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-Mind Your Damn Fitness-
Heard of good and bad carbs, but confused by low-carb diets that suggest all carbs are evil?
In a world where eating carbs is increasingly frowned upon, I’m going to go against the grain (pun intended) and share some practical guidance on carbs.
In this beginner’s guide, we’ll discuss:
- What are carbs?
- How do our bodies use carbs?
- What’s the difference between good and bad carbs?
- Should we avoid carbs if we’re trying to lose weight?
What are carbs?
Carbs, which is short for carbohydrates, are one of three macronutrients (energy sources) that we get from eating food. The other two macronutrients are fats and proteins.
Carbs are the body’s main source of energy and are a crucial part of any well-balanced diet. Since our bodies can’t produce them, we must consume them by eating food.
When we think of carbs, we usually picture breads, pasta, and sweets. But carbs actually come in a variety of foods in the form of starches, naturally-occurring and artificial sugar, and fiber.
Some examples of foods that contain carbs are:
- Beans (and things that look like beans, like legumes and lentils)
- Sweet treats
How do our bodies use carbs?
Carbs provide energy that fuels muscle contraction and other bodily functions. After we eat them, our bodies break carbs down into smaller sugars (like glucose) that our cells absorb and use as energy.
Glucose is an important fuel source for our bodies because it is quick and easy to metabolize (break down into usable energy). When we chase a toddler or run to catch a bus, available glucose acts as the body’s first source of energy to fuel these activities.
In addition, glucose is virtually the only fuel source for the brain. And since the brain has no ability to store glucose, it needs a continuous supply that accounts for ~60% of of the total amount of glucose our bodies use at rest. That’s a lot of energy!
Our bodies also have the ability to store energy for use at a later time. When we eat carbs in excess of our immediate requirements, any glucose not used right away gets stored in muscles and the liver in the form of glycogen.
Unfortunately, our bodies don’t have an unlimited capacity for storing glycogen. Once glycogen stores are filled up, our bodies convert extra glucose to fat that is stored in adipose tissue (fat cells). Over time, increased fat storage from eating carbs in excess leads to weight gain!
This is the whole premise behind low- and no-carb diets, and why we can lose weight so quickly while on them. But it’s also why we tend to gain weight right back when we reintroduce carbs into the diets. Our bodies still process carbs in the same exact way, and so the weight loss benefits of low-carb diets are lost once eating carbs is resumed.
What’s the difference between good and bad carbs?
The secret to distinguishing between good and bad carbs lies in their structure, how they are digested, and the vitamins and nutrients they provide. I like to think of carbs as falling into one of three categories: 1) refined simple carbs, 2) complex carbs, and 3) natural simple carbs that are digested like complex carbs.
Refined simple carbs (bad)
Simple carbs are comprised of basic, quick-to-digest sugars. After we eat them, they are converted to energy right away and provide a rapid source of fuel.
But just to be clear, the simple carbs that I’m specifically referring to in this “bad” category are refined simple carbs. These are the ones that we consume in the form of added sugars in brownies, cookies, candies, and sweetened beverages like soda. Other foods that contain hidden sources of added sugar include crackers, salad dressing, and low-fat foods that rely on added sugar for flavor.
So what gives refined simple carbs such a bad rap? Well, there are two main reasons:
- Refined or processed sugars add calories but provide little-to-no nutritional value to our diets (so-called “empty calories”).
- Because our bodies break down refined simple carbs so rapidly, we tend to overeat because we don’t feel full after eating them (regardless of the calorie content).
Increased caloric intake from regularly eating refined simple carbs, without the health benefits of vitamins, minerals, or fiber that our bodies need to feel satisfied, puts us at risk for overeating and weight gain.
Refined simple carbs to look out for include:
- Sugary drinks, like soda, energy drinks, and sweetened coffee
- Baked goods, with added sugar and/or white flour
- Processed grains (white bread, white rice, and white pasta)
- Low-fat foods with added sugar, like low-fat, sweetened yogurt and low-fat, flavored coffee drinks
Complex carbs (good)
Complex carbs contain longer chains of sugars. They are considered “good” carbs for several reasons, with the main reason being that the body takes a longer time to digest them. The slower, more sustained release of sugars after consuming complex carbs makes you feel fuller for longer after eating. This helps control appetite and reduces the risk of overeating.
As an added bonus, foods with complex carbs generally have more vitamins, minerals, and fiber than refined simple carbs. In other words, they provide nutrients and, thus, are healthier.
Nutrient-rich complex carbs that should be part of a balanced diet include:
- Whole grain foods, like oatmeal, brown rice, and whole-wheat bread, pasta, and crackers
- Starchy vegetables like corn, peas, and potatoes
- Beans, like kidney and pinto beans
Natural simple carbs (good)
Just like refined simple carbs, foods high in natural simple carbs provide a quick source of energy. However, this is literally the only thing they have in common.
Natural simple carbs boost your health by supplying vitamins and minerals that are not found in refined simple carbs. In addition, plant sources of natural simple carbs contain fiber.
Fiber cannot be digested or used for energy, but it plays a vital role in making us feel fuller for longer and keeping us regular (yes, this means pooping). Thus, fiber-rich vegetables and fruits double as complex carbs, and so they also fall in the “good carbs” camp.
Great sources of natural simple carbs include:
- Fiber-rich, non-starchy vegetables, like broccoli, carrots, spinach, lima beans, and squash
- Fiber-rich fruits, like raspberries, apples, and bananas
- Unsweetened fruit juices
- Milk and other dairy products
Should we avoid carbs if we’re trying to lose weight?
Our bodies need carbs as a fuel source regardless of our weight loss goals. The key is to make sure we have a healthy balance of complex carbs and natural simple carbs that provide much-needed nutrients and keep us feeling fuller for longer.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that carbs be roughly 45 to 65% of total daily calories. So for a “standard” 2000-calorie diet, between 900 and 1,300 calories should be from carbs. That translates to between 225 and 325 grams of carbs a day.
You can find the total carb count for packaged foods in the Nutrition Facts label. The label lumps together all carbs (both good and bad carbs) into one overall total, which may include starches, fiber, natrually-occurring and added sugars, and sugar alcohols. The Nutrition Facts label might also list out total fiber, soluble fiber, and sugar as separate items. More information on understanding and using Nutrition Facts can be found here.
Bottom line: when it comes to eating healthy to lose weight, remember that the higher the sugar, and the lower the fiber, vitamins, and minerals, the worse the food is for you. So choose your carbs wisely!