When Sugar Isn't So Sweet

  • By Aisha Smith
  • 14 Aug, 2016

Stephanie Allison

August 14, 2016

        By this point, I’m sure you have heard numerous times that people with diabetes have to watch how much carbohydrates they eat or that they have to avoid sugar altogether. However, I come bearing good news – this is NOT the case. In fact, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND, 2016), “carbohydrates are the body’s main source of fuel and are necessary to maintain proper function.” So, even though diabetics must be mindful of how much carbohydrates they consume, they do not have to avoid them entirely. What really matters with diabetes is to be educated and aware of the types and amount of carbohydrates you consume so that you can keep yourself as healthy as possible. The first step here is to understand that there is a BIG difference between “carbohydrates” (or complex carbs) and “sugars” (simple carbs).

            An easy way to know if a food has carbohydrates is to ask if it came from a plant at any point in its life. If you answer yes, then the food will always contain at least some carbohydrate. While carbohydrates are not “off limits” to someone who has diabetes, it is vitally important to monitor portion size to keep your blood sugar under control. Carbohydrates can be broken down into two categories:

·    Complex Carbohydrates – these include starches and fiber

·    Simple Carbohydrates – these include sugars – both natural and added


SO, what’s the difference…?


Complex Carbohydrates

Simple Carbohydrates

~ Digest slowly

~ Digest quickly

~ Prolonged, steady, energy

~ Short energy with a crash

~ High fiber

~ Low fiber – refined/processed

~ Naturally found sugars

~ Added sugars/empty calories

~ Less insulin released

~ High insulin levels (fat storage)

~ Used more readily for energy

~ Stored as fat if not needed for energy

~ Often low glycemic (steady blood sugar)

~ Often high glycemic (spiked blood sugar)

~ May help with weight loss

~ Often contribute to weight gain

~ Help you stay full longer

~ Lead to feeling hungry again sooner



    ~ 100% whole grain products

    ~ Potatoes (white and sweet)

    ~ Peas and corn

    ~ Beans

    ~ Oatmeal

    ~ Brown rice and quinoa

    ~ Nuts and seeds

    ~ Candy and sweets

    ~ Cake and other baked goods

    ~ Soda (non-diet) and fruit juices

    ~ Flavored yogurts

    ~ Many sauces and salad dressings

    ~ Cane sugar

    ~ “White” grains (bread, rice, etc.)


            So if starches are okay if I monitor portion sizes and fiber doesn’t affect my blood sugar or weight, why is sugar such a concern? Why are the two columns so different if they’re both carbohydrates? According to Libby ( www.ditchthecarbs.com ), we are worried about sugar for many reasons. First and most importantly, sugar crowds out more nutritious foods. When we get full off of unhealthy foods that spike our blood sugar, we don’t have room for more healthy items. In fact, the United States has even been called “the most overfed and undernourished generation in history” because we eat too much of the most unhealthy foods and gain weight because of it. Aside from displacing healthy foods and sending your blood sugar on a roller coaster ride, regularly consuming too much added sugar can play a part in many health issues including, but not limited to:

·    Insulin resistance

·    Obesity: eating too many added sugars is the biggest cause of obesity!

·    Sugar addiction (yes, it is real!)

·    Diabetes

·    Impaired learning and memory

·    Tooth decay (read: cavities and root canals! Never fun!)

·    Heart disease

·    Changes in intestinal bacteria (leads to a weak immune system, poor digestion, and inflammation)

·    Cancer

·    Higher LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol

·    Faster aging (yikes!)

·    Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

·    Depression and mood swings

·    Nutrient deficiencies

·    Kidney disease

·    Acne, and

·    Inflammation (arthritis, heart disease, dementia, etc.)


Yikes! That’s a scary list! I’m sure some of you are now thinking, well if TOO MUCH can lead to all of this, what and how much should I eat?

When you have diabetes, you need to be aware of your carbohydrate intake and how the foods that you eat affect your blood sugar. This being said, you should choose most of your carbohydrates from sources that also provide other good nutritional benefits. “Better-for-you” choices will come from the complex carbohydrates list (the list above is only a few samples, there are so many new and exciting varieties out there!). Some good choices would include whole foods like fruits, non-starchy vegetables, beans, full fat dairy and 100% whole grains (look at the label!). It is also important that you spread these carbohydrate choices evenly throughout the day because it helps keep your blood sugar more stable.

“Not-so-good-for-you” choices include things like regular soft drinks, sugar, candy, cakes/baked goods, fruit drinks, refined/processed (or “white) foods, and dairy desserts – pretty much anything that comes from a package or box. These things should be eaten sparingly. A great way to monitor your carbohydrate intake is to use the Diabetic Exchange List (which I will cover in my next blog!).

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