Fast-Acting Carbs: Definition and Overview

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Fast-Acting Carbs

What is a fast-acting carb?

A fast-acting carb is a form of carbohydrate that will raise blood glucose levels relatively quickly when ingested. The term “fast-acting carbohydrate” is generally used in discussions of treating hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. However, as research accumulates on the subject of carbohydrates and how quickly they are absorbed, some diabetes experts say the term has become outdated.

What defines hypoglycemia varies from source to source, but it generally refers to a blood glucose level below 70 mg/dl. In many cases, this will produce the typical symptoms of low blood sugar, which include trembling, sweating, heart palpitations, butterflies in the stomach, irritability, hunger, or fatigue. Severe hypoglycemia can cause drowsiness, poor concentration, confusion, and even unconsciousness. Diabetes care experts generally recommend checking one’s blood sugar level whenever possible to confirm hypoglycemia before treating it.

List of fast-acting carbs

To treat hypoglycemia, the standard advice is to consume 10–15 grams of “fast-acting” carbohydrate. Each of the following items provides roughly 10–15 grams of carbohydrate:

  • 5–6 LifeSaver candies
  • 4–6 ounces regular (non-diet) soda
  • 4–6 ounces of orange juice
  • 2 tablespoons of raisins
  • 8 ounces of nonfat or low-fat milk
  • One tube (0.68 ounces) of Cake Mate decorator gel.

There are also a number of commercially available glucose tablets and gels. Benefits to using commercial products include the following:

  • They aren’t as tempting to snack on as candy is.
  • They contain no fat, which can slow down digestion, or fructose, which has a smaller and slower effect on blood glucose.
  • The commercial products are standardized, so it’s easy to measure out a dose of 10–15 grams of carbohydrate.

If someone is unconscious from low blood sugar, don’t attempt to give him anything to eat or drink. Rather, take him to the nearest emergency room, or inject glucagon if you have been instructed how to do it. If you can’t get emergency help fast enough and can’t inject glucagon, it may help to rub a little glucose gel between the person’s gums and cheek.

Originally Published May 22, 2006

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