Are carbs healthy? And can they really be hurtful?! Well, both are much more complex questions and deserve appropriate answers than the oversimplifying response of “yes” and “no.” In the last 20+ years we’ve swung from “no fat, high carb” diets to “high fat, low or no carb” diets, and now people are either still on that upswing or have come down to the middle ground – healthy fats and helpful carbs – to make up their nutrition intake. Before jumping on the back of the next wagon driven by someone proclaiming they haven’t touched a carb in 10 years, get to know the difference between helpful and hurtful carbs.
What Are Carbs Exactly?
ALMOST all foods we eat are made up of carbs, which is why the majority of our daily intake of calories usually comes from them – and it’s hard to believe someone has avoided all carbs. Carbohydrates (carbs) are found in a multitude of foods—grains, bread, pasta, legumes, milk, yogurt, soft drinks, fruits and vegetables. The most common forms of carbohydrates are sugars, fibers, and starches. Sugar is the basic building block of every carbohydrate – starches and fibers are essentially chains of sugar molecules.
You may have heard of simple and complex carbs, with the latter being said as the healthiest to eat and the simple not so healthy. The two categories depend on the chemical structure of the food, and how quickly the sugar is digested and absorbed. Simple carbohydrates are made up of single or double sugars. Complex carbohydrates have three or more sugars. However, fruits, vegetables and dairy are all made from the single or double sugars, classifying them as simple carbohydrates, while starchy vegetables, legumes and whole grains are made from three or more sugars and considered complex carbohydrates. For example, a complex carb such as a potato that is made up of a starch that breaks down quickly releases sugar into our bloodstream at a higher rate than a simple carb such as fruit. Because of this, it’s too oversimplified to say only eat complex carbs, as you’d be missing the naturally occurring simple carbs of fruits, vegetables, and dairy.
Healthful vs. Hurtful Carbs
It’s the fiber and type of starch that makes the exception of how fast a carbohydrate is broken down and digested by your body. While our body converts most carbs into glucose (blood sugar) as a universal energy source, fiber is made up in a way that can’t be broken down into sugar molecules, therefore passing through the body undigested and slowing the rate that our body releases the glucose into our bloodstream. Fiber binds to fatty substances in the intestines and flushes them out as a waste, lowering our LDL (bad cholesterol) and helps push food through the intestinal tract, promoting regularity.
A system known as the glycemic index aims to classify carbs based on how quickly and how high they boost blood sugar. Foods with a high glycemic index, like processed foods made with white flour, cause rapid spikes in blood sugar. Foods with a low glycemic index, such as whole grains, are digested more slowly, causing a lower and gentler change in blood sugar. Foods with a score of 70 or higher are defined as having a high glycemic index; those with a score of 55 or below have a low glycemic index. Diets high in these high glycemic index foods have been linked to an increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, and weight gain.
Add-in the Healthful, Crowd-out the Hurtful
Generally speaking, the healthy carbs are those found in naturally occurring, unprocessed foods. However, as noted above, starchy vegetables such as potatoes and corn have a higher glycemic index and cause the blood sugar to rise quickly. Add in the foods below that are high in carbohydrates to ensure you add in the healthy and crowd out the hurtful by avoiding refined and processed foods – most packaged foods – as the bran and the germ (sources of fiber) have been removed and have a higher glycemic index.
Grains – get your grains intact from foods such as whole wheat bread, brown rice, whole grain pasta, quinoa, whole oats, and bulgur. Whole grains are an excellent source of nutrition, as they contain essential enzymes, iron, dietary fiber, vitamin E, and B-complex vitamins. Some grains, such as quinoa, contain all the amino acids to make it a complete protein, having as much protein as a cup of milk. Because the body absorbs whole grains slowly, they provide satisfying, high-quality energy and endurance.
Legumes –high in both fiber and protein, legumes are an excellent source of slowly digested carbohydrates. Also, legumes are typically low in fat and a good source of folate, potassium, iron and magnesium.
Fruits and Vegetables – high in fiber, vitamins and other essential nutrients, fruits and vegetables may be the best carbs and lowest glycemic index foods you can eat. Go for a variety of kinds and colors of produce to give your body the mix of nutrients it needs.
Charge UP Health | Fitness
Rena Roark, CHC, CPFT, is a Certified Health Coach and Certified Personal Fitness Trainer and owner of Charge Up Health and Fitness, LLC. She works with individuals and group clients as a health and fitness coach to offer support and guidance for their health goals through a holistic look at their lives, helping to find balance between exercise, diet, career, and relationships. Providing accountability and motivation, she can help reduce stress, increase energy and self-confidence, and ultimately help individuals work towards the best version of them.
Please be aware that this article is not a diagnosis, prescription or recommendation for any individual. Before you start a new food program, you should always talk it over with your doctor. He or she may have specific recommendations — or warnings — depending on your health and the other medicines you take.
Compiled using information from the following sources:
Harvard School of Public Health, “Good Carbs Guide the Way.” http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates-full-story/#what-are-carbohydrates