How to Choose Slow Burning Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the only source of energy for the brain, nerve cells, and developing red blood cells, and glucose is utilized as a fuel by every cell in the body. Slow-burning carbohydrates are digested and absorbed slowly and provide the body with a steady source of energy. Quick-burning carbohydrates pass through the digestive system quickly and may produce a crash later on.


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    Distinguish between simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are sugars such as sucrose (found in fruit and sweets) and lactose (found in milk products). They contain only two sugar units. Sucrose is composed of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule – two sugar units. Lactose is composed of one glucose molecule and one galactose molecule – also two sugar units. Complex carbohydrates are starches and fibers. They are abundant in grains, vegetables, and legumes (e.g., beans, lentils, and peas). They take longer to break down in the digestive system because they contain hundreds of sugar units.
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    Cut back on the sugars. Today, Americans get 16% of their calories from refined sugar.[1] Due to their simple chemical structure, sugars are digested and absorbed quickly, producing a roller coaster in blood sugar of peaks and troughs.[2] In fact, if you eat something sugary, your blood sugar may eventually dip below the baseline.[3] Sugars don’t provide the body with a stable source of energy. Sugary drinks have been shown to temporarily increase energy levels and later produce a crash.[4] In The Complex Carbohydrate Handbook, Shirley Ross says that trying to use sugar as a fuel is like “trying to run an electrical appliance on a bolt of lightning.”[5]
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    Start the day with a breakfast that will give you long-lasting energy. You probably know a candy bar wouldn’t make a very good breakfast. If you ate a candy bar for breakfast, you might feel hungry or tired later in the morning. Many breakfast foods have a high sugar content, such as pastries. A breakfast with a lot of fruit might not be the best choice either. Studies show that fruit is digested rapidly, like sugars.[2] By contrast, a bowl of oatmeal, with its complex carbohydrates, can keep you feeling full and feeling good. A 150-calorie serving of oatmeal provides 6 grams of protein,[6] and you could make it with ½ cup milk to add another 4 grams. Two slices of whole-wheat toast would give you 8 more grams of protein.[7]
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    Choose complex carbohydrates at each meal. This will help prevent ups and downs in blood sugar throughout the day[3] and give you plenty of energy for the whole day.
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    Prefer whole grains. Whole grains are digested more slowly than refined grains, improving blood sugar levels. Don’t be fooled by products that contain only a small amount of whole grain. Choose 100% whole grain when possible. If in doubt, look for “enriched flour” in the list of ingredients.
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    Choose vegetables rich in complex carbohydrates. Some vegetables, such as tomatoes, beets, and carrots, are high in sugars, but others are rich in fiber, such as green vegetables, or starch, such as corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin. Many people think potatoes are fattening, but in actuality, potatoes are bulky and filling; it’s the butter and sour cream that are fattening. A medium potato has only 130 calories,[8] about the same as a banana. It provides 21% of the Daily Value for potassium,[8] more potassium than an extra-large banana (16% DV).[9]
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    Choose fruits that contain more complex carbohydrates and/or fewer simple carbohydrates. A medium banana, for instance, contains 13 grams of complex carbohydrates.[9] Comparing 100-gram servings, you’d find that cranberries contain the least sugar (4 grams),[10] followed by strawberries (5 grams),[11] blueberries (10 grams), [12] and grapes (15 grams).[13] Prefer whole fruit over fruit juice, since fruit juice is so concentrated and since fruit juice lacks the fiber contained in whole fruit. If you’d like to have some fruit juice occasionally, choose the types that naturally contain less sugar, such as pure cranberry juice, pure strawberry juice, watermelon juice, or prune juice (These contain less sugar than apple juice), or drink a smaller amount.


  • Meet or exceed recommendations for fiber intake. That’s 25 grams for a 2,000-calorie diet and 30 grams for a 2,500-calorie diet. Americans today consume only about half of that.
  • Simple carbohydrates can sometimes be useful. Simple carbohydrates (e.g., sports drinks) are good choices, for example, when replenishing the body after exercise.
  • If you’re having a potato, let it cool off for a few minutes, rather than eating it right after cooking. The starch in cooled potatoes is less accessible, making for more stable glucose and insulin levels.[14]
  • Avoid chewing starchy foods excessively. Try to swallow soft foods such as rice and pasta whole.[15] Excessive chewing exposes the food to an enzyme in saliva, amylase, which breaks the starch down to glucose, for a longer time. It also decreases particle size and increases the surface area of the food and access to digestive enzymes. Excessive mastication has been shown to raise insulin levels following a meal.[16]
  • Make toast. Toasting, freezing and thawing, or the combination of freezing and thawing and then toasting alters the starch in bread so it’s less accessible, resulting in lower glucose and insulin levels.[17]
  • Combine carbohydrates with fat or protein to stabilize energy levels. Protein or fat eaten with a meal slows down the digestion of carbohydrates. Your blood sugar rises within minutes when you drink a coke, but your blood sugar might not begin to rise for 30 to 60 minutes when you eat a meal containing a balance of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.[18] Protein also increases levels of glucagon, which slows the uptake of glucose from the bloodstream. Therefore, protein helps prevent both peaks and troughs in blood sugar.[19]

Sources and Citations

  1. Food and nutrition board, institute of medicine of the national academies (2005), Dietary reference intakes for energy, carbohydrate, fiber, fat, fatty acids, cholesterol, protein, and amino acids (macronutrients), National Academies Press, p. 295.
  2. 2.02.1Thomas M. S. Wolever (2006), The Glycaemic Index: A Physiological Classification of Dietary Carbohydrate, CABI, pg. 65, ISBN 9781845930516. “Indeed, blood glucose responses elicited by pure sugars and fruits suggest rapid absorption because the blood glucose concentration rises more quickly and falls more rapidly than after bread (Wolever et al., 1993; Lee and Wolever, 1998).”
  3. 3.03.1Daly ME, Vale C, Walker M, Littlefield A, Alberti KG, Mathers JC. “Acute effects on insulin sensitivity and diurnal metabolic profiles of a high-sucrose compared with a high-starch diet.” Am J Clin Nutr. 1998 Jun;67(6):1186-96. See Figure 4.
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Categories: Carbohydrates