Good and Bad Carbohydrates

Carbs Aren't Created Equal

Carbohydrates (carbs) are essential to our nutrition, primary energy source, and vital for good health. When we eat carbohydrates, our body converts it into glycogen (sugar) supplying the energy we require for proper body function. The problem is many good carbs have been labeled bad and many fad diets recommend they be eliminated to lose weight, reduce fat, and improve lean mass. This potentially sets us up for nutrient deficiencies, reduced energy, and can impair exercise performance. 

Leaving out this important macronutrient from daily food intake is not the answer to losing weight or achieving a lean body. According to research, we may experience side effects as your body tries to make up for the sudden lack of fuel. Side effects of carb restriction can include dizziness, fatigue, nausea, weakness, and depression along with more serious health risks. 

In order to maintain good health and achieve our fitness goals, understanding the difference between good vs. bad carbs will be important. Once we know how to select the right carbohydrates, we will feel comfortable including them to support a healthy lifestyle.  

What's the Difference?

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What is the difference between a good and bad carbohydrate? It will be important to understand the types of carbohydrates before answering that question. Carbohydrates can be described as follows:

  • Complex carbohydrates: foods high in fiber and starch taking longer to digest before using glucose for energy. They contain important vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Slow-release energy for the body is supplied with consumption. Whole grains, beans, quinoa, legumes, oats and brown rice are excellent sources of healthy complex carbs. 
  • Simple carbohydrates: foods containing natural sugars easily digested by the body and provide quick energy. Fruits, some vegetables, milk and milk products are rich sources of simple carbs. Simple carbs are also found in processed and refined foods like soda, white sugar, and pastries which should be avoided. Although fruits, veggies, and milk are considered a simple carb, they contain essential nutrients, fiber, and protein and act more like complex carbohydrates when digested.

What Carbs Should I Eat and Avoid?

Selecting the right carbs is important for a healthy body. The best carbohydrates come from natural sources and not from a box. They include nutrient-dense foods like whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. 

Eating an ear of corn from the husk versus corn flakes, a peeled orange over processed juice, a baked potato instead of a bag of chips are great examples of choosing a good carb over a bad carb. Using brown rice over white, whole grain or wheat flour over white is another way to select good carbs. The following list of good carbs are recommended for a healthy diet:

  • vegetables - eat a variety every day
  • whole grains - oats, quinoa, brown rice, and barley are just a few 
  • nuts and seeds
  • whole fruits
  • Beans and legumes
  • Tubers - sweet potatoes, potatoes

Avoid bad carbohydrates lacking in nutrient value contributing to an unhealthy body. Bad carbs include overly processed, nutrient stripped food products lining most grocery shelves. Beware of fancy food labels promising low fat, sugar-free, fat-free, enriched, low calorie, and no sugar added. Unfortunately, bad carbs like these have hit the fitness scene disguised as healthy products. 

It’s important to become well versed in recognizing a bad carb and eliminating them as much as possible from our diet. If you’re unable to understand the ingredient list, it’s probably a bad carb. The fewer ingredients to a packaged food item the better. Packaged foods should have few ingredients and a short shelf life to be considered a healthier buy. 

Eliminating processed carbohydrates like white bread, pastries and soda are great ways to avoid bad carbs. The following list of bad carbs are recommended to be avoided for improved health:

The best carbs will be whole real foods, typically not in a package, and include vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

Good Carbs and Fiber

Dietary fiber comes from complex and simple carbohydrates. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest we consume 45-65 percent of our diet from healthy carbohydrates to meet fiber requirements. Our fiber intake should range between 25-35 grams daily. Chronic studies show diets high in fiber help with fat loss, improved digestion, and reduced risk of disease. We require two types of fiber for optimal health and fitness:

Insoluble fiber isn’t broken down during digestion and absorbed into the bloodstream. It adds bulk to our poop for easier elimination reducing the incidence of constipation. The following foods are good carbohydrates and a great way to consume insoluble fiber:

  • Whole wheat bread
  • Barley
  • Brown rice
  • Couscous
  • Bulgur or whole grain cereals
  • Wheat bran
  • Seeds
  • Most vegetables
  • Fruits

Soluble fiber absorbs water and becomes a sticky gel inside our digestive tract that helps soften poop for easier elimination. It also binds to cholesterol and sugar slowing or preventing their release into the blood stream. Soluble fiber promotes good gut bacteria reducing inflammation and boosting our immunity. The following foods are good carbohydrates and great sources of soluble fiber:

  • Oatmeal
  • Oat bran
  • Barley
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Most fruits 
  • Dry beans and peas
  • Avocados 

More About Carbohydrates

The following carbohydrate comparison explains why carbs aren’t created equal:

Good Carbs 

  • Low to moderate calories - we can eat larger amounts with lesser calories
  • Nutrient values - wide variety providing essential health benefits
  • No refined sugars or refined grains 
  • High fiber content - shown to regulate blood sugar and insulin levels, reduce bad cholesterol, assist in weight loss, improve digestion, and other health benefits 
  • Low in sodium
  • Low in saturated fat, very low to no cholesterol, and no Trans fats

Bad Carbs 

  • High in calories for a small portion  
  • High in refined sugars - studies show refined sugars like high fructose corn syrup make up more than 20% of the calories we eat each day. Refined sugars are linked to disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. White sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and added sugars are examples
  • High in refined grains - wheat flour stripped of nutrient value made to look white in color
  • Nutrient value - zero to minimal
  • Fiber - zero to minimal
  • Sodium - High 
  • Fats - High
  • Cholesterol - High
  • Trans fats - High

A Word From Verywell:
Carbohydrates are an essential part of healthy nutrition and our primary energy source. This doesn’t mean loading up on the bad stuff like pastries and soda but choosing good carbs to achieve optimal health and fitness. Carbs aren’t created equal and being able to identify the good from the bad will help you feel better about keeping them in your diet.  

Sources:

National Academies Institute of Medicine, Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids, 9-5-02

cdc.gov, nutrition for everyone, carbohydrates, 12-11-12

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