs are broken down by your digestive system to be used for energy in some capacity. How much energy they provide depends on the type of carb it is and how easily your body can break it down for energy.
Types of Carbs: Sugar, Starches, and Fiber
Although all carbs fall under the carbohydrate umbrella, each type has different properties and impacts on blood sugar.
Here, we’ll go through simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates, and fiber.
Simple carbs tend to be highly processed foods that are low in fiber and nutrients. Some examples include:
Because they are broken down quickly and easily, they cause an insulin response that leads to a flood of energy in the form of glucose being quickly released into the bloodstream. The result? A quick and short-lived spike of energy.
The sudden rise then causes a crash, leaving you tired and craving more simple carbs for quick energy.
That doesn’t mean that all simple carbs are bad for you. Fruits, for example, contain fiber that slows down glucose release, making your energy feel a little more steady than you would get if you ate a pack of gummy worms.
These carbs are found in foods with a high fiber level, such as whole grains.
Complex carbs take longer for your body to break down and release glucose into the bloodstream in a slower fashion.
This leads to less of a spike in energy followed by a more gradual decrease in energy, resulting in a more stable feeling of energy without the sharp highs and lows.
As mentioned earlier, fiber is not digested by your body and passes through the digestive system. However, this does not mean that it has no impact on blood sugar.
Fiber helps slow the entire digestive process down, resulting in a steady release of energy over time without dramatic highs or lows in glucose levels.
How Do Carbs Impact Blood Sugar?
Simple carbs and complex carbs raise blood sugar to some degree. This increase in glucose levels can be moderated by what you eat with them.
Simple carbohydrates that are broken down quickly tend to cause food cravings, leading to eating more and suppressing your natural appetite. Balancing simple carbs with protein and healthy fats can make the effect last a little longer.
If you experience blood sugar crashes throughout the day, it will be challenging to get through your day without falling victim to cravings and fatigue.
Complex carbs take longer for your body to break down and release glucose into the bloodstream causing a more stable release of energy levels over time.
Fiber generally does not affect blood sugar and insulin levels, so making sure to have vegetables with your carbs can help steady your energy as well.
Building a Healthy Relationship with Carbs
Carbohydrates are no stranger to fad diets and get-thin-quick schemes. However, carbohydrates are not your enemy and they play a necessary role in your overall health.
When consumed properly, carbs provide the body with an important source of fuel that helps you get through the day without feeling sluggish or constantly hungry.
Carbs also provide energy for physical activity, which is essential to staying healthy and keeping fit. Without carbohydrates, exercise can be difficult to maintain if done with any regularity.
Carbohydrates are best consumed in their natural forms, such as vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, without the addition of sugar.
The more sugar that is added to your food, the less healthy they are for you because sugar does not provide any nutritional value to your diet.
Unfortunately, the highly processed nature of many foods in the United States means that most people are unknowingly taking in massive amounts of simple carbohydrates that can lead to weight gain, diabetes, and other preventable diseases.
That doesn’t mean you have to give up the sweet stuff. Check out our Sugar-Free Chocolate Truffles to get your no-sugar fix.
Trying to cut out all carbs from your diet is not practical or sustainable for most people either because the body needs carbohydrates as a source of fuel for energy.
Instead, it's best to focus on cutting down your intake of simple carbohydrates by avoiding processed foods whenever possible and eating more complex carbs.
In doing so, you will control your blood sugar levels and maintain a healthy body weight without feeling deprived of the necessary nutrition that carbs provide.