Carbohydrates: Are they good or are they bad?

Explore Your Love-Hate Relationship with Carbs

breads coffee carbohydrates

You may ask yourself…

You may find yourself asking these questions. Carbohydrates: are they good or bad? What is the truth about carbohydrates? What is the difference between sugar, starch, simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates? 

Carbs are good

Fat is bad

Carbohydrates: are they good or are they bad? Are you confused about sugar, starch, simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates? When I was growing up, carbs were good, therefore, you could eat them as much as you wanted with no apparent detriment. Furthermore, fat was the evil villain in the food world; everything was made to be fat free (but had loads of added sugar for flavor) or the fat was replaced with a lab-made fat known as Olestra, which, as a result, caused explosive bouts of diarrhea (I think we all know why we don’t see that around anymore!). What is the truth about carbohydrates?  

Carbs are bad

Fat is good

In light of the mistakes we made in the 1990’s, we realized that unlimited sugar and carbohydrates are not good for health.  In fact, obesity has continued to increase over the last few decades 1, despite the ‘fat-free’ trend that was occurring.  Carbs became ‘bad’, fat was ‘good’. 

We found that fat promoted satiety, enhanced flavor and improved heart health if it was a ‘healthier’ fat.  Another key point is that we like our good versus evil analogy, so carbohydrates not only became ‘bad’ but villainized to the extreme. 

The carbohydrate-free trend started with the Atkins diet and has been perpetuated with the low-carbohydrate paleo diet, the whole 30 diet and the most extreme, the ketosis diet (for my thoughts on diets for women, here is a link to a recent blog post on diet trends).  However, nothing is as simple as ‘good versus evil’, especially in nutrition.  Consequently, carbohydrates in moderation are essential for good health for a variety of reasons.  

What are the benefits of carbohydrates?

This is only a small list

  • Carbs are the body’s preferred source of energy because they are so easy to break down as well as being an immediate source of energy. For instance, when you dash across the street, or experience a quick stressful response, carbohydrates fuel that energy. 
  • Carbohydrate rich whole foods contain fiber.  Fiber is essential for gut health and motility and can decrease bloating.
  • High fiber foods promote a more diverse gut microbiome. 
  • A diverse gut microbiome has been found to have a positive effect on your weight, mood and immune health 2    
  • If you are active, carbohydrates help you to fuel your workout and adapt to your training during rest and recovery too. 

What kind should I eat?

Whole foods and whole grain products

Now that we know the truth of carbohydrates, what kind should we eat?  

Put simply, more whole fruits and vegetables and whole grain carbohydrate choices rather than smoothies with juice and refined carbohydrate choices. .  

The difference between whole and refined carbs

Fiber, vitamins and minerals

Whole food sources of carbohydrates provide lots of necessary vitamins, minerals and fiber. 

Refined carbohydrates simply means the grain has been ‘refined’, or altered, from its original form. 

 

The anatomy of a whole grain wheat kernel in carbohydrates

Using the picture above, whole wheat bread uses the entire wheat kernel with the bran, endosperm and germ left intact.  These three components combined include the fiber, nutrients, protein and starches of the grain. In contrast, for white bread, the kernel is stripped of the bran and germ removing the fiber, protein and nutrients, leaving only the endopserm, the starchy component of the grain (a greater explanation on what whole grain is can be found at the  Whole Grain Council website). 

Some of the nutrients in white bread can be added back (this is why white bread says it is enriched on the label). However, fiber can be difficult to ‘add back in’, as is the protein and some of the nutrients. With white bread/pastas/rice you are left with only the starch (carbohydrates) without any of the nutrients. The same analogy is true of fruit.

Whole fruit is a source of carbohydrates, in addition to also being an excellent source of fiber and nutrients needed for optimal health. When you eat a whole piece of fruit, you are getting all of the vitamins, minerals and fiber. However, juice, similar to white bread, has been stripped of most of the nutrition and fiber that is naturally packaged in the whole fruit product.  You are left with only the carbohydrate, or simple sugars of the fruit with minimal vitamins and minerals and no fiber. 

I could talk endlessly about the variety of whole versus refined carbohydrate choices, however,  let’s get to the truth about carbohydrates. Proper carbohydrate choices are essential for optimal health and wellness, furthermore,  most people like to eat carbohydrates. So, without further ado, the list you have been waiting for: 

Top carbohydrate food choices

Best carbohydrate choices:

These have lots of fiber and nutrients, in other words, can be consumed daily with a healthy diet:

  • Any fruit and vegetable in its whole form, including frozen produce
  • Whole wheat bread products/tortillas/pasta
  • Pasta made from bean products
  • Unprocessed whole grain products. Excellent examples include:
    • Brown rice
    • Quinoa
    • Kamut
    • Barley (in its unhulled form- not pearl barley)
  • Yams, sweet potatoes, skin-on russet potatoes
  • Plain, unflavored milk and milk alternatives including a variety of yogurt and cottage cheese products 

Good carbohydrate choices

These have less nutritional value and/or may have added sugars and therefore should be used in moderation:

  • Fruit juices and fruit ‘leathers’
  • Refined or enriched grains including:
    • White rice
    • White bread
    • Pearled barley
    • Russet potatoes with the skin removed
    • Flavored and sweetened milk and milk alternatives and their products

Poor carbohydrate choices

These have little to no nutritional value and are often high in fat, sodium and sugar. In other words, use sparingly:

  • Fruit canned in heavy syrup
  • Potato chips (including veggie straw products)
  • Ice cream and frozen yogurt products
  • Vegetables doused in creamy, cheesy sauces

In summary

So, the truth about carbohydrates is that they are good once you understand why, and do not not to be completely avoided.  Above all, carbohydrates can easily fit into a healthy diet when eaten in moderation and in their whole food form. 

Everyone is different and you may need to alter your choices for optimal health, but I hope that from this blog you can see that there are a lot of choices to choose from. 

To your health, 

Sherri 

Sources: 

1, 2, 3 Wh

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