In recent years, carbohydrates (often called carbs) have been getting bad publicity. But are carbs really bad for you? Yes and no. Research shows that choosing the right types can actually aid in letting you achieve your desired body weight, and boost your health.
The Real Deal with Carbs
Carbohydrates are one of the three primary energy sources, in addition to protein and fat. According to the Institute of Medicine, carbs are essential macronutrients composed of units of sugar and should comprise about 45-65% of your diet. Carbs come in two types: simple (e.g., milk, honey, juice, fruit) or complex (starchy vegetables, fiber, grains). Complex carbs are the kind you want to have in your diet. They are basically long chains of simple carbs (or sugars).
Good sources of complex carbs include:
• Whole grains – oats, brown rice, wheat, barley, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth
• Fruits – oranges, apples, pears, grapefruit, strawberries, plums, berries, dried fruits
• Vegetables – potatoes, corn, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, zucchini, dark greens, asparagus, corn
• Legumes – lentils, kidney beans, pinto beans, chickpeas, split peas
Simple vs. Complex Carbs
When you’re planning the carbohydrate component of your meals, you should focus on complex carbs because these have been processed minimally. Moreover, these will be more beneficial to your body than simple carbohydrates for the following reasons:
• Rich source of vitamins & minerals- complex carbs provide you with loads of fiber, B vitamins, and minerals. These include magnesium, iron, and selenium, which can help you achieve optimal health and longer life!
• Blood sugar friendly- the body digests these long chains of carbs relatively more slowly, which results in more stable blood sugar levels.
• Staves off hunger- these good carbs provide you the fuel you need over more extended period.
• Longer satisfaction- these fill the stomach faster and will leave you feeling satisfied for longer.
Know Your Carbs
The different types of carbs will have varying properties, including their degree of sweetness, rates of digestion, and absorption rates by the body. Complex carbs, for instance, will have three to several thousand sugar units. Hence, it takes the body longer to digest them.
Let’s explore the differences between the various types of carbohydrates, so you’re better equipped to make the right choices for your diet.
Simple carbohydrates – can release energy instantly, and have a simple structure, composed of one or two units of sugar only.
These come in 2 types:
1) Monosaccharides are single sugar carbohydrates, which include fructose (fruit sugar), glucose (blood sugar), and galactose
2) Disaccharides are double sugar carbohydrates such as sucrose (table sugar), lactose (milk sugar), maltose (malted grain sugar), and honey
Complex carbohydrates- are also referred to as polysaccharides (more than two units of sugars). These are formed when sugar molecules come together to form long chains and are found in plant food that contains fiber and starch.
a) Fiber is extremely beneficial for promoting healthy digestion, smooth elimination, and in preventing digestive diseases and colon cancer.
b) Starch represents the type of energy in plants, the same way human muscle relies on glycogen for energy. These are good for you in moderation.
How carbohydrates affect the pancreas, blood sugar, & insulin
When you eat carbs, your pancreas secretes insulin (the hormone that allows you to digest sugars and starches). The release of insulin by your body is sometimes referred to as an “insulin spike.” When your body takes in simple carbs (such as table sugar), this will produce higher insulin spikes compared with complex carbs such as starch.
Thus, if you have diabetes (the metabolic disorder which keeps you from producing enough insulin), you should be careful not to take more carbs than your body can digest.
When to eat carbs
Table sugar, sweets, and honey are recommended to be consumed only once in a while. If you are looking to keep your energy up and weight gain down, simple carbs are the type you need to avoid. And although simple carbohydrates can be considered natural and necessary to sustain health, the following tips should be kept in mind when eating simple carbs:
• Consume in small quantities.
• Follow prescribed levels to ensure it does not interfere with fat-reducing programs.
• It is best to avoid junk or processed foods.
• Consuming large amounts can contribute to obesity-related conditions, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
• Read food labels and look out for added sugars.
• Aim to get fewer than 10% of your daily calories from simple carbs.
Simple carbs such as table sugar are digested more rapidly than steel-cut oats, but more slowly compared to whole wheat bread. The complex carbs in cookies, potatoes, cakes, pretzels, and rice are digested fairly rapidly. Although the exact digestion time would depend on the amounts you consume at a given time, as well as other foods you are eating during the meal.
Complex carb takes longer to digest. This will supply your body a steady source of energy for several hours after eating. You stay full longer.
Your digestive system can start extracting energy within 15-30 minutes of eating low glycemic index complex carbs. Although digestion will happen over a longer time in comparison simple carbs.
The Glycemic Index
The glycemic index (GI) is a scheme of carbohydrate measurement developed at the University of Toronto in 1981. GI gives a handle on the amount of carbs through ranking foods according to how quickly they affect blood sugar levels in comparison with glucose.
Generally, simple carbs have a high GI, are digested quickly, and give you a blood sugar spike. Complex carbs, on the other hand, commonly have a low GI, and are broken down slowly. Hence, glucose or energy from complex carbs is released into the bloodstream over several hours. In effect, digestion is prolonged due to the slow breakdown, which is the reason why you feel full for longer.
• Low GI foods have a glycemic index value of 55 or less. These include most fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, low-fat dairy products, whole grain pasta, and bread.
