What is a Carb and Why Does it Matter?

I Googled “What is a carb?”

Google said “Short for carburetor”.

Close. It wasn’t quite what I was looking for.

Carbohydrates, what they are, and how they affect the body are as important to a diabetic as insulin.

Let’s start with what a carbohydrate is. A carbohydrate is defined as: any of a large group of organic compounds occurring in foods and living tissues and including sugars, starch, and cellulose. They contain hydrogen and oxygen in the same ratio as water (2:1) and typically can be broken down to release energy in the animal body.

Um. What?

Foods with carbs are typically pastas, rice, bread, potatoes, sweets, sugars, etc. Carbs! Glorious carbs. I love carbs. 

That sounds simple enough, but it gets tricky when you learn that there are simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbs are sweets, white breads, potatoes, sugar, sodas, donuts, etc. Fruits and vegetables also consist of simple sugars, but the body processes them like a complex carb.

Complex carbs are carbs that take the body longer to break down and process. This gives a more steady release of sugars throughout the day and is better than the spike and dip of simple carbs. Complex carbs are whole wheat (rice, pasta, bread). Complex carbs are better for everyone.

Just to complicate things, one carb doesn’t always equal another. 15g of carbs from a bowl of cream of wheat affects my husband differently than 15g of carbs from a potato. If only one equaled another. He has to keep track of how many units of insulin he needs based on carbs and also has to remember that sometimes he needs to take more or less for one food than another.

The body uses carbohydrates for energy. The moment you put it in your mouth and swallow, your body starts processing it. Carbs cause your blood sugar to rise, then your pancreas produces insulin to absorb blood sugar for energy or storage.

Unless you’re diabetic, because your pancreas is broken and not producing insulin. A non-diabetic person’s body automatically calculates how much insulin you need and distributes it.  A diabetic has to do this calculation themselves, taking into account current blood sugar and carbs to be consumed. Then they administer the insulin (synthetic) their body doesn’t produce. Without insulin, your body doesn’t know to level off. A normal blood sugar is under 140. Kycie was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with T1D. She had a blood sugar of 1,148. This is what diabetes does!

I imagine that for a typical person, the amount of carbs in a food is not particularly important. It seems most people know there are good carbs and bad carbs, even if they like to indulge in the bad. A diabetic needs to be aware of the carbs in any and all foods and drinks that they consume. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Some food doesn’t come in labeled packaging and if it’s a vegetable, you might not think there are carbs in it. Carrots have carbs. My husband loves carrots, so he needs to be careful to either dose for the carbs, or not to over indulge.

I don’t know why anyone would willfully over indulge on a carrot, but hey, that’s me. He sings his own songs. 

Fortunately, these days, information is practically at our finger tips. It is very easy to search “How many carbs are in a carrot?”. 6g for one carrot, in case you were wondering. With this information, a diabetic can calculate their insulin dose, inject and eat. My husband would not dose for one carrot, but if he was eating 3 of them, he would need to do so.  (There’s a calculation and it’s not a one size fits all formula and if you figure out YOUR formula, it can change. Because it wants to. Diabetes is its own boss, it doesn’t need a reason.)

My husband has to be aware, all the time, of all the carbs. If he thinks he doesn’t need to count a carb, he is usually wrong. On Saturdays, we like to grab a coffee. He always gets a sugar free Double Torture. He used to never dose, but then we found out there are 16 carbs in the milk they use. He started injecting two units of insulin prior to drinking it, and hasn’t had wild blood sugars like in the past. “But I only had that sugar free drink!”. Sugar free does not equal carb free and it matters!

Sometime we’ll talk about that time that the waitress served him a regular drink, instead of diet. Fortunately he noticed. We can’t imagine what 38 extra carbs not accounted for, would have done to his blood sugar! By “noticed”, I mean after he drank practically the whole glass, he pushed it across the table and said “I don’t think that’s diet”. I tasted it, confirmed it was not. So he recalculated his dosage, with the extra carbs included.

Carbs. They matter.

Please don’t take anything I say as gospel or fact. Do your own research, talk to your own doctor. If you see a mistake I’ve made, please bring it to my attention. I wrote this based on personal experience, reading, dietitian appointments, and internet searching. I am not a professional, just experienced. I’m going to get to some fun stories some time. I’m starting with the basics. Ha. None of this sounds basic though. Even writing it down makes my head spin and I am not sure how we do it.  

Sources:

http://www.diabetesforecast.org/2011/mar/how-the-body-uses-carbohydrates-proteins-and-fats.html

http://www.everydayhealth.com/diet-nutrition/101/nutrition-basics/good-carbs-bad-carbs.aspx

http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/carbohydrates-and-blood-sugar/

http://www.webmd.com/diabetes/how-sugar-affects-diabetes

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