One of the many problems with dieting is the speed with which popular diets rise into favor, only to be disproven soon after. You only need to recall the Atkins diet frenzy and subsequent swift downfall to appreciate the issues with fad dieting.
One day protein is good, the next day it’s not. One expert claims that fats are good, while some programs maintain that they are bad for your health. It seems that just as quickly as a food trend rises in popularity, information comes out disproving its principal claim.
Today, one of these major points of confusion is the role of carbohydrates. If you’ve paid attention over the past decade or so, you can be forgiven if you assume that carbs are bad for your waistline. So many diets over the years have demonized carbs, it’s hard not to make that assumption.
But, are carbs bad? Truthfully, carbs are like any other source of food–some are good, some are bad. If you dig deep enough, the full story is more complicated than what headlines would have you believe. Let’s explore the difference between good carbohydrates and bad.
What Is a Carbohydrate?
A properly balanced diet contains three essential macronutrients: fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. It’s crucial that you consume foods containing the healthy versions of these nutrients. Carbs actually come in three different forms: sugar, fiber, and starch.
Starch is found in grains such as oats, rice and quinoa, and in yams, potatoes and other root vegetables. Sugars, not surprisingly, are found in fruits and vegetables, and in today’s world, they are also in highly processed foods such as candy bars and other artificially sweetened snacks. Finally, fiber is found in high levels in leafy greens such as kale, spinach, and Brussels sprouts; in legumes such as beans and chickpeas; and in whole grains such as bran, steel-cut oats, and barley.
What exactly do carbs do? They are the energy that fuels all of our physical activity and the proper functioning of our organs and vital systems, not to mention our brain function. Each type of carb functions a bit differently, but at the most fundamental level, starch and sugar transform into one of two things: glucose or fat.
If transformed into glucose, it’s immediately useful as energy. The body will determine whether more energy is needed and if not, these sugars and starches will instead turn into fat. In reasonable amounts, fat is the body’s way of storing energy for later.
Fiber is slightly different because instead of instantly turning into either energy or fat, it is processed by bacteria in your digestive tract. Fiber is food for your gastrointestinal bacteria, which turn it into fatty acids (another form of energy).
Good Carbs vs. Bad Carbs
Although this description of carbohydrates is relatively simplistic, one thing is clear. Problems naturally build up when your diet contains too many sugars and starches. Unless you are a professional athlete, you simply don’t need that much energy. Your body will rightfully store the excess as fat. Without additional exercise, this extra insulating layer of stored energy just isn’t going to go anywhere.
What qualifies a good carb versus a bad carb? The difference comes down to whole carbohydrates and refined carbohydrates and knowing it. Whole carbs typically come from whole foods, while refined carbs, not surprisingly, come from refined foods.
Some common examples are comparing whole fruits such apples and oranges with their juice equivalents. Yes, they are technically the same ingredients, but they contain different types of carbs. Whole apples and oranges are chock full of fiber, while juices are processed and provide little to no fiber. Another good example is whole grain, such as steel-cut oats, versus white bread. Technically, each contains the same nutritional value, but only one–the oats–contains substantial levels of fiber.
–>> A good list of healthy carbohydrates for endurance is found here.
What’s the Problem with Refined Carbs?
Unfortunately, the typical American diet contains exceptionally high levels of refined carbs. They are in white bread, sugary snacks and other types of highly processed food. Refined carbohydrates are linked directly to an increase in diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
By contrast, consuming whole-carbohydrate foods such as fruits, veggies, and whole grains is linked to improved health and a reduced the risk of disease. Increasing dietary fiber has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol (bad) while increasing HDL cholesterol (good) levels. Another study determined that adults who ate three full servings of whole grains a day also had lower levels of body fat than their peers. That may come as a shock because we often associate carbs with belly fat!
–>> Another benefit of whole grains can be explored here.
How To Eat More Whole, Healthy Carbs
There is one main rule of keeping up the good carbs while cutting out the bad: try to eat as many whole foods as possible. Plan your caloric intake around eating mainly whole fruits and vegetables (seriously, we cannot overstate this requirement), supplemented by legumes and whole grains.
An easy rule of thumb to follow while shopping at your local supermarket is to keep to the outside walls as much as possible. If you haven’t already noticed, all the wholesome foods such as veggies and other fresh foods are typically found circling the junk food-packed aisles. Another good rule is to avoid processed foods that have a lengthy ingredient list. If you can’t pronounce or recognize most of the ingredients, it’s a good sign of a high level of processing. The more processing, the lower the final nutritional value.
It’s hard not to get caught up in the latest and greatest food trends. As we mentioned, one day proteins are in, the next they are out. It’s hard to keep track, but one thing is sure: dietary science is an ever-evolving field.
Interested in learning more about how much protein your body actually needs?
Fortunately, the more we learn, the more we can incorporate into our own meal plans. We can learn to make better choices one meal at a time. When it comes to carbs, learning to recognize good carbs versus bad carbs is just one step to a healthy and balanced diet. The next time you face an existential crisis over whole or refined foods, you’ll now understand one piece of the puzzle, and which is the healthier option on the table.