Good Carbs Vs Bad Carbs

May 17, 2016
by Thrive Market
Good Carbs Vs Bad Carbs

Many people have a love-hate relationship with carbs. As in, loving to eat cakes, cookies, pasta, and chips, but hating what these tasty foods do to our moods, bodies, and waistlines.

Nutritional experts are also divided. Some diets completely eliminate carbohydrates while others tout moderation and filling up on more wholesome carbs like legumes, whole grain breads, and vegetables and fruit.

So, where’s the middle ground? The answer seems to be eating less bad—and more good—carbs, since your body does need a daily amount that it can process into usable energy. That makes it all the more important to know the difference between the two and understand what carbohydrates actually do and why you need them.

What are carbohydrates?

Humans have three macronutrients in their diets: fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Like fats and proteins, carbs are important for a varied, well-balanced diet—especially since they are a vital source of energy for the body. In fact, an average adult should get 45-60% of their daily energy from carbohydrates.

Here’s how it works. Once carb-heavy foods are digested, they eventually turn into glucose, which the cells of our bodies absorb and use for energy to complete many daily functions. However, cells can’t process nearly all the carbs we like to eat, and the leftovers are kept in reserve for two days. If they’re still not used by that time, they are turned into fat, which the body hangs on to for a long-range energy supply in case food becomes scarce.

Because of this natural fat-morphing phenomenon, carbs have gotten a bad rap, and they are the first thing many diets will tell you to nix when you want to lose weight (though it’s been proven that low-fat diets are more effective). Regardless, not all carbs should be eliminated since completely removing them from the diet denies your body an essential nutrient it needs to function.

However, there are some types to watch out for and limit.

Types of carbohydrates

The issue is that there are different kinds of carbohydrates in many of the foods we eat—simple and complex. Generally, these are referred to as “bad” and “good” carbs. Simple (bad) carbohydrates are comprised of one or two sugar molecules, while complex (good) carbs are comprised of many chains of sugar molecules. The more dense, the more vitamins, minerals, and fiber are available for the body to use.

Simple carbs are often referred to as “empty calorie” foods and beverages, and frequently have loads of added sugar. They are a quick, albeit unsatisfying, source of energy because there aren’t any nutrients involved. Complex carbs, on the other hand, include whole grain or naturally occurring sugar sources that pack in more nutrients for your body, providing you with lasting energy.

Both simple and complex carbs are categorized into three main groups:

  • Starches
  • Sugars
  • Fibers

Starches

Foods that have a high amount of starch include:

  • Vegetables like peas, corn, lima beans, and potatoes
  • Dried legumes, such as lentils, pinto beans, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, and split peas
  • Grains, including oats, barley, bread, and rice

Not all starches are created equal, though. Whole grains are always a better option because they have not been processed and stripped of their health benefits. Whole grain foods include the entire kernel, which is made up of three parts—the bran, germ, and endosperm. The bran and germ contain fiber, B vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and vitamin E. Conversely, refined grains (like your typical white bread), contain only the endosperm, which doesn’t have much nutritional value.

Sugars

Sugars are grouped into two types:

Naturally occurring sugars, like those in milk (lactose) or fruits (fructose).

Added sugars, which are used in processed foods. Fruit that has been canned and placed in heavy syrup is a prime example.

While some assume all sugars are bad, that’s not the case. Fruit is a healthy food that naturally has sugar in it and is supposed to be eaten multiple times per day.

However, the processed products is where we again run into issues—many have added sugars that go by a variety of names including:

  • Anhydrous dextrose
  • Cane crystals or cane sugar
  • Corn sweetener, corn syrup, or corn syrup solids
  • Crystal dextrose
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Fructose sweetener
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Liquid fructose
  • Malt syrup

Natural sweeteners like raw honey, pure maple syrup, and agave nectar can be enjoyed in moderation since they don’t have the same effects and are therefore less damaging.

Fibers

Fiber comes strictly from plant foods and are indigestible. Rather, fiber passes through your intestines—some of it cleansing the large intestine and some of it removing cholesterol and fatty acids from your stomach. Consuming 25-30 grams of fiber daily not only provides plentiful digestive health benefits of keeping you regular and keeping cholesterol low, but it also helps you portion food more appropriately since it keeps you feeling full and satisfied.

