Carbohydrate intake is a big part of meal plans for people with diabetes. Common advice is to focus on complex carbohydrates for good nutrition and to help avoid rapid spikes in blood glucose. The question is, do you actually know the definition of the different types of carbohydrates? Do you know the recommended amounts of carbohydrate to consume for adults (non-pregnant, non-lactating)?  Do you know which foods contain simple and complex carbohydrates? This blog will focus on “Understanding Simple and Complex Carbohydrates”.  Healthy recipes high in complex carbohydrates will be suggested at the end of the blog.

understanding simple and complex carbohydratesWhat kinds of foods are considered carbohydrates? 

Sugars, starches and fiber all fall under the classification of carbohydrates. (1) 

What is the difference between a simple carbohydrate and a complex carbohydrate? 

The body breaks down carbohydrate into glucose (a type of sugar) to provide energy.  The number of sugars found in the chemical structure of the carbohydrate determines if it is a simple or a complex carbohydrate. Simple carbohydrates contain no more than two sugars. Carbohydrates with more than two sugars in their structures are considered complex carbohydrates. Compared to simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates are generally absorbed slower and thus take longer for the body to digest. This helps to avoid blood glucose spikes. Complex carbohydrates are sometimes referred to as starches. (1)

What are examples of simple carbohydrates?

Many simple carbohydrates do not contribute a significant amount of nutrients to our diet. They include processed foods that contain a large amount of sucrose (table sugar) or corn syrup such as regular soda, many candies and processed desserts. (1,2)  

For people with diabetes, the simple carbohydrates mentioned above should not be a regular part of your meal plan. They should be used to treat episodes of low blood glucose as recommended by your medical team.
Some foods with simple carbohydrates do contribute substantial nutrients to our diets. Foods such as fruit and milk fall under this classification. Fruit juice provides more simple carbohydrates per cup than fruit and should be used sparingly.  Some vegetables also contain a very small amount of simple carbohydrates. (1)

What are some examples of complex carbohydrates?

Foods that contain complex carbohydrates provide needed fiber, and trace nutrients to our diets. Dried beans, split peas and lentils sometimes called legumes (3) are complex carbohydrates. So are whole grain bread and cereal products as well as foods that fall under the classification of starchy vegetables (examples: corn, green peas baked potatoes, water chestnuts, green lima beans). (1, 4)

What is the recommended amount of carbohydrate I should eat every day if I am a non-pregnant, non-lactating adult?

The recommended amount of carbohydrate that most adults should eat every day is at least 130 grams. This is the amount supported by the Institute of Medicine and is the recommended daily allowance (RDA). It is recommended that not more than 10 percent of calories (less is better) should come from added sugars due low nutrient coming from this type of food.

It is also recommended that decreasing added sugars may help people with high triglyceride levels. (5) 

Why 130 grams?

This amount is the daily requirement of glucose needed by our brains when glucose from carbohydrates is available. The energy needs for normal brain function depends only on glucose for these needs.  Optimal amounts of dietary carbohydrate for humans is currently unknown. (5)

What is the median intake of carbohydrates Americans?

The median intake of carbohydrate per day for men in the United States is roughly 220-330 grams and for women 180-230 grams/day. This is approximately 50 percent of calories consumed. (5) 

Try these tasty recipes containing complex carbohydrates:

  1. Red Kidney Bean Curry  
  2. Garbanzo Bean Salad
  3. Minted Lentil and Tomato Salad 
  4. Black bean and Chicken Casserole 
  5. Broccoli and Bean Dip  

It is recommended that people with diabetes eat according to their meal plan. Complex carbohydrates should be an integral part of this plan. Ask your dietitian when you should eat carbohydrates in your day and how many grams you should eat at these times. Complex carbohydrates are full of many vitamins and minerals needed by the body. They are considered an excellent energy choice. Simple carbohydrates that do not have other nutrients (high added sugar products) and juices are recommended by many diabetes educators only when a person needs to treat a low blood glucose level. You need carbohydrates, choose them wisely!