You’ve probably heard some of the gurus and fad diet promoters on the Internet who claim carbs are the bane of our existence. Whether it’s Atkins, South Beach, or Paleo, many popular diets shun carbohydrates … even healthy carbs. But are carbs really as bad as they say?
Let’s look at this objectively. There’s a lot of misinformation when it comes to health online, so I’ll present the facts and let you decide whether carbs are good or bad.
First, let me say that more often than not, I’m skeptical of government recommendations and vehemently question most nutrition standards unless they’re backed by science. With that said, on this issue I tend to side with credible medical institutions like the Mayo Clinic, Harvard School of Public Health, and the Center for Science of the Public Interest rather than random guys and gals who run popular websites but don’t have any research to support their claims.
The general consensus among the majority of health experts is this: most people could benefit from eating less carbs, not “no” carbs. And, most people eat too many refined carbohydrates. So let’s look at healthy carbs vs. unhealthy carbs. First, the basics:
What are carbohydrates?
Carbs are macronutrients found in foods that provide your body with fuel it needs for physical activity and proper organ function.
Just like fats, some kinds of carbohydrates are far healthier than others.
Types of carbs
There are three main types of carbohydrates:
1. Simple Carbohydrates (Sugars)
Simple carbohydrates, also known as “sugars," are broken down and digested quickly in your body. The two main types of simple carbs are:
1. Natural sugars such as those in milk (lactose) or fruit (fructose).
2. Added sugars and sweeteners (table sugar, syrup, agave nectar, honey, etc.)
2. Complex Carbohydrates (Starches)
Complex carbohydrates, also known as “starches," have a “complex" molecular structure, which means your body can’t convert them into energy as quickly as simple carbs. There are two basic types of complex carbs:
1. Whole grain carbs, which are minimally processed and have most of their original nutrients intact.
2. Refined grain carbs are milled in a factory, which removes some parts of the grain to produce “white” flour, rice, etc.
3. Non-digestible Carbohydrates:
Non-digestible carbohydrates are a group of healthy carbs also known as fiber. To read more about fiber, check out my Healthy Foods High in Fiber page.
Healthy carbs vs. unhealthy carbs
Let’s start with the bad.
Eating simple carbohydrates and complex refined carbohydrates can cause your blood sugar levels to increase rapidly, which prompts your body to release the hormone insulin to remove the excess sugar from your blood.
When this happens your pancreas also reduces its production of another hormone called glucagon. Problem is, glucagon allows stored body fat to be released into the bloodstream to be burned by your muscles as energy. So when the pancreas has to elevate its production of insulin while reducing its supply of glucagon, you essentially “lock in” your excess body fat.
Insulin resistance has also been linked with a variety of other problems, including high blood pressure, high levels of triglycerides, low HDL (good) cholesterol, and excess weight.
Bottom line: eating too many of these types of carbs dramatically hinders the process of reducing your stored body fat.
So what about good carbs?
The two types of carbs considered “good” by most health experts are as-follows:
1. Simple carbohydrates that contain natural sugars: milk (lactose) and fruit (fructose)
2. Complex carbohydrates that are unprocessed and unrefined, which means they contain whole grains that have all the natural nutrients (vitamins, minerals, and fiber) intact. Your body digests complex carbs from whole grain sources more slowly, keeping your blood sugar levels in check and your digestive system working properly.
Are you noticing a trend here? Here’s a hint: the closer to nature your food is, the better.
There’s plenty of evidence to support making healthy carbs a part of your diet. A 2007 meta-analysis of seven large research studies found that people who ate 2.5 or more servings of whole-grain foods a day were 21 percent less likely to develop cardiovascular disease compared with those who ate less than two servings a week.
Here are four simple points to remember about eating more healthy carbs:
- Choose low carbs, not no carbs.
- Ditch the white bread, rice, and pasta. And stop eating pretzels, crackers, and snack foods.
- The majority of your carbohydrate intake should come from whole food sources
- In order of importance, these foods should be your primary sources of healthy carbs in your diet:
- Nuts and seeds
- Beans and legumes
- Whole grains
This article is #2 in my 9-part Healthy Eating 101 tutorial.
To go to the next article about Healthy Foods High in Fiber click here.