Are you confused about good carbs vs bad carbs? Are carbs good or bad? What are carbs, and what role do they play in our diet and health? Carbohydrates have been blamed for causing obesity and type 2 diabetes. Many dieters swear to have effectively lost weight simply by doing away with carbs in their diet. Are carbohydrates really an evil that we must eliminate from our diet?
The role of carbs in the body
Carbohydrates (sugars and starches) are made up of glucose. When carbs are broken down, glucose from carbohydrates supplies energy to the body and is essential for the central nervous system. Sugars are short chain carbohydrates and break down quickly. Starches are made up of long chains and take longer to break down. Any unused energy from carbs is stored as fat. People who work out need more carbohydrates to keep the muscle tissue full of fuel.
Carbohydrates are very important to living beings. You need carbohydrates in your diet to provide energy to each cell, to supply your brain with glucose, and to furnish fuel for your muscles and organs. All your DNA and RNA molecules have a sugar molecule (ribose) in them. In fact, if you don’t eat enough carbohydrates, your body breaks down muscle tissue to make some!
Good carbs vs Bad carbs
All carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is a vital energy source for the body. Good carbs are complex carbohydrates that are present in natural, unrefined foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and legumes. Natural sources of carbs contain fiber that results in a slow but long-lasting release of energy in the body.
Good carbs from whole foods like strawberries, almonds, lentils, sweet potatoes, quinoa, macadamia nuts, celery, peppers, and apples make our meals more interesting, colorful, and tasty. Imagine how boring our meals would be without them!
Carbs have earned a bad rap thanks to refined carbs. These are the carbs in processed food that have been stripped of nutrients, enzymes, and fiber. These are the carbs to avoid. Bad carbs in highly-refined processed food provide only empty calories. They are quickly digested and give an almost instant blast of sugar into the bloodstream. This will cause an insulin spike that will quickly drop your blood sugar, leaving you worn out and craving for still more sugar. Bad carbs are in soda, fruit juices, energy drinks, white flour, potato chips, ice cream, cakes, pastries, and candy. Watch out for foods that list fructose, sucrose, corn syrup, cane syrup, corn sugar, dextrose, maltodextrin, or invert sugar in their labels.
Fiber is a carbohydrate
We know that fiber is desirable and is necessary to maintain good health. Fiber actually falls under carbs along with sugars and starches. Fiber is an indigestible form of carbohydrate that helps regulate blood sugar and in the body. It also helps maintain good bacteria in the digestive tract.
Cutting down on carbs to lose weight
In a perfect world, reducing dietary carbohydrates forces the body to burn stored fat, resulting in weight loss. A lot of people have successfully lost weight by reducing their intake of excessive carbs. This is why carbs are often blamed for causing obesity. But if you would trace the beginnings of the rise of obesity, you would see that it coincides with the rise of refined foods in the diet. The real culprits are not the naturally occurring, fiber-rich carbs in unprocessed food. Refined carbs and sugar are to blame.
Although eating a low-carb diet can also help to achieve desirable blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels, eliminating carbs altogether is not a good option. The variety as well as the nutrients, enzymes, fiber, and antioxidants that carbohydrate-rich whole foods provide cannot be replaced. Low-carb diets are effective for people with insulin resistance or diabetes. Reducing your intake of carbs can definitely help in weight loss, but you should still include good carbs in their diet.
Most of the carbohydrates you eat should come from vegetables. Vegetables are low in calories and sugar and high in nutrients and fiber. You can pretty much eat all the veggies you want without having to worry about calories or insulin response.
To make vegetables easily available in your kitchen, keep your refrigerator stocked with fresh, crunchy produce ready to steam or eat raw. When fresh vegetables aren’t in season from local farms, you can buy frozen vegetables for quick and easy cooking or pick up a bag of prewashed organic salad mix for a mixed green salad.
Here are some more tips for working more vegetables into your meal planning:
- Add steamed chopped vegetables to pasta or rice.
- Include a mixed green salad with your meal at least once per day.
- Plan some meals around a vegetable main dish, such as vegetable soup or a vegetable stir-fry.
- Shred carrots or zucchini into meatloaf, casseroles, and muffins.
When counseling new clients, every day I hear statements like, “I heard bananas were bad for you,” or, “I thought I wasn’t supposed to eat potatoes.” You must understand that glycemic load by itself doesn’t make a food good or bad. It’s just a ballpark indication of how a particular food may affect your insulin levels. Combining carbs with protein and fat (which you should do) reduces your insulin response to the carbohydrates and therefore lowers the glycemic load of the entire meal.
Be careful not to base your food choices solely on carbohydrate content or glycemic load. When you look at only one aspect of food, you overlook other important considerations like fiber, vitamins and minerals, dietary fat, and total calories. Many foods with higher glycemic loads are very nutritious, and some low-glycemic foods (like potato chips) aren’t very good choices!
Insulin and Sugar
Diabetes is one of the biggest threats to modern human health. With high sugar intake, low amounts of exercise, and too many calories overall (which unfortunately describes much of the world these days), the body is forced to produce more and more insulin. Insulin is a hormone that transports glucose around the body. But too much insulin (from too many carbs) leads to diabetes and body fat storage. High insulin levels cause you to store fat and crave more food. This cycle continues over the years, and as you gain weight, your body becomes less and less sensitive to insulin, and it craves more and more sugar. The end result is obesity and insulin resistance, which lead to diabetes.
