Carbohydrates often get a bad rap and there’s a lot of confusion about which, if any, carbohydrates you should be eating, especially when health and weight loss are your goals.
Depending on who you ask, carbohydrates can be described in very different ways. For some, they form an essential part of a well-rounded diet, whilst for others, they’re considered detrimental for nearly everything from your waistline to your heart.
In fact, carbohydrates are an important part of a well-formulated diet and can be found in a variety of foods considered to be healthy by many, including vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains. Understanding the different types of carbohydrates and choosing to eat those that provide the most nutrients, can ensure that you take advantage of all the health benefits that carbohydrates have to offer.
Carbohydrates are found in many foods throughout the food supply but have higher concentrations in certain ingredients. Fruits, starches, whole grains, legumes and dairy products are some common foods that contain carbohydrates.
Research has shown the importance of whole-food carbohydrates as part of a well-formulated nutrition plan. Unprocessed complex carbohydrate foods are an important part of a healthy diet. They provide fuel for the body, are rich in vitamins and minerals, and support satiety.
The 3 most common classifications of carbohydrates are:
Sugars which are made up of monosaccharides, including glucose, fructose and galactose. Besides table sugar, other sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, agave nectar and molasses all fall into this category.
Starches which are made up of longer chains of polysaccharides. Some common examples of starches include grains like brown rice, oats and quinoa, along with vegetables such as potatoes, peas and corn.
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is not digested in the body. These healthy carbohydrates pass through the gastrointestinal tract, adding bulk to the stool to promote regularity. Dietary fiber is found in several foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, beans, nuts and seeds.
Types of Carbohydrates
A carbohydrate is made up of sugar molecules that are broken down by the body in the form of glucose, or energy. There are two types of carbohydrate, and all carbohydrate foods fall within these major categories:
- Simple carbohydrates are a simple version of a sugar molecule, with only one or two parts. Table sugar is an example.
- Complex carbohydrates have a structure of three or more parts, and take more energy and time to be broken down into glucose.
Carbs, protein, and fat are the three main nutrient groups in the food we eat. During digestion, all three are broken down into elements the body can use for various functions. Protein is reduced to amino acids and fat breaks into fatty acids.
Carbohydrates are a quick energy source for your body which transforms all carbohydrates — whether simple or complex, whole or refined — into glucose. Your brain and cells use glucose as a fuel source for daily activities. Because they're short molecule chains, simple carbs are easy for your body to break down. Complex carbs take longer.
Many foods contain simple carbs and are rich sources of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Examples include:
- Dairy products
- Some vegetables
However, not all simple carbohydrates are digested at the same rate. Whole fruit contains fiber, meaning fructose (the simple sugar in fruit), is absorbed more slowly in the body.
The added sugars in syrups, baked goods, and many other processed foods are also simple carbs. These can be considered "empty calories" with little nutritional value. They more easily contribute to weight gain and health problems. Added sugars are best avoided in a healthy diet.
The healthiest complex carbs are those that have not been processed or refined, and include
- Starchy vegetables including potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squash
- Non-starchy vegetables, which includes everything from asparagus to zucchini
- Beans and legumes like lentils, kidney beans, and chickpeas
- Whole grains such as brown rice, wild rice, oatmeal, and whole-grain (rather than pearled) barley
- Grain-like foods such as quinoa (a seed) and buckwheat (a grass)
All of these foods are excellent sources of fiber. Fiber helps keep blood sugar levels from spiking too high and is important for health.
Carbs are often categorized as “good” or “bad.”
When you hear the term good carbs, it refers to whole food carbs that have vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols (protective plant substances). Many good carbs also provide fiber. These are important distinctions because these carbs tend to be digested more slowly — whether because they also have protein (in the case of dairy like yogurt, for example), or because they have fiber (like that found in foods like sweet potatoes or beans). This slower conversion to glucose means your body has a steadier stream of energy, and it doesn’t cause as many drastic fluctuations in blood sugar that can be problematic. Taken together, the protective compounds and healthier blood sugar response is what makes these foods good carbs.
Typically, foods that have excessive sugar and refined grains are considered bad carbs because they supply few, if any, nutrients (including fiber), and their fast conversion to energy prompts unhealthy fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Over time, this can tax your system and lead to health problems.
This means that some carbs are healthier than others
Good carbs contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that protect your cells from damage caused by aging, invaders or the environment.
Beans, also rich in carbs, provide protein, fiber, calcium, iron, folate, magnesium, zinc, and other nutrients. And of course, the fiber in good carbs helps feed the trillions of bacteria in your gut, creating a diverse ecosystem that strengthens your immune system and protects you from certain diseases. In addition to defending your body against diseases, increasing fruit and vegetable consumption can also improve your mood.
The science is clear: Whole food carbs offer health benefits, whereas refined and processed carbs have a negative impact on both your weight and your health.
Daily Carbohydrate Consumption
Personal carbohydrate needs vary widely depending on the person, lifestyle factors and activity levels, and health goals. A well formulated, healthy diet would include good carbs in appropriate portions spread throughout the day. Determining the amount of carbohydrates your body tolerates is important. It is generally suggested to consume between 2.7 and 4.5 grams of carbohydrates per pound each day.
Since portions are typically smaller than people think (a serving is considered to be 1 cup of starchy vegetable or ½ cup of whole grains or legumes) it can be common to have be challenged with eating the right amount of starch in a meal and often, the vegetables get displaced. When plating a meal, it’s important to make your non-starchy vegetable portion larger than your starch component. This is an easy way to think of it so you there is less need to count, measure, weigh or track anything!
Most people want to choose healthy foods for themselves and their families, and it helps to know how carbohydrates work.
That said, when planning meals and snacks, it's best to focus on getting your carbs—both simple and complex—from natural, unrefined, and unprocessed sources. These include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes. At Pete’s Real Food we strive to include the best quality, tastiest good carbs in each meal we create – making feeding yourself and your family as simple as it is delicious. No matter your dietary philosophy, our food philosophy is focussed on supporting you.
You'll know that you're getting nutrient-rich foods that are high in fiber and beneficial for all aspects of your health.