Jan 31, 2012

Q & A with the Dietitian: Carbs and Sugar

First off, thank you all so much for your questions! They're wonderful are a great way for us to talk and share health information. If you have any insight or questions about the topics, don't be shy, share the knowledge and post a comment. I love hearing from you.

This weeks question is about the role carbohydrates and sugar have on blood sugar and why it matters for our health.

Carbs, sugar, carbs: 
what's the difference and why do I care??


Morgan wrote: "I've been really strictly monitoring my sugar every since I started my low carb diet on the 1st and I am wondering what effects my blood sugar more - carbs or sugar? I like these carb conscious protein bars. They have 18 g carbs, but 5 grams of sugar and I ate one last night because my sugar dropped to 77 and it didn't seem to help much. SO, should I be focusing more on the sugar or carb content on nutrition labels? Thanks."


This is a great question, especially for those who are diabetic or are interested in monitoring their  carbohydrate intake. The answer is quite complicated, so I'm just going to focus on basic information. In order to answer your question, it's important to understand the difference between various types of carbohydrates. Here's a very simplistic breakdown:

Three main types of carbohydrates:
  1. Complex carbs: i.e. starchy vegetables, beans, grains
  2. Sugar: i.e. milk, fruit, fruit juices, candy, sweets
  3. Fiber: found in foods like fruit, whole grains and beans
As far as blood sugar is concerned, "complex carbs" increase blood sugar more slowly than "sugar". Complex carbs generally contain the most nutrients, vitamins and minerals and therefore should comprise the largest part of our total carbohydrate intake. Sugar (or refined sugar) is a quick-acting carb that will increase your blood sugar much faster than other types of carbs.

As far as nutrition labels go, in general it's better to eat foods that contain less "sugar". However, if you're having an episode of low blood sugar and you have a medical condition like diabetes, eating foods higher in "sugar" will increase your blood sugar more quickly.

So let's talk about your blood sugar and the protein bar you ate. First, a blood sugar of 77 mg/dL is good. Since your blood sugar technically wasn't "low", you don't have to worry about raising it. However, if you wanted to raise it slightly, you may need a larger dose of carbohydrate than the protein bar provided. Secondly, protein bars have a lot of.....protein, and that nutrient does not increase blood sugar.

The exact amount of carbohydrate you should eat to maintain a healthy blood sugar throughout the day depends on the diabetes medication you take (if you're diabetic) and how many carbs you're eating at meals and snacks. For people without diabetes, eating a healthy, well-balanced diet regularly throughout the day - and not over-eating - is adequate to maintain a healthy blood sugar range.

People with diabetes should talk to their doctors or a certified diabetes educator to layout how many carbohydrates should be eaten for meals and snacks and (if necessary) how much insulin or oral glucose medication is needed to keep blood sugar within a healthy range of 70-120 mg/dL. Lastly (and certainly not least), low-carb diets are not a good idea for people with diabetes - or anyone for that matter - because they can cause blood sugar irregularities, among many other health problems. That's a WHOLE other post!

Thanks for your question and don't by shy if you have any more :) 

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