You can avoid diabetes by using food to control your insulin response.
The physiological response you get from eating any carbohydrate depends on the type of carb and the amount that you eat. Do it right and you have a normal, healthy response. Do it wrong and the chemistry created in your body makes you fat, sick, and addicted.
Here are the basic steps of what happens to the carbohydrates that you eat:
- Your digestive system breaks down carbohydrates (first in your mouth with saliva and chewing, and then from digestive enzymes in your small intestine) into smaller bits of carbohydrate known as monosaccharides.
- Your liver absorbs the monosaccharides and, like a dispatcher, sends them out to do various important jobs — feed the brain, make cells to do their thing, and fill up your muscles and organs with fuel.
- After these jobs are finished, your body promptly packages up and stores any leftover carbs as body fat.
For healthy insulin response, you should choose carbohydrates that are complex – carbohydrates that are made up of long chains of sugar molecules, and take longer to break down. Examples of complex carbohydrates are fibrous vegetables like greens, broccoli, or beans, and whole-grain starches like brown rice, quinoa, or whole wheat.
To further slow down sugar release, try to eat protein and fat with those complex carbohydrates!
Simple carbohydrates consist of only one or two molecules and thus break down and enter the bloodstream very quickly. This makes the pancreas release a lot of insulin to control the rapid rise in sugar levels. High insulin levels cause a lot of problems, so try to stay away from simple carbs. Simple carbohydrates are sugars and sweet stuff like candy, corn syrup, fruit juice, powdered sugar, sweetened beverages, and table sugar.
Problems with Fructose
As I mention earlier in the chapter, not all carbohydrates are the same. A particular kind of sugar called fructose is particularly troublesome in the Western diet.
Fructose occurs naturally in fruit. From that source it generally isn’t a problem because, in natural foods, fructose is bound to glucose, so you don’t eat that much of it (and that’s as complicated as I need to get for the purposes of this lesson).
However, fructose is also prevalent as a sweetener (agave nectar, crystalline fructose, high fructose corn syrup, honey, and so on), and that becomes a biological problem. Humans can digest only a small amount of fructose. Eating too much fructose can cause bloating, flatulence, and loose stools.
Overconsumption of fructose is also a major factor in weight gain. The process of digestion breaks down most carbohydrates into glucose, which is the most basic fuel on the planet. All your cells use it, so your body processes it efficiently because it goes literally everywhere in the body. Fructose, however, is a very different simple sugar that isn’t used in cells. All fructose goes to the liver, where most of it is immediately converted into triglycerides (fat). When you consistently eat a lot of fructose, you not only overload your liver (causing fatty liver disease) but also basically create body fat on the spot.
Current research shows that approximately half of the population is unable to digest 25 grams of fructose by itself. Naturally occurring fructose (found in fruits) is bound with glucose, making absorption a non-issue in reasonable amounts. Processed fructose (like high fructose corn syrup and crystalline fructose) is a different story. This type of sugar can easily overload the liver. You should limit your consumption of fructose (especially the artificial kind!), and if you have to eat it, don’t exceed 25 grams.
Hidden Sources Of Sugar
Here are some common foods, drinks, and condiments whose sugar content may surprise you:
- Bottled teas: Tea is good for you, right? Yes, but unless you make it yourself, it may be packed with sugar and other unhealthy ingredients. A 20-ounce bottle of SoBe Green Tea has . . . wait for it . . . 51 grams of sugar!
- Children’s drinks: One Hi-C Flashin’ Fruit Punch juice box contains only 10% real juice, with 30 grams of sugar and lots of chemicals.
- Coffee drinks: A Starbucks grande caffe vanilla Frappuccino (16 ounces) weighs in at a whopping 58 grams of sugar!
- Dried fruit: A small handful (1/3 cup) of dried cranberries has 26 grams of sugar. Seven pieces of Wild Garden dried apricots contain 21 grams of sugar.
- Energy bars and snack bars: Several of the best-selling energy bars are nothing more than glorified candy bars. Just because it has a picture of granola or an athlete on the wrapper doesn’t mean it’s a high-quality snack.
- Energy drinks: Most energy drinks consist of caffeine, sugar, and a high dose of B vitamins to give you a buzz for an hour or two. They not only spike your insulin levels but also assure the post-sugar crash afterward.
- Fruit juice: An 8-ounce glass of 100-percent orange juice has 25 grams of sugar. Many other so-called fruit juices are only 10-percent juice, with the rest being high fructose corn syrup or another sweetener (along with artificial color, artificial flavor, and preservatives).
- Glazes and sauces: Kashi Sweet & Sour Chicken entree has 25 grams of sugar. Subway’s 6-inch teriyaki chicken sandwich has 17 grams of sugar. When eating out, don’t be afraid to request items without sauces.
- Granola: Just 2/3 of a cup (a tiny serving!) of organic Cascadian Farm Cinnamon Raisin Granola packs 42 grams of total carbs and 16 grams of sugar.
- Salad dressing: Fat-free salad dressings are frequently made mostly of sugar and artificial ingredients. Use organic olive oil and vinegar instead.
If you’d like some personal help with nutrition and healthier lifestyle habits, contact Dan to schedule a time to talk about what kind of help would work best for you. Dan can work with clients by phone and online!