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a croissant with egg and walnuts
a croissant with egg and walnuts

You may know that carbohydrates and sugar are what our body converts into energy. But what’s the difference between the two, and aren't they both essential for a healthy, balanced diet? 

Here's what you need to know first: sugar is a type of carbohydrate found naturally in many of the foods we eat. It can either occur naturally in foods or be added in, and is used by the body for energy. 

Carbohydrates, on the other hand, can include foods made up of starches, fiber, and sugar. They serve several critical functions that are important for your overall health and are also turned into energy in your body.

Sugar and other forms of carbohydrates are what your body uses for fuel, and the CDC recommends that 45 to 65 percent of daily calories come from carbohydrates for most people. 

However, everyone’s individual needs can vary, and some people may even benefit from a low-carb diet. 

While these nutrients are vital for good health, consuming them in excess is also possible, leading to blood sugar spikes and other adverse health effects.

Let’s explore the roles of carbohydrates and sugar in the body and how you can incorporate them into a healthy diet.

Defining Carbohydrates

Jars of chia pudding, veggies, fruits, sauerkraut, and granola

Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients that make up a balanced diet, and carbohydrates are what your body converts into glucose to use as energy. In addition to being broken down for energy, carbs can also play a supporting role in immune health, metabolism, and reproductive health.

You’ll find carbs in foods like grains, fruits, dairy products, legumes, fruit juices, and soft drinks. They're broken down into two main groups: simple and complex carbohydrates. These groups will affect your body and blood sugar levels differently, affecting how quickly you digest and absorb your food.

Simple Carbs

There are two types of simple carbohydrates: monosaccharides (simple sugars) and disaccharides (two simple sugars). 

Simple carbohydrates are sugars that can be digested quickly by your body for energy and are found in foods like:

  • Candy
  • Syrups
  • Table sugar
  • Fruit juice concentrate

Complex Carbs

Your body breaks down complex carbohydrates into oligosaccharides (three to six monosaccharide units) and polysaccharides (more than six). These take longer to digest than simple carbs and lead to fewer glucose spikes. They include foods like:

  • Whole grains
  • Vegetables
  • Legumes 
  • Starchy vegetables

The Dangers of Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates are foods that can lead to crashes in glucose and unstable energy levels as they are easiest for your body to absorb

Many simple carbs have little nutritional value and can be high in calories. Eating too many can cause health issues, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other health conditions. 

Refined carbohydrates may also negatively affect brain health.

The Benefits of Eating Complex Carbohydrates

Sweet potatoes cut up into wedges

Complex carbs, sometimes referred to as “healthy carbs,” take longer for the body to digest and convert into glucose, and they don’t spike blood glucose as much as simple carbs do. 

These molecules possess many critical functions for your body, including decreased cholesterol and triglyceride levels, enhanced digestive health, and better blood sugar control. 

Starches are one type of complex carb that can be broken down into glucose and provide energy for the body. 

The digestion process takes longer in complex carbohydrates and prevents blood glucose levels from spiking. Balance is vital when aiming to eat a healthy diet and avoid glucose spikes, especially if you are someone with or at risk for developing type 2 diabetes. 

Complex Carbs Provide Your Body With Energy

Foods containing longer chains of sugar molecules take longer for the body to break down and provide longer-lasting energy

Complex carbs also contain more vitamins and minerals and have other vital nutrients.

Complex Carbs Are Great for Your Digestive System

Cut up watermelon on a towel at the beach

Fiber is a complex carbohydrate that your body can’t break down and instead plays a role in aiding digestion, regulating blood sugar, and lowering cholesterol

Eating complex carbs high in fiber can aid gut health due to their high prebiotic quantities. They're in foods like:

  • Blueberries
  • Watermelon
  • Garlic
  • Onions 
  • Leeks

They Help You Sleep

Complex carbs can also help support better sleep, which is essential for our overall health and can affect your blood sugar levels

Including complex carbs in your diet can raise melatonin and support a good night’s sleep.

Complex Carbohydrates Increase Brain Function

Besides reducing risk factors for many chronic diseases, complex carbs can also provide the brain with a steadier fuel level than simple carbohydrates, as they take longer to digest and send out into your body. 

These foods can also protect brain cells from damage and improve cognitive performance

Studies have shown that simple carbs can harm brain health and cognitive function compared to complex carbs. 

These foods can also protect brain cells from damage and improve cognitive performance.

What is Sugar?

Person adding sugar to eggs in a bowl

Sugar is a type of carbohydrate that is broken down into glucose when digested by the body. It  is found naturally in things like fruits and vegetables and can be added into processed foods and sweets.

You may have heard of sugar referred to as glucose, fructose, sucrose, or even lactose—but there are over 60 different names for sugar. 

Glucose is essential for overall health and provides energy that allows the brain, red blood cells, and central nervous system to work correctly. 

While added sugars are not absolutely necessary for survival, there are naturally occurring sugars found in things like fruit that contain essential vitamins and minerals such as potassium and vitamin C

The American Heart Association advises that added sugar intake is limited to 6 teaspoons per day for women and 9 for men

The Dangers of Consuming Too Much Sugar

Many foods include added sugars, which you should limit in your diet because too much of it can lead to diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and high cholesterol.

Things such as fruit juices, sodas, white bread, snack foods, and sweets are simple carbohydrates that can also be high in added sugars. 

These foods are not typically high in other vital nutrients and are quickly digestible, which can cause sharp blood sugar spikes.

Chronic blood sugar spikes caused by an excessive intake of sugars and carbs can lead to type 2 diabetes over time as the cells that produce insulin (which allows the body to use and store sugar) are damaged over time. 

It's important to note that sugar is just one cause of blood sugar spikes. Many factors can contribute to the development of diabetes, such as obesity, low physical activity, and high blood pressure. 

How Carbohydrates and Sugars Affect Your Blood Sugar

Person checking their glucose chart on Nutrisense app

Eating carbohydrates and sugars can naturally raise your blood sugar as foods are digested and broken down into glucose that enters the bloodstream

Simple carbohydrates like baked goods, candy, fruit juices, cereals, pasta, and bread made with white flour are digested more rapidly, leading to quick spikes in blood sugar. Many studies recommend including more complex carbs such as fiber in your diet to decrease risk of higher blood sugar spikes. 

It’s essential to avoid excessive blood glucose spikes to prevent diseases like type 2 diabetes. For some, a low-carb diet can help improve insulin resistance and assist in weight loss or management. 

It's not necessary to cut out carbohydrates from your diet to prevent blood glucose spikes. However, following a low-carb diet can be healthy for certain people, such as those with diabetes mellitus. You should always speak to your doctor or an accredited dietitian before making significant dietary changes.

Whole food carbohydrates are a healthy element of the diet and do not cause diabetes or other health problems on their own. Creating healthy dietary habits by limiting added sugars and including foods known to prevent blood sugar from rising is one way to combat these spikes. 

Foods like non-starchy veggies (such as celery), vinegar, prebiotic-rich foods, leafy greens, legumes, and good quality proteins are just a few examples of these foods.

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Carlee Hayes

Reviewed by: Carlee Hayes RDN, CD

Carlee's training at Western Illinois University and an internship at the Memphis VA Hospital lead her to a career in outpatient counseling and bariatric nutrition therapy. In these positions, Carlee realized many of the disease states (upwards of 80%!) her patients experienced were actually preventable. She knew she had to dig deeper into preventative health, which led her to NutriSense and CGMs.