Do You Know the Difference between Carbs and Gluten?

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Carbohydrates (or “carbs,” for short) are not the same thing as gluten. And yet, people often offer me gluten-free options when I say I’m diabetic or that I need low-carb options. It’s amazing to me how prevalent this misconception is, especially in the food/restaurant industry.

“Have you saved room for dessert?” she asked us with a big smile. We’d already told her, while figuring out what to have as an entree, that we’re both diabetic.brownie-548591_1280

“Sure! What are your sugar-free options?” I asked, pretty sure of the answer, but wanting to make a point.

I watched her face fall as she said, “Oh, we don’t have any.” At least she didn’t laugh. We’ve gotten that response before, along with an “Of course not!” This answer seems to suggest the very idea is oxymoronic (and by extension, perhaps, so are we).

“Remember, we’re diabetic. We have to watch our carbs,” I reminded her.

“Oh! We have a gluten-free dessert! Would you like that?” Hope briefly rekindled in her eyes. Maybe she would make this upsell yet.

“Gluten is not the same as carbs. Do you know what kind of flour was used?” Often at this point, they just shake their head and shrug and I let it go. Occasionally, our server will go check with the chef…

“It’s made with rice flour,” is usually the report.

I sigh and shake my head. “Thank you, but that is still high carb, so we can’t have it. Thanks for checking, though.” And we pay our check and leave.

What is a Carb?

pasta-1463918_1920A carbohydrate is one of three macronutrients vital to our body’s function, none of which are created within the body. Proteins and fats are the other two macronutrients. Carbs are units of energy in the form of sugar molecules, and are composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.

Simple carbs or simple sugars are made up of just a few sugar molecules and they gain instant access to the bloodstream. They are broken down rapidly and result in a quick burst of energy. An influx of simple carbs also triggers a release of insulin, which acts like a key that allows the cells to absorb the energy released from the carbs.

Complex carbohydrates, sometimes called starches, are longer strings of sugar molecules that take longer to break down and get absorbed by the bloodstream. Because the breakdown takes longer, the impact is lessened. In other words, the body’s blood glucose levels don’t rise as high as with simple carbs. Therefore, the amount of insulin needed to process those molecules is less.

In diabetics, either the pancreas can’t produce enough insulin to keep up with the blood sugar levels in the bloodstream, or the cells are resistant to the insulin trying to open them up to the blood sugar energy.

If you’re diabetic and you’re going to eat carbs, make sure they’re as complex as possible to help keep your blood sugar levels from spiking.

The body’s cells can be provided with the energy they need from other sources, but carb energy is easy, and so is preferred by the body if present. If there are no carbs present, then the cells will absorb the energy from proteins and fats. Insulin is also responsible for signaling the body to either use fat as energy or to store it.

What is Gluten?

bread-1696162_1920Gluten is a protein naturally found in wheat products. Gluten is a gluey substance that gives bread products their texture. It is present in a number of different grains, such as barley, rye, and triticale, though wheat is the most common.

Only a few people receive an official diagnosis of a gluten allergy or Celiac disease, but many more people develop various levels of intolerance to it. The symptoms of gluten sensitivity are varied and can include problems with the digestive system, achy joints, and skin conditions.

Gluten has also been linked to dozens of different diseases and conditions.

Unlike carbohydrates, which the body does need in limited supply, gluten is not a necessary component for the body. Often the best way to assess your own gluten sensitivity is to go completely gluten free for a full month. Then a gradual and intentional reintroduction of gluten and mindful attention to the body’s response will indicate whether or not you’d be better off keeping away from gluten altogether.

Low Carb and Gluten Free Are NOT the Same

Although there is definitely overlap between foods that are high in carbs and those high in gluten, they are not the same. There are many gluten-free products out there that are just as high (or higher) in carbs as the original wheat-based product they’re replacing. Rice flour is a common example. Rice has zero gluten but is high in simple carbs, so while rice flour is a great alternative for someone who can’t have gluten, it’s an awful choice for someone watching their carbs.

It’s important to note that anyone trying to go gluten-free, whether for medical or personal reasons, needs to be aware of the fact that many processed items labeled gluten-free actually contain more sugars and fats to enhance the product’s taste. Increasing sugars and fats can lead to other issues.

Plus gluten-free products are often not as nutritionally rich as the gluten-containing items they replace, so gluten-free lifestylers need to supplement their diet to make sure they’re getting enough of these vital nutrients (such as Vitamin B, Vitamin D, fiber, and iron).

The best way to ensure you’re getting low carb or gluten free

You need to ask for it when eating out, and if necessary, ask for the ingredient list for whatever food item you’re thinking of ordering.

When shopping for your own ingredients, you’ll need to read the ingredient list on packages and become familiar with how to count carbs or which ingredients contain gluten.

We need to be responsible for our own needs and we need to repeatedly request options that meet our needs. It’s unfair to expect others to automatically cater to us, but you needn’t accept substandard options without saying anything, either.

More awareness needs to be developed in our society for the diversity of food needs and restrictions. There are a lot of options, and the more we make our needs known, the more food producers will become aware of the demand and meet it with adequate supply. So keep asking for what you need, but know when to compromise or bring your own contribution to the party.


© Rebecca Dugas 2018 All Rights Reserved

Written by Rebecca Dugas

I am the original Diabetic Herbivore. I created this site to help others who live with diabetes and have chosen a plant-based diet to find recipes, resources, education, and support. The information here will also be helpful to anyone who chooses to eat more low carb and/or more vegetables. I believe we all should be able to feel full and satisfied no matter what food choices we make, or for whatever reason we make them.


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