All About Carbohydrates: Good Carbs vs Bad Carbs
The proverbial good carbs vs bad carbs question. So which is which?
Carbohydrates are one of the three main macronutrients that we need to get from our diet (fats and proteins are the other two in case you’re wondering). Good carbs are important because they give you fiber, provide energy, and supply important vitamins and minerals.
At the most basic level, there are two kinds of carbohydrate foods: the “bad carbs” which are simple carbs (sometimes called “fast carbs”), and the “good carbs” which are complex carbs (sometimes called “slow carbs”). The reason they differ so much is because the body reacts differently as a result of their effects on insulin. Therefore the debate on good carbs vs bad carbs comes down to them having a different “glycemic load”.
Bad, or simple, carbs raise blood sugar more quickly, which causes a high insulin release. The hormone insulin is responsible for managing blood sugar in the body and helping to usher glucose from carbohydrates into your cells, but over time producing too much too often can backfire.
Good Carbs: The Complex Kinds
Good carbs include starches found in starchy vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and to a lesser extent non-starchy veggies. Complex carbs take longer than simple carbs to breakdown by the body, so they don’t result in such a rapid rise in blood sugar, followed by a fast “dip in energy”. These types of carbs are used over time for steady energy, and also provide fiber and lots of other nutrients too.
What makes these kinds of carbs good for you?
- We all need some carbs, which provide glucose because glucose is used for energy and to repair muscle and bodily tissue.
- Complex carbs are especially important for people who exercise, since they fuel anaerobic activity. This is why it’s recommended that athletes restore glucose in body following exercise; it helps to keep muscles and tissue functioning, rebuilding, and growing back even stronger during recovery.
- How much should you aim for daily? The exact number of complex carbs you need each day depends on a lot on your unique body and physical activity level. For most people, aiming to have a small portion (about 1/2 cup) of starchy complex carbs like potatoes with your main meals is a good amount.
Bad Carb: The Blood Sugar-Spiking Kinds
Bad, or simple, carbs are food groups including: all fruit, fruit juice, all forms of sugar (white, brown, coconut palm, high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, any “syrups”, honey, pure maple syrup, and all sugary products (cookies, sugary cereal, etc.). Grains can also fall into this category depending on whom you ask, even 100 percent whole grains. The Paleo diet recommends avoiding all grains, legumes and dairy (which are carbs) because of effects on digestion, blood sugar and weight gain.
What makes simple carbs different from complex carbs?
Essentially simple sugars already have their sugar molecules broken down. This means that they are used more quickly by the body, impact blood sugar more drastically and can provide a fast energy boost. But that can also come at a price…
Simple sugars can lead to an “insulin spike” in the blood, because that’s our body’s natural method for bringing blood sugar back into balance. However too much insulin being pumped out due to sugars coming in can lead to cravings, low energy, weight gain, moodiness, and even diabetes over time.
It’s relatively easy to stay away from “bad carbs” like simple sugars once you become aware of where they’re hidden. Bad carbs normally come in the form of boxed junk foods, sugary drinks, sweets and packaged snacks.
What about fruit and natural sweeteners?
Two types of simple carbs that are the exception to this rule are natural sweeteners and fruit. It’s true that these contain sugar and are fast-acting carbs, but they also contain antioxidants, enzymes, fiber, and other important nutrients unlike packaged goods. Stick with fruit when you want a sweet treat; have about 1 to 3 pieces of fresh, whole fruit per day (not fruit juice) and keep in mind that more very active people can afford to have more than those who are sedentary.
Use natural sweeteners like raw honey, molasses, coconut palm sugar or maple syrup sparingly to sweeten foods, but be careful not to go overboard since these still impact blood sugar and insulin.
Wondering what will happen if you decide to go very low in carbs all together?
A low-carb diet has been linked with many different benefits due to a reduction, or in some cases almost an entire elimination, of glucose. Once glucose from carbohydrates is no longer available for energy, we begin to burn stored fat instead which helps us control blood sugar and lose weight too.
Our bodies normally run on glucose (or sugar) for energy, but we cannot make glucose ourselves and only store about 24 hours with within our muscle tissues and liver. When glucose eventually runs out, the body turns to fat for fuel as a backup source of energy–whether it’s coming from foods in your diet or from your own stored body fat. This doesn’t mean that very low carb or ketogenic diets are necessary to lose weight, but they can certainly help. They are also beneficial for people with blood sugar problems like insulin resistance or diabetes.
That being said, most people do fine with keeping good carbs in their diet. It’s usually best not to obsess over the numbers and to focus on quality and how you feel instead. Let your energy, preferences and ability to stay at a healthy weight determines your ideal “ good carb” intake.
And that my friends, is what you need to know about good carbs vs bad carbs!
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