The diet industry has been quite wishy-washy when it comes to carbs. However, despite what you may have heard, carbohydrates aren’t a complete no-no as long as you’re picking the right types.
So, stop feeling guilty for eating them. Just focus on a smart carb consumption strategy to adequately fuel your body and you should be completely fine.
In fact, the right types of carbohydrates, which are minimally processed, such as whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and legumes, have been found to positively contribute to heart, brain and gut health.
Therefore, incorporating healthy carbs into our diet can provide us with the important vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, we would be missing out on by skipping carbs altogether.
What Are Carbs?
Carbohydrates are one of the three main macronutrients, meaning they’re a vital part of our diet, just like protein and fat. Additionally, one gram of carbohydrates provides 4 calories and is considered our bodies main energy source.
But we have different types of carbs to choose from.
Cauliflower and a Doughnut are both carbs. But I am sure we all realize that cauliflower is the healthier of the two, But why?
Well, one item is a whole, real food, and the other is a sweet, processed pastry. Another reason has to do with how some carbs dramatically raise our blood sugar level.
Eaten in excess, [sugars] or simple carbs cause an up-and-down effect, leading to unstable blood sugar levels, that prime the body for a blood sugar crash, making you feel tired, lethargic and craving more sugar.
Other forms of simple carbs:
- table sugar
- brown sugar
- high fructose corn syrup
- milk (lactose)
- fruit (fructose)
Complexed carbs, on the other hand, help shield and slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream, therefore fostering a more stable blood sugar release. This, in turn, leads to steady energy, better cognition and little to no cravings.
Other forms of complexed carbs:
- whole fruit
- whole grains
- whole wheat products
One of the main reasons why there is so much confusion in regards to carbs is that, as pointed out above, not all carbs are created equal.
The way carbs are normally classified is by the terms complex or what is referred to as (good carb) or simple meaning (bad carb). An example of this is that most people associate starch and fiber as complex carbs and all sugars as simple carbs.
However, this definition can be a little misleading. While some starches like sweet potatoes, quinoa and legumes provide many health benefits, other starches like refined wheat flour is associated with rapid blood sugar spikes and major hormonal imbalances that lead to many metabolic and chronic health issues.
Additionally, not all sugars have the same effect on your body. Added sugars like those found in baked goods and sugary drinks can be profoundly harmful to your health. However, some natural sugars found in things like vegetables and fruit seem not pose the same negative effects. (1, 2, 3, 4)
Therefore, it seems more appropriate to define complex and simple carbs in these terms:
- Complex carbs: Carb-containing foods that are in their whole, unprocessed form. Foods in this category include fruits, vegetables and legumes.
- Simple carbs: Sugars and starches that have been refined and stripped of their natural fiber and nutrients.
Complex vs. Simple
Complex carbs tend to be healthier than simple carbs because they are generally nutrient dense. What this essentially means is they contain a fairly generous supply of nutrients in relationship to the number of calories they provide.
Whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes are highly nutritious foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. However, simple carbs contain what is referred to as “empty calories” meaning calories with little to no nutritional value.
To highlight the nutritional differences between complex and simple carbs, let’s compare whole grains and refined grains.
First a whole grain contains three distinct parts:
- Germ: The seed portion of the grain that’s high in polyunsaturated fats and various important nutrients.
- Endosperm: The inner portion of the grain that’s mostly made up of starch.
- Bran: The hard-outer portion of the grain that’s high in fiber and essential fatty acids.
The germ and bran of a grain are where the majority of its nutrition is found. However, when grains are processed and refined, the highly nutritious germ and bran are removed, leaving only the endosperm, a pure, refined starch, capable of spiking blood sugars faster and higher than sucrose (table sugar).
Similarly, the same is true for fruits and vegetables. In their whole forms, they contain small amounts of fructose, but they are also packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber. Conversely, processed foods and sugary beverages contain large amounts of sugar and absolutely no nutrients.
