Carbohydrates 101: What are carbs?

Carbohydrates are the sugars, starches and fibres which are found in many of the foods we eat daily, including fruits, grains and vegetables. They are often given a bad reputation by dieters because they are the main way our bodies obtain energy or calories, but they are essential for providing the fuel our bodies need to function effectively.

When digested, carbohydrates are broken down and release glucose into the bloodstream. The body then relies on insulin to move the glucose from the blood and into your organs, muscles and cells.

Carbohydrates 101

There are so many mixed messages about carbohydrates that it’s often difficult to work out whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Add diabetes to the mix and those messages can get even more confusing. Of the three macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and proteins), carbs are considered to have the biggest impact on managing healthy blood glucose levels. It’s not healthy to eliminate them completely from your diet, rather you need to focus on choosing the right kind.

Here’s the essential information you need to understand what carbohydrates are, what they do in the body and a couple of helpful reminders for people with diabetes when planning your meals.

What are the main types of carbohydrates to be aware of?

There are three main types of carbohydrates to be aware of and these include:

  • Starch

    found predominantly in vegetables such as potatoes, peas and corn; dried beans and lentils, and grains and oats, barley and rice.

  • Sugar

    the sugar group includes both naturally occurring sugars, such as those in milk or fruit, and sugar which is added during processing, such as sugar in a biscuit or sugar in a coffee.

  • Fibre

    comes from plant foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes.

Implications for people with diabetes

According to dietitian and wellness expert Kate Save, the balance between how well your insulin is working in your body and the amount of carbohydrates you eat can make a difference to managing healthy blood glucose levels.

“Each person’s recommended carbohydrate intake differs depending on their gender, how much exercise they do, what their body weight is and your age so it’s best to speak to your dietitian to determine the best approach for your diet.

“As a basic rule, eating regular meals and spreading out calories and carbohydrates intake evenly during the day can help keep blood glucose levels stable,” Kate said.

What are the key things to remember with carbohydrates?

  1. Portion control

    this is the main factor in people eating too many carbohydrates or too many overall calories. If you are wanting to lose weight, you should aim for a moderately low carb diet.

  2. Eat the right types of carbohydrates

    the more fibre and protein you have in the carbs, the slower the digestion which gives more stable blood sugar. Click here to read our guide to which carbohydrates people with diabetes should incorporate into their diet.

  3. Look for low GI

    the glycaemic index (or GI) is a scale that ranks foods with carbohydrates based on their impact on blood sugar levels over a period of time. Low-GI foods break down more slowly during digestion so the blood glucose response is slower and flatter, not only helping stabilise blood glucose levels but helping you feel full for longer.


Kate Save is an accredited Dietitian and Exercise Physiologist with 11 years’ experience helping patients manage their diabetes.

She has been engaged by Sanofi to provide regular expert commentary for Diabetes-Care. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the view of Sanofi. 


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