If you are doing research into dietary guidelines, you may find conflicting information about carbohydrates. People following certain diets may say, "Don't let me have carbs!" While, on the other hand, others may say they depend on healthy carbs for a balanced diet.
Whether you are on a low-carb diet or not, it's important to understand what experts mean when they talk about carbs. That way, you can make informed decisions about your lifestyle and what you eat.
First of All, What Are Carbs?
Carbohydrates provide our bodies with energy. Many of them are broken down and turned into glucose for immediate energy or into fat for use later. Glucose is known as blood sugar.
Scientifically, carbohydrates, as the name suggests, are molecules with oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon atoms. Carbs are a macronutrient in our diets next to fat and protein.
The carbohydrates we eat come in three forms:
One old way for dietitians and scientists to classify these tools was into two categories: simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. The simple carbohydrates include honey, white sugar, brown sugar, and naturally-occurring sugars in milk, fruits, and vegetables. Starches and fiber are complex carbohydrates.
However, experts now categorize carbohydrates by ingredients and fiber content. Foods with a high glycemic load or glycemic index have a negative impact on your blood sugar.
"Good" Carbs vs "Bad" Carbs
Using the terms good and bad to talk about carbs came from people promoting different diets. We can also think about this distinction as "whole" vs "refined."
Whole carbs, or good carbs, contain the most natural fiber and do not go through high levels of processing. Refined, aka "bad," carbs are processed and stripped of fiber. According to research, eating too many refined carbs could lead to health problems such as type 2 diabetes. (2)
You may hear people refer to these foods as "empty calories." The reason for this reputation is because some carbs usually don't have any essential nutrients, and they are full of added sugars that contribute nothing to your health. These refined carbohydrate foods cause your blood sugar levels to spike and subsequently crash.
However, most refined carbohydrates have whole food counterparts that are full of fiber and nutrients. These high-fiber carbs include whole grains, legumes, fruit, and vegetables. So, you don't have to avoid all carbs to be healthy. Just check the nutrition labels and avoid foods with high sugar and low vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Examples of Good Carbs
Examples of Bad Carbs
Do We Need Carbohydrates?
Most dietitians do not focus on achieving a certain number of carbohydrates every day. In fact, experts most often suggest eating a diverse, colorful plate full of fruits and vegetables that are high in fiber.
Technically, our bodies can function without carbohydrates. (3) However, many carb-containing plant foods have important health benefits as well as vitamins and minerals that we need. Yes, you could survive without carbs, but you would miss many beneficial aspects of fruits and vegetables.
Today, we see a rise in the popularity of low carb diets. These diets allow protein and fat while limiting carbohydrates. Many studies show them as more effective than "low-fat" diets. Restricting carb intake can be positive for people who have diabetes, metabolic syndrome, or are obese.
These diseases affect many Americans. However, not everyone needs a low carb diet. Always consult a medical professional before drastically changing your eating habits.
Carbohydrates and Obesity
When people restrict refined grains and processed foods, their goal is often weight loss. Limiting your carbohydrate intake can help you lose body weight because bad carbs metabolize quickly and promote fat storage. But it is a myth that both simple and complex carbohydrates cause weight gain. (4)
According to author David Ludwig, "Just as calories differ according to how they affect the body, so too do carbohydrates."
Diets that include a high fiber intake from whole-foods do not lead to obesity. So, you don't have to restrict all carbohydrates to reach your weight loss goals. However, eating a lot of processed foods can make you unhealthy.
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Neither complex nor simple carbohydrates are inherently bad for you. The carbs you want to avoid in your diet include those with added sugar, table sugar, and high fructose corn syrup such as:
You can have these foods occasionally, but you don't want them to be your main energy source.
It is important to consume complex foods that are high in fiber and nutrition. Some carbohydrates that are beneficial to a balanced diet include:
For good health, try to replace refined grains with whole-grain breads and pasta. Eat a variety of vegetables and seek out sources of natural fiber. Fiber-rich foods aid in digestion, can lower cholesterol, and prevent disease. You also want to check food labels and stay away from added sugars.
Potatoes are considered good carbs. However, some people avoid them due to their levels of starch. Their skin has lots of fiber, and they contain vitamins and minerals such as potassium, vitamin B-12, and vitamin C. They also help you feel full.
It is essential to carefully prepare your potatoes to not negate the benefits. Try to cook them with the skin on, and avoid frying them or adding cream, cheese, and butter.
Potatoes are high in starch, which does affect blood sugar levels. If you need to avoid starchy foods, you should limit your potato consumption. Other starchy veggies include beets, yams, and corn.
Many low carb diets call for only 20 to 100 grams of carbohydrates daily. With this lifestyle, you don't want to just eat anything. Make sure the foods you choose have a high nutritional value and low sugar to maximize your health benefits. Low carb foods include:
Both white and whole-wheat bread has a high carb concentration. For example, a bagel gives you 29 grams of carbs, which could put you over your limit. If you are on a super restrictive diet, you should avoid even whole grains.
Some fruits are high in carbs as well. One cup of mango is about 28 grams of carbs. On a low-carb diet, you can enjoy small amounts of berries.
Finding What's Right For You
While every person should understand the difference between good or bad carbs, there is no easy answer for what you should and shouldn't eat. The bottom line is: some types of good carbs are unhealthy for some people (especially those who need to watch their blood sugar) and not others. And, you can enjoy any carbs in moderation.
If you have high fitness needs, it may make sense for you to consume plenty of carbohydrates. So, don't listen to everyone when they tell you to just avoid all carby food to keep your body in order.
You should always make informed choices when it comes to satisfying hunger. Check the nutrition facts on your snacks and meals. Whether or not you are on a weight loss program, you should prioritize whole grains and single-ingredient goods where you can
Koh, A., De Vadder, F., Kovatcheva-Datchary, P., & Bäckhed, F. (2016). From dietary fiber to host physiology: short-chain fatty acids as key bacterial metabolites. Cell, 165(6), 1332-1345.
Ley, S. H., Hamdy, O., Mohan, V., & Hu, F. B. (2014). Prevention and management of type 2 diabetes: dietary components and nutritional strategies. The Lancet, 383(9933), 1999-2007.
Malkov, R. (2012). The Carb Cycling Diet: Balancing Hi Carb, Low Carb, and No Carb Days for Healthy Weight Loss. Hatherleigh Press.
Ma, Y., Olendzki, B., Chiriboga, D., Hebert, J. R., Li, Y., Li, W., ... & Ockene, I. S. (2005). Association between dietary carbohydrates and body weight. American journal of epidemiology, 161(4), 359-367.