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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?

First, it's important to understand that sugar is a type of carbohydrate present naturally in numerous foods. Sugar is either naturally occurring or added to foods during the processing phase. Much of it (typically when naturally occurring) is an essential energy source for the body.

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

Sugar and other types 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 needs vary, and some may even benefit from a low-carb diet.

While these nutrients are vital for good health, you can have too much of a good thing! Consuming them in excess could lead to blood sugar spikes, weight gain, and other adverse medical conditions. 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

Dietary carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients that make up a balanced diet. Your body converts these carbohydrates into glucose to use as energy. In addition to being broken down as a source of energy, carbs can also support immune health (specifically post-exercise), metabolism, and reproductive health.

You'll find carbs in several foods, including grains, fruits, dairy products, legumes, fruit juices, sweets, 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 for energy and are found in foods like:

  • Table sugar
  • Fruit juice concentrate and other fruit drinks
  • White rice
  • White pasta
  • White bread
  • Any refined sugar, such as brown sugar, powdered sugar, cane sugar, beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup, agave syrup
  • Maple syrup and other forms of syrups
  • Sugar alcohols
  • Sugary drinks, such as soda, energy drinks, sports drinks
  • Ice cream
  • Sugary foods, including baked goods, candy

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, leading to fewer glucose spikes. They include foods like:

  • Whole grains
  • Vegetables
  • Legumes, such as black beans, chickpeas, cannellini beans, black-eyed peas, kidney beans
  • Starchy vegetables like potatoes, peas, and corn

The Dangers of Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates are foods that can lead to crashes in glucose and unstable energy levels. They’re easy for your body to absorb and high in sugar content.

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, digestive tract inflammation, 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 called "healthy carbs," take longer for the body to digest and convert into glucose. They don't spike blood glucose as much as simple carbs and usually include more health benefits.

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 with complex carbohydrates and may help prevent 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 of 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, minerals, and other vital nutrients.

Complex Carbs Are Great for Your Digestive System

Cut up watermelon on a towel at the beach

Complex Carbs Are Great for Your Digestive System

Fiber (soluble and insoluble fiber) is a complex carbohydrate your body can't break down. Instead, it 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
As registered dietitian Amanda Donahue, MS, RD, CD, explains, “It’s also helpful to ensure you know how much fiber there is in the foods you consume. Adding some of the highest-fiber foods to your diet is a good idea, too!”

Add Amanda's recommendations to your grocery list:  

  • Split peas: 16.3 grams of fiber per cooked cup
  • Lentils: 15.6 grams of fiber per cooked cup
  • Black beans: 15 grams of fiber per cooked cup
  • Lima beans: 13.2 grams of fiber per cooked cup
  • Artichokes: 10.3 grams of fiber per cooked medium-sized artichoke
  • Avocados: 10 grams of fiber per medium-sized avocado
  • Raspberries: 8 grams of fiber per cup
  • Blackberries: 7.6 grams of fiber per cup
  • Chickpeas: 7.6 grams of fiber per cooked cup
  • Green peas: Approximately 8.8 grams of fiber per cooked cup

They Help You Sleep

Complex carbohydrates can also help support better sleep, which is essential for overall health and can also affect blood sugar levels.

Including complex carbs in your diet may 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 enter into your bloodstream.

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.

What is Sugar?

Person adding sugar to eggs in a bowl

Sugar is a carbohydrate that your body breaks down into glucose during digestion. It's found naturally in fruits and vegetables and can be added to processed foods and sweets.

You may have heard sugar referred to as glucose, fructose, sucrose, or lactose, but did you know there are over 60 different names for sugar? Some of the common names you've come across on food labels are high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, cane sugar, granulated sugar, agave nectar, barley malt, caramel, carob syrup, coconut palm sugar, coconut sugar, and confectioner's 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 aren't 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 women to limit added sugar intake to six teaspoons per day and men to nine.

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.

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

These foods are low in other essential nutrients and are quickly digested, which can cause your blood sugar to rise and fall quickly.

Chronic blood sugar spikes caused by an excessive intake of sugars and carbs can lead to type 2 diabetes over time, as the beta cells responsible for producing insulin are damaged over time.

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

How Carbohydrates and Sugars Affect Your Blood Sugar

Person checking their glucose chart on Nutrisense app

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

Simple carbohydrates with a lot of refined sugar and refined grains, 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 brown rice, whole-grain bread, fruits, and vegetables, to decrease the risk of higher blood sugar spikes.

To help prevent conditions like type 2 diabetes, it may be a good idea to avoid excessive blood glucose spikes. 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 don't cause diabetes or other health problems on their own. One way to combat these spikes is to create healthy dietary habits by limiting added sugars and adding foods known to help control blood sugar into your diet.

These foods include non-starchy veggies (like celery), apple cider vinegar, prebiotic-rich foods, leafy greens, legumes, and good-quality proteins.

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Carlee Hayes, RDN, CD

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 and has since been passionate about helping people translate this complex glucose data into actionable changes anyone can implement into their everyday lives.