The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - A Smarter Way to Consume Carbs

Carbohydrates are one food group that people cannot seem to agree on. Mainstream media has flooded our minds with conflicting opinions about low carb, high carb, and no carb diets. It has become increasingly difficult for people to know what to eat and how to fuel their bodies. Too much information can lead to confusion...

What is the real difference between good carbs and bad carbs?

How do I make a smart choice?

Before we dive into SMART carb choices, let’s cover some carb basics. Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients, along with fat and protein. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of immediate energy. Carbohydrates fall into two forms: simple and complex.

Simple carbohydrates are short chains of sugar that are rapidly digested.

Complex carbohydrates are long chains of sugar that slowly digest.

SMART (good) carbs are whole, unprocessed foods that look close to the way they do at the time of harvest. SMART carbs are nutrient-dense, have been minimally processed to assure the integrity of the nutritional value of the food, digest slowly, and do not cause a spike in your blood sugar.

Bad carbs have been processed in a way that strips the nutrients from the food. Therefore, many refined, processed foods have little or no nutritional value and are FULL of empty calories. They can also cause a huge spike in your blood sugar, can cause insulin resistance thus leading to a higher risk of type 2 Diabetes.

Although most people generally think that “good” carbs are complex carbs and “bad” carbs are simple carbs, it is not that simple. Take for example, wheat and rice, both are complex carbohydrates. However, if wheat or rice is highly refined and processed, it then becomes a “bad” carb. Another example pertains to certain fruits, which contain a high sugar content. This fruit category is considered a simple carb. That said, fruit is loaded with nutritional value and definitely good for you. Tropical fruits like pineapples, pomegranates, mangoes, bananas, and fresh figs are examples of fruits that are high in sugar. Dried fruits like dates, raisins, apricots, prunes, and figs are also high in sugar.  None of these high sugar fruits are bad for you, however, they should be eaten with caution if you are trying to lose weight. Berries, lemons, and limes are examples of low-sugar fruits.*

In order to maintain appropriate blood sugar levels, support hormonal balance, and sustain desired body weight, we definitely want to choose nutrient dense, fiber filled, carbohydrates. Still confused? I’m going to give you my take on carbohydrates. As always, I’m going to keep it short and simple.

Fruits and Vegetables

The best carbs to eat on a daily basis are high in fiber, high in water content, and have a low glycemic index.  Most vegetables and many fruits fall into this category. There are other foods that contain a bit more starch, but are also healthy choices...sweet potatoes, winter squash, pumpkin, and legumes. Vegetables and fruits are the preferred choice of carbohydrates for healing the digestive system and increasing energy levels, as well as, lowering the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

But what about grains?

Processed white bread is a staple in many American homes. Enriched or not... White bread is a high glycemic food made from mostly refined starch that contains very little fiber. Refined starches are rapidly digested and cause significant fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Refined starches like white bread, white rice, white pasta, cookies, cakes, pastries, etc., are considered bad carbs and should be avoided if possible. Whole grains do contain more fiber than white bread, but also have a high glycemic index. Whole wheat bread or pasta can be a healthy carb choice, but you must read the labels carefully. Make sure the first ingredient is “whole wheat flour” or “whole wheat grain”. Avoid any label that says enriched wheat flour. Enriched wheat flour is refined flour and is void of the nutrients due to the high processing involved. Oats, brown rice, and quinoa have a low glycemic index, are digested more slowly, and cause a gradual rise in blood sugar making them a better carbohydrate food choice. Remember, choose grains that look close to the way they looked at harvest.

One final note on grains. If you are sensitive to gluten, or have celiac disease then your grain options may be a bit more limited. Fortunately there are many gluten free options out there today. Unrefined grains like brown rice, quinoa, and oats can be very difficult to digest and should be avoided if you are having digestive problems.  Possible gut friendly carb alternatives might be buckwheat, potatoes, Japanese sweet potatoes, basmati rice and jasmine rice.

My philosophy on carbohydrates is simple:

  • Eat carbs with a low glycemic index.
  • Eat vegetables and fruits high in fiber, water, and low in starch/sugar.
  • Eat healthy minimally processed grains like oats, brown rice, quinoa.
  • Eat SMART starchy foods like sweet potatoes, winter squash, pumpkin, rutabaga, turnips, jicamas and legumes

Carbs to Avoid

  • White bread
  • White crackers
  • Enriched pasta
  • Cookies
  • Candy
  • Pastries
  • Sugary cereal
  • Soda
  • Fruit drinks

SMART Carbs (low glycemic index)*

  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Rice
  • Quinoa
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Oats
  • Legumes
  • Whole wheat pasta (read label carefully)
  • Whole wheat pasta (read label carefully)
  • Gluten free pasta/breads

*Future blog  will cover low glycemic index, plus high and low sugar fruits.


Janet Steward