How Complex Carbohydrates Fit in a Diabetic Meal Plan

As the number of chained together molecules of simple sugars gets longer, the carbohydrate foods are sometimes called complex. Starches are where plants store their excess glucose, and the chemical bonds connecting the simple sugars in starch are easily broken by your digestive system.

Whereas starches can be refined and isolated from their source for dietary purposes like sugar, its use is usually limited to thickening agents like corn starch. You are much more likely to get your dietary starch from the whole food, because starch itself is relatively tasteless.

Starches are prevalent in potatoes, corn, peas, beans, lentils, hard shell squashes, quinoa, rice, wheat, barley, oats, and the flours and refined products from grains. Because starches are packaged with protein, fat, and fiber, and because the chain length of simple sugars is more complex, starches often have a less dramatic impact in blood glucose levels.

The glycemic index of foods compares the impact of various carbohydrate foods on blood glucose levels using a scale where pure glucose equals a value of 100. Foods with a value exceeding 70 have what’s considered a high glycemic index, where foods with a value lower than 55 are assigned a low glycemic index value. The table compares the glycemic index of common foods.

Glycemic Index Value of Selected Carbohydrate Foods
Food Glycemic Index Value
Glucose 100
Baked potato 85
White bread (wheat flour) 72
Lentils 29
Edamame (green soy beans) 18

It’s apparent that not all starches impact blood glucose modestly. A baked potato and refined wheat flour give up their glucose quickly. But some starches are more resistant to digestion, and foods that also include protein, fat, or fiber slow the digestive process as well. Some diabetes medications, in fact, work in inhibiting the absorption of glucose during digestion, reducing the impact of all carbohydrates on blood glucose.

In your diet, starches must be managed. The glycemic index values are derived from the blood glucose response of individuals without diabetes, and, therefore, take into account the timing and effectiveness of a natural insulin response. But foods that impact blood glucose more modestly in healthy people will also make blood glucose levels easier to control in people with diabetes.

Plus, starchy foods bring a range of tastes, texture, and color to your diet, along with vitamins and other essential nutrients you can’t go without. Starchy foods also bring important fiber, which is not only important to you, but also to an army of beneficial microorganisms that call your digestive system home.

It’s important to mention nonstarchy vegetables in this discussion about complex carbohydrates. Nonstarchy vegetables contain much less carbohydrate than the starchy ones, and in that regard are essential parts of diabetes management by contributing volume without fat, and by having a reduced impact on blood glucose.

Greens of all varieties, peppers, cucumber, summer squashes, green beans, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, artichoke, turnips, fennel, and asparagus are a few of the nonstarchy vegetables that can color your plate and deliver vitamins and healthy phytonutrients to your body.

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