If you have type 2 diabetes, you might know you need to cut back on sugar. You might have also heard about cutting back on carbohydrates, or “carbs.”

But what’s the difference? That’s kind of like asking what’s the difference between sports and baseball. Baseball is a type of sport. Sugar is a type of carb. And the two share a very close link that everyone should keep in mind when making smart choices about their food.

What are sugars?

Sugar is more than the white stuff in your sugar shaker, though it’s that, too. In fact, sugar comes in places you might expect (like candy bars) and places you might not (like milk).

To sort it all out, nutritionists group most types of sugar into three categories:

  • Fructose, found in fruits like bananas, oranges, and apples.
  • Lactose, found in dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese.
  • Sucrose, found in table sugar.

When you think of all the sweet things you have in your pantry—including honey, maple syrup, and agave nectar—they all contain sugar in some form. But sometimes, those sugars get added to foods to make them even sweeter.

That’s why nutritionists like to further group sugar into two more categories:

  • Added sugars, like the sugar you put in your coffee or sweet treats like cakes and candies.
  • Natural sugars, like the sugars in fruits and milk.

While both can satisfy a sweet tooth, natural sugars come with good-for-you fiber and vitamins. But that doesn’t mean you should go crazy with those, either: Sweetness in moderation is a great motto to live by.

What are carbs?

Sugars—along with fiber and starches—are a type of carbohydrate. According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, carbs come in many foods, from healthy options like beans to unhealthy ones like fries. And while they get a bad rap, carbs aren’t all bad. In fact, they’re essential…if you eat the right ones.

Carbs, including sugar, help your body make “blood glucose,” known as blood sugar. When that happens, the pancreas makes insulin to convert that blood sugar into energy to help your body work like it should.

But when you eat too many carbs (especially the bad kinds), it can raise your blood sugar. And when you have type 2 diabetes, your body has a hard time making insulin to manage it. When that happens, you’re left with lots of sugar in your blood at one time (a “blood sugar spike”). This can lead to health problems.

So which types of carbs are best? It goes back to how they digest in the body. Some carbs—known as “simple carbs”—digest quickly, which can raise blood sugar levels faster than your body can keep up. Often, simple carbs pack in a lot of sugar, so sweet things like cakes, fruit juice, and processed cereal fall into this not-so-good category.

Other carbs—known as “complex carbs”—digest slowly, which can help manage blood sugar. These carbs give your body good-for-you nutrients, like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Wholesome options like beans, oatmeal, and whole fruits fall into this category.

Making Smart Choices

Picking healthy foods begins at the grocery store. Start in the produce section to add whole fruits and veggies to your cart. And when shopping for packaged goods—which tend to be more processed—look for these parts on the nutrition labels:

  • Total Carbohydrates: Focus on the text underneath, where it lists the types of carbs included. Opt for foods that have more fiber and fewer sugars. This can help you pick complex carbs over simple ones.
  • Total Sugars: Right now, labels just show the total amount of sugar, but by 2021, the Food and Drug Administration will require all manufacturers to call out added sugars. When that happens, you’ll want to pay attention to that number, but until then, watch your total sugar intake.

Having type 2 diabetes can be a daily struggle—especially when mealtime or snack time rolls around. But there’s good news: By making little changes in how you eat (and how you shop), you can make a big difference in your health. Your body—and your waistline—may thank you too.


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