• Moderate GI foods have a glycemic index value of 56-69 and include corn, white rice, couscous, white and sweet potatoes
• High GI foods have a glycemic index value of 70 or higher. Examples include cakes, doughnuts, white bread, croissants, most crackers, and packaged breakfast cereals
Good vs. Bad Carbs
Not all carbs are “bad.” It’s a good idea to identify the types of carbs that are best to fuel your body’s needs. If you want to boost your metabolism and lose weight, you need to include the “good” carbs into your diet every day. Simple carbs including sugar added in processed food, fruit and milk products, and in food containing white flour (especially the more refined forms), are typically considered the “bad” carbs. These also include less essential dietary fibers. Good carbohydrates are the complex carbs that provide nutritional value and energy. These are rich in fiber, are absorbed more slowly, and give lasting energy.
Below is a list of common “good” and “bad” carbs for different types of food.
The following vegetables are classified as good carbs:
- sweet potatoes
- dark leafy greens
The following fruits provide good carbohydrates:
- the tropical fruits (mango, pineapple, papaya)
- citrus fruits
- apples, pears
These grains, nuts and dairy products contain good carbs: whole wheat, brown rice, whole oats, bran, wheat germs, quinoa, almonds, cashews, pecans, peanuts, whole milk, cheese, cream, sour cream, butter, unsweetened yogurt
Potatoes are classified as bad carbs
These fruits and fruit products may provide the harmful types of carbs: fruit juice, dried fruits, white bread, white flour, pasta, corn, baked goods, cakes, muffins, cream of wheat
These grains, nuts and dairy products may have the bad carbohydrates: breakfast cereals, quick oats, honey roasted oats, sweet or candy-coated nuts, peanut butter, ice cream, sweetened yogurt, and skimmed milk
Pros & Cons
Foods that contain a lot of sugar, specifically the refined form of simple carbs, often provide only a few beneficial nutrients. For example, the sugar found in sweetened beverages, sodas, sweets, baked goods, candies, and other desserts, when taken in increased proportions have been associated with obesity or weight gain. Additionally, eating too much of this sugary form of carbohydrates have shown to contribute to tooth decay and cavities.
On the other hand, here are some of the benefits of consuming complex carbs (“good” carbs):
• Energy boost- complex carbs provide the body with the energy you need, as soon as you need it. This is the primary purpose of loading with carbohydrates. So, depriving yourself of eating the right kind, will leave you feeling fatigued and tired the whole day.
• Digestion-friendly- carbs contain fiber which aids the body to regularize and smoothen the processes of digestion. If you experience some issues with digestion, go for whole grains, legumes, beans, vegetables, and fruits instead of opting for processed food.
• Optimal metabolism- being the natural source of energy, carbs are crucial for optimal metabolic processes. The energy and calories that complex carbs provide will improve your metabolism. In contrast, without it, your body’s metabolism will suffer and slow down the longer you prolong a low carbohydrate diet.
• Promotes sleep- good types like sweet potatoes, bananas, oatmeal, pumpkin, and brown rice contain significant proportions of tryptophan. This relaxes the body and can promote sleep effectively. Additionally, oatmeal, helps your body produce melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep.
• Fiber-rich- fiber wards off hunger and keeps you feeling satisfied for longer. This also serves a vital role in preventing or alleviating constipation.
As in all types of food, however, eating more carbs (especially the “bad” carbs) than what your body needs can result to obesity or weight gain, along with a list of unwanted health problems.
Whether good or bad here are some disadvantages of consuming too many carbohydrates:
• Obesity or weight gain- going overboard with unhealthy carbs does not promote satiety. It is, therefore, best to steer clear of the bad carbs as much as possible to avoid unwanted weight gain.
• Blood sugar problems- large amounts of carbohydrate loading causes your blood sugar to elevate after meals. It is not a good idea to overindulge in carbs, especially if you have diabetes or pre-diabetes. Your body may not adequately control your blood sugar properly. Uncontrolled blood sugar can lead to life-threatening conditions.
• Addiction to sugar- certain sugars (the bad carbs) are addictive, with properties similar to street drugs according to medical studies. Sugar addiction can lead to uncontrolled weight gain, obesity, and specific nutrient deficiencies.
Carbohydrate Recommendations: What to Avoid
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting the daily added sugar intake to nine teaspoons (150 calories) or less for men; and only six teaspoons (100 calories) or less for women. Additionally, the Institute of Medicine suggests obtaining 45-65% of your calories from carbs, which is equal to 247-358 grams of carbs per day when following a 2,200-calorie diet plan.
The following are a list of simple carbohydrates that should be avoided:
• Enriched flour
• Cane syrup
• Evaporated can juice
• Cane sugar
• Sugar (e.g., brown sugar)
• Coconut syrup
• Maple syrup
• Bread, rolls, and cereals
• Processed foods
Wrapping it Up: The Real Score with Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are essential nutrients that we need to fuel our activities and sustain health. Our brain and muscles use carbs as energy sources. You can enjoy the different forms of carbs every day in moderation. Some types, specifically the complex carbs (e.g., fiber) are generally considered better than the other forms (i.e., sugars or simple carbs).
Additionally, low glycemic diets can help you with weight loss programs. On the other hand, it is best to steer clear of high glycemic index foods. Evidence shows that these may increase your risk for many health problems such as type 2 diabetes, heart problems, and many forms of cancers.