There is a general misconception surrounding carbohydrates and their place in a healthy diet. Unfortunately, carb intakes are surrounded by a whole lot of anxiety due to the many diet trends that have dismissed carbohydrates completely. And now with the growing knowledge surrounding carbs and their effects on blood sugar levels, this adds even more to the fearmongering. However, understanding the ways in which carbohydrates work and are used in the body is fundamental for busting these fears surrounding carb intakes.
Carbohydrates are a form of macronutrient – nutrients that are needed in larger amounts every day for sustained energy levels, physical activity, satiety and health. Although carbs are more often than not given a bad rap they are an essential part of a healthy diet providing the body with glucose – our bodies main and preferred source of energy. Glucose is a simple sugar, monosaccharides or disaccharides, which are often demonised due to the abusive intake of refined or simple processed carbohydrates – fast foods, added sugars, sweets and refined grains - in Westernised diets, and the effect simple sugars have on blood sugar.
However, complex carbohydrates, like those found in what we refer to as wholefoods, (think wholegrains, cereals, legumes and starchy vegetables) contain more molecules of sugar in their structure, polysaccharides or oligosaccharides, and fibre. Unlike simple sugars, complex carbs provide a great deal more nourishment for our bodies and are broken down over a longer period of time due to the presence of fibre which slows absorption.
So, what is happening during the process of carb breakdown that has such an effect on blood sugar regulation? And how can we combat it?
How Does the Body Use Carbohydrates?
Like anything we eat, carbohydrates have to first be broken down for absorption into the body. After carbohydrates are broken down within the gut the sugars are absorbed into the bloodstream to be transported to tissues for storage or used for energy immediately. This is performed with the help of the hormone insulin which moves glucose from our blood into our cells for later energy use – stored energy or glucose is termed glycogen.
When we ingest simple sugars the process of energy use and storage happens at a much faster rate as opposed to complex carbs which provide our bodies with a much more sustained energy output. The way in which foods are classified as either providing quick or sustained energy levels is based on the Glycaemic Index (GI) – how quickly food affects blood sugar levels. Simple sugars are high GI causing a quick, high and short rise in blood sugar followed by a similar drop in levels – aka that familiar 3pm crash when we find ourselves reaching for a quick pick me up!
When it comes to complex carbs on the other hand, these blood sugar peaks and troughs resemble a much more steady, slow rise and fall in blood sugar levels and are termed low GI foods. Complex carbs are not only the more favourable kind when it comes to sustaining your energy levels, but they also offer more nutrient density providing the body with minerals and fibre which help fuel our gut microbiome.
Although, there are also added benefits to pairing carbohydrates alongside other macronutrients – protein and fats – for even greater blood sugar regulating benefits.
Combatting Blood Sugar
The key to balancing blood sugar is balancing your macronutrient intakes throughout the day – carbs, protein and fats. If we just eat carbohydrates on their own, whether that be complex or simple, it is often we will feel hungry soon after. Carbs, although different types have their own varying effects on blood sugar, are the quickest to be broken down and utilised of the macronutrients as the fuel contained within carbs – glucose – is already readily available for use. Whereas protein and fats take a lot longer to digest and go through additional steps for their use as energy.
So often we are eating meals or snacks that we think are going to sustain us such as a piece of fruit or bowl of oats only to feel hungry an hour later. Of course, these options are healthy which is so much better than regularly reaching for a chocolate bar or your 100th coffee of the day. But once we add some fats and protein to these, hunger and tiredness – brought on by the drop in blood sugar – won’t be a problem until 3 hours later. Hello sustained blood sugar levels!
Need some blood sugar balancing ideas? We’ve got you covered:
- pair your oats and fruit with sources of protein like whole milk, Greek yoghurt, nuts and seeds, and fats like nut & seed butters. You could even pair it with a boiled egg for an extra protein boost to sustain energy.
- smoothies made with Greek yoghurt, collagen or protein powders and added fats like nut butters or avocado.
- salads made with complex carb bases like brown rice or sweet potato, topped with tuna, beans or leftover meat and a healthy fat dressing like tahini, avocado or extra virgin olive oil.
- snacking on nuts, cheese, yoghurt or homemade protein balls alongside fruit.
- boosting your homemade banana bread or sweet baked treat of choice by adding collagen or protein powders for added protein.
The best thing about Active Collagen is that it can be added to breakfasts like smoothies and oats, mixed into yoghurts as a snack and included in your daily coffee for the blood sugar balancing effects of protein. Plus, its subtle vanilla flavour won’t mess with the taste of anything only give it a little something extra! Check out our recipe blog to see the creative ways you can add Active Collagen to your diet and start balancing your blood sugar.
Clemente-Suárez, V. J., Mielgo-Ayuso, J., Martín-Rodríguez, A., Ramos-Campo, D. J., Redondo-Flórez, L., & Tornero-Aguilera, J. F. (2022). The Burden of Carbohydrates in Health and Disease. Nutrients, 14(18), 3809. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu14183809
Ferretti, F., & Mariani, M. (2017). Simple vs. Complex Carbohydrate Dietary Patterns and the Global Overweight and Obesity Pandemic. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(10), 1174. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14101174
Paterson, M., Bell, K. J., O'Connell, S. M., Smart, C. E., Shafat, A., & King, B. (2015). The Role of Dietary Protein and Fat in Glycaemic Control in Type 1 Diabetes: Implications for Intensive Diabetes Management. Current diabetes reports, 15(9), 61. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11892-015-0630-5