Carbs are NOT essential
First of all, just to set the record straight, it is scientifically proven that carbs, whether they’re in the complex or simple form, are NOT an essential nutrient. Therefore, even though carbs generally make up nearly 60 percent of the American diet, the lower limit of dietary carbohydrates compatible with sustaining life is ZERO, provided, of course, that adequate amounts of protein and fat are consumed. However, eating the right types of carb containing foods has been shown to be quite beneficial for your health.
Complex Carbs and Blood Sugar
Simple carbs are digested and absorbed very quickly, causing a rapid spike in blood sugar. This rapid spike stimulates your pancreas to release a large dose of insulin, which, in turn, leads to a “blood sugar crash” a few hours later. This crash then ends up leaving you feeling tired and hungry and craving more sugar. (9, 10)
However, fiber-rich, complex carbs take much longer to break down than simple carbs. This helps shield and slow down the absorption of sugars into the blood stream, helping stabilized blood sugar and insulin levels. (11, 12)
Additionally, because complex carbs are digested more slowly, they provide a more sustained energy balance while helping you feel fuller longer. (13)
Complex Carbs and Disease Risk Factors
Consuming complex carbs may help lower your risk of chronic diseases. They tend to be high in dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and plant compounds. All of these components play a role in disease prevention. (14, 15)
Complex Carbs and Gut Health
There are billions of good bacteria that line your intestines, which are known as your gut microbiota. These bacteria play a major role in managing several digestive disorders and have been linked to various other aspects of health.
Soluble fibers found in complex carbs feed these beneficial bacteria and increase their presence in your gut. They also help the bacteria produce nutrients, such as short-chain fatty acids which are beneficial for digestive health. (19)
Complex Carbs Help Reduce Inflammation
Inflammation is part of the body’s natural response mechanism to help fight against injuries or infection. However, acute, chronic inflammation is a leading risk factor in several metabolic and chronic issues. And while sugar, refined flours and refined carbs promote a major inflammatory response, complex carbs tend to help alleviate inflammation. (20, 21)
Simple Carbs and Their Negative Health Effects
Simple carbs like refined grains and added sugars are quite damaging for your body. Here are just a few of the detrimental health effects of simple carbs:
- Produce major blood sugar swings: Simple carbs break down quickly and cause major blood sugar spikes and crashes. Studies have found that these blood sugar spikes and crashes contribute to low energy, mood swings, cravings, hunger and overeating. (24)
- Form high triglyceride levels: Large amounts of refined carbs can lead to elevated triglyceride levels, which increase the risk of heart disease and type II diabetes. (25, 26)
- Increased heart disease risk: Sugar and refined grains increase heart disease risk. A study found those who ate the most refined grains were 2–3 times more likely to develop heart disease than those who ate the least. (27, 28)
- Increased type II diabetes risk: Excessive consumption of simple carbs can cause your cells to become resistant to insulin, which greatly increases your risk of type II diabetes. (29, 30)
- Increased over-all appetite: Simple carbs harm the hormones that regulate appetite, making them likely to contribute to weight gain and obesity. (31, 32)
Carbs to Eat and Carbs to Avoid
Carbs can be a healthy part of your diet but only if you’re choosing the right ones. The healthiest choices are those found in their whole, unprocessed form.
Carbs to Eat
The following foods are good carbs to include in your diet:
- Whole grains: Whole, unprocessed grains like oats, quinoa, barley, amaranth, brown rice, wild rice, etc.
- Legumes: Lentils, black beans, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, etc.
- Vegetables: Sweet potatoes, broccoli, green beans, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, asparagus, etc.
- Fruits: Apples, oranges, berries, plums, pears, grapefruit, etc.
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, etc.
Carbs to Avoid
These foods are highly refined and should be eliminated, or at the very least reduce to a minimal level:
- Sugary beverages: Soda, sweetened tea, sports drinks, fruit juices, etc.
- Desserts and snack foods: Donuts, cakes, cookies, crackers, chips, pretzels, ice cream, candy, etc.
- Commercial Breads: This includes “white or wheat” bread.
- Pastas: These are made from refined wheat flour.
Complex carbs are far more nutritious than simple carbs. They’re high in