Carbohydrates are an essential part of a balanced meal plan, however not all carbohydrates are created equal. Carbohydrates are divided into two categories, simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are categorized as simple or complex carbohydrates based on the how they are created and how our bodies digest them.

Simple carbohydrates can be found in baked goods, soda, and refined grains. Simple carbohydrates are digested quickly in the body. While many simple carbohydrate foods contain added sugars, not all simple carbohydrates are alike. In fact, fruit and milk also are examples of simple carbohydrates that contain naturally occurring sugars, and these foods offer vitamins, minerals and fiber. Select whole fruit and low-fat milk or a milk alternative when selecting a simple carbohydrate. Combine a whole fruit with a protein or healthful fat, such as unsalted nuts, nut butter or a turkey roll-up.

Complex carbohydrates can be found in starchy vegetables and whole grains. Complex carbohydrates contain longer chains of sugar molecules, which take more time for the body to break down and use. Examples of complex carbohydrates include legumes, quinoa, potatoes, whole wheat bread/pasta, and brown or wild rice.

Now that we know the difference between complex and simple carbohydrates, lets also take into account the benefit of dietary fiber. Fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and nuts are excellent sources of fiber. Consuming high fiber foods can assist with your digestion by lowering your blood sugar, helping you to feel fuller for longer, as well as decrease your risk of heart disease. Look for foods that are naturally moderate to high in fiber and contain at least 2.5-5 grams of fiber per serving. Your body needs time to adjust to an increased intake of fiber, so increase your intake gradually. Furthermore, be sure to drink plenty of water because fiber needs water to move through your body.

Now that you can distinguish between types of carbohydrates and are familiar with the benefit of dietary fiber, what’s next? How do you know what foods to choose? Which food would be a better option when a food contains both simple and complex carbohydrate, such as bread? As a general rule of thumb, look at the ingredient list to determine what ingredient is listed first. Select foods with complex carbohydrates listed as the first ingredient, such as whole wheat flour compared to refined flour. Better yet, select a product that is 100% whole wheat. Aim for the majority of your food to come from natural complex carbohydrates, such as vegetables, legumes, beans, dried peas, and whole grain bread. Choose the whole fruit instead of fruit juice. Limit highly processed foods that offer minimal nutritional value. Be mindful of your portions.

It can be challenging to determine which food choice is the best option for you. For more information visit the American Diabetes Association Nutrition Section or American Association of Diabetes Educators Healthy Eating Section. You can also create a customized plan with your Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator, or physician.