You can’t really go wrong with adding more of any source of fiber in your diet. Here are some foods to consider:

  • Legumes such as black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans, white beans, and lentils
  • Fruits and vegetables—ones with edible skin or seeds (apples, corn, and berries) will pack even more fiber
  • Whole grains including whole wheat pasta and whole grain cereals and breads
  • Nuts of all kinds—peanuts, walnuts, and almonds are excellent choices

Sugar cookies

Bad carbs

We’ll start with the bad news first. Bad carbs, which have little health value, are found in many popular snacks and sweets, including:

  • Desserts such as ice cream, cookies, cakes, and candy
  • Breads not made from whole grains
  • Pastries such as croissants or scones
  • Sugary beverages like soda and fruit drinks
  • Potato chips, crackers, fried foods, and pizza
  • Pastas that are not made from whole grains

You may enjoy indulging in foods that have bad carbs in them from time to time, but a diet heavy in these types of foods can negatively impact your overall health. People who regularly eat too many bad carbs can experience:

  • Weight gain. Eating the above foods packs on the calories, which your body can’t really use since they offer little nutritional value. When you eat large amounts of bad carbs, greater amounts of insulin are also needed, which can in turn lead to insulin resistance and cause fat accumulation.
  • Bowel issues. Fiber is an excellent way to keep your large intestine healthy, but you’ll only find it in plant-based foods.
  • Nutrient deficiency. The food pyramid acts as an excellent reminder that your body won’t get much out of highly processed foods. Instead of sweets and refined carbs, the whole grain options, vegetables, and fruits make up the majority of what your body truly needs to operate.
  • Risk of diabetes. Many of the bad carb options are packed with sugar. Eating too many of them could cause your blood sugar levels to easily get out of control, especially if there is a family history of diabetes.
  • Risk of heart disease. Refined carbs increase your triglyceride count, which is a type of fat circulating in your blood. Once this number gets too high, your risk of stroke and heart attack increases.

Instant Oatmeal Recipe

Good carbs

As you might have already guessed, the healthiest types of carbs are found in natural, whole foods. When eaten on a regular basis, they contribute to a healthy diet and provide vitamins, minerals, fiber, and a slew of nutrients that add to your overall well-being.

Some examples of carbohydrates that you should always add to your diet include:

  • Oats
  • Beans
  • Whole grain breads
  • Grains including quinoa, brown rice, bulgur, buckwheat, and couscous
  • Fruits including bananas, blueberries, plantains, oranges, and apples
  • Vegetables including broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes, celery, beets, spinach, cucumbers, bell peppers, and tomatoes
  • Cornflakes or all bran

Consistently consuming good carbs can positively impact your health. When you increase the amount of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and other good carb-friendly foods, you’ll experience:

  • Easier weight management. Consuming foods with good carbs offers your body the nutritional value and energy you need. You’ll also feel much more satisfied after a meal of whole grains and vegetables than after consuming a bowl full of potato chips.
  • Healthy bowel movements. Fiber is a vital player in staying regular and keeping your large intestine as healthy as possible.
  • Heart health. Just as consuming bad carbs will increase cholesterol, it’s much easier to manage cholesterol levels on a diet of whole grains and good carbs.

Adding more good carbs into your diet

Want some easy ways to incorporate more (good) carbs into your diet? Try these tips:

Start the day right. Carbs give you energy, after all, so why not make it your first meal of the day? Enjoy a hot cereal like this homemade oatmeal made with rolled oats, dried fruit, spices, protein powder, and coconut sugar. Or give quinoa porridge a try. You could also opt for a regular cold cereal that has a whole grain listed high up in the ingredients list and doesn’t contain a lot of sugar, such as this pumpkin flax granola. A good tip is to look for something with at least four grams of fiber and no more than eight grams of sugar per serving.

Use whole grain breads. Opt for 100% whole wheat bread or any kind that lists the first ingredient as whole wheat, rye, or another whole grain. Enjoy as your morning toast or as part of your lunch or mid-day snacks.

Think outside the (bread) box. Yes, bread is usually a go-to carb option, but remember that grains like brown rice and quinoa are also prime carbohydrates. Try these creative food swaps so you can still eat your pizza, tortillas, and more without the bad stuff.

Opt for whole fruit instead of its juice. Fruit juice is certainly a better option than soda, but even then you’re losing much of the natural goodness you would get eating it whole, including a good amount of fiber.

