Food & Nutrition
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Starch & Sugar

How are they similar and different?

Have you ever wondered about starch vs. sugar, or, to put it another way, pasta vs. dessert? Why are both are considered carbohydrates when they seem so different? And, for people living with diabetes, how do they affect blood sugar? If you’ve ever thought about these questions, you’re not alone; I frequently hear that patients are better able to fit sweet desserts into a meal plan compared to starches such as pasta. Because I know many people are confused when it comes to the different types of carbohydrates, I’ve put together an explanation to help. (Read more about managing blood sugar here.)

When you hear the word “sugar,” images of the sparkly white stuff found in covered bowls may come to mind. But sugar has many forms: simple sugar, table sugar, cane sugar, brown sugar, turbinado, maple syrup, molasses, honey, and high-fructose corn syrup, and more! These kinds of sugars are commonly added to different types of store-bought foods, from breakfast cereal to desserts – they can enhance the taste, but also add calories! Fructose and lactose are sugars too, although they are naturally occurring. (Fructose and lactose, in their natural forms of fruit and dairy, respectively, may include some nutritional benefits. Fruit can contain fiber, for example; and dairy products can include calcium and vitamin D.) All of these sugars, from the additives in foods to the sweetness in fruit, are known as simple carbohydrates. You might have also heard your healthcare team refer to them as “fast-acting” carbohydrates.

Unlike sugar, starch is made from molecules that are linked together in long chains. Because of these long chains, starches are sometimes called “complex carbohydrates.” Foods high in starch include bread, cereal, pasta, crackers, starchy vegetables (green peas, corn, lima beans, potatoes), and dried beans (pinto beans, kidney beans, black-eyed peas and split peas.)

(A third type of carbohydrate is fiber; read more about its benefits here.)

So do sugar and starch affect blood sugar differently, and is it as simple as fast and slow? The science can seem confusing, says Jennifer Hyman, MS, RD, CDE®, CDN who has a Long Island, NY, endocrinology practice, since fat and fiber can play key roles. “Starch and sugar both turn into glucose in the blood,” explains Hyman. “Beverages and foods high in sugar, such as regular soda and some desserts, are digested more rapidly, and cause a larger, faster increase in blood sugar. Certain starches, on the other hand, such as legumes and sweet potatoes, are digested more slowly, and cause a more gradual, moderate rise in blood sugar.” Desserts are often high in fat, which slows the digestion and absorption of carbs. On the other hand, if you are having a starch with no fat and low fiber (think white pasta or white bread), you may notice a greater and more immediate impact on blood glucose levels, because there is no fat or little fiber to slow the absorption.

The good news I tell my clients is that both starches and sugar may be included in a meal plan – even if you are living with diabetes. For starches, I advise eating as many high-fiber choices as possible, as the fiber may help slow the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates. For sugars, try these tips:

  • Keep the amount of sweets and desserts within your carbohydrate allowance by substituting sweets and dessert for starch, fruit, or milk in your diet.
  • Control portion sizes. Enjoy a thin slice of cake instead of a 3-inch hunk.
  • Limit sweets and desserts to one serving per day.
  • Remember desserts made with honey and syrup affect your blood glucose the same way sugar does.

Always discuss your meal plan with your doctor.

Bon appétit!

Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RD, CDE*, CDN – an award winning registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – is the author of The African American Guide To Living Well With Diabetes and Eating Soulfully and Healthfully with Diabetes. Learn more about her work at and follow her @eatingsoulfully. Brown-Riggs is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

*“Certified Diabetes Educator” and “CDE” are certification marks owned and registered by the National Certification Board for Diabetes Educators (NCBDE). NCBDE is not affiliated in any way with Sanofi US. NCBDE does not sponsor or endorse any diabetes-related products or services.

© 2015 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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