Beans instead of potatoes. Sure, potatoes are an easy option, but beans can be just as versatile and delicious. Potatoes can contribute to weight gain, while beans will fill you up just the same and are an amazing source of good carbs. Not only that, but you’ll also get a nice dose of protein as well.

Sweet potato hashbrown waffles

Carb-friendly Recipes

Cutting down on the bad carbs can still taste good as these recipes show.

Quinoa Breakfast Bars

Granola bars might taste good, but they are normally loaded with sugar. Instead, try making your own batch of delicious quinoa bars to take with you for breakfast-on-the-go or a nutritious snack. The recipe yields 12 bars so you’ll have plenty for the week.

Sweet Potato Hash Brown Waffles

Another hearty breakfast option are these sweet potato waffles, which can be used with the hash brown topping called for in the recipe. Or, try them topped with fresh strawberries and pure maple syrup. Coconut-flour fried chicken and waffles is another staple turned healthy.

Vegan Kale Nachos

Low carb doesn’t mean you have to say goodbye to chips. Not with this munch-worthy recipe that replaces the tortillas with crunchy kale, which is topped with vegan queso, tomatoes, and jalapenos.

Brown Rice and Salmon Salad

Salads can be super filling even without the croutons and crispy wonton. This recipe uses brown rice for the base, adds in some salmon and edamame, and tops it all off with coconut aminos sauce.

Iced Matcha Moringa Latte

If you don’t know so already, all those frozen coffee drinks are full of carbs and sugar. Swap them out for this iced matcha latte instead and enjoy all the flavorful taste with dates and vanilla extract.

Photo credit: D Sharon Pruitt via Flickr, Paul Delmont

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  • nutsinavice

    Some very good advice here, especially about whole grains. But, I find the section on sugars potentially misleading. While it might seem like natural sweeteners, like honey, agave, etc., are better than refined sugar, in most cases the improvement is marginal at best and the risks largely remain. Some, like agave, have their own risks, as noted in the article below. For decades, I followed a whole food diet, with moderate exercise, and used all natural sweeteners. I still ended up with type 2 diabetes. Now that I've eschewed almost all added sweeteners and made adjustments in how I eat, it is under control with minimal medication.

    It seems that better than substituting a sweetener that actually doesn't provide much real benefit over refined sugar is recalibrating our taste buds to crave fewer sweets. Sugar is an addiction and the negative aspects of that addiction are not resolved by natural sweeteners.

    Kudos for bringing up the whole fruit vs. juice issue. Whole fruit still has the sugar, but it has fiber and other nutrients that can slow absorption of sugars, while fruit juice (on which I was raised, which may have laid the groundwork for my current situation) can be as harmful as soda.

    Also, thanks for an excellent list of processed sugars to watch out for, especially high fructose corn syrup. Along those lines, I think what many people don't realize is that so called diet sodas can have the same ill effects as sugar sweetened drinks. Despite the lack of sugar, diet sodas still trigger the same insulin response as regular soda, leading to obesity, blood sugar problems, and potential cardio-vascular problems. It might not be sugar, but your body still thinks it is. It turns out that the insulin process is at the heart (pun intended) of many of the ills we face. We now know it to be a huge factor in cardiovascular health, probably more so than fats (at least, non trans fats). Replacing fat for carbs was a terrible idea, we need fat to moderate the blood sugar spike we get from carbs.

    Huge kudos for presenting the argument of a balanced diet. Weirdly, getting my blood sugar under control involved eating MORE carbs than I was. It was a question of eating the right ones at the right time in conjunction with good fats and protein. Keeping a steady blood sugar is far more important than starving yourself of carbs and then giving your body a blast every now and then which spikes your glucose levels. As an example, I had been eating steel cut oats for breakfast every day, but still had issues in the morning with blood sugar spikes and drops. Adding a bit of greek yogurt to my breakfast made all the difference in curbing the spike from the carbs in the oats, so I get the benefits without the
    spike and crash.

    I never thought I'd be a part of the current statistics, since I have always eaten an organic, whole grain, largely vegetarian diet. Other factors play a part (genetics, stress), but just because you're eating the right stuff, it doesn't mean you're off the hook if you aren't eating it the right way at the right times.

    http://greatist.com/eat/difference-between-natural-sweeteners

  • pixelzombie

    The average person does not need 60% of their calories to be from carbs. Is it any wonder we have so many obese people in the US? Whole grains have a similar GI to table sugar which many people are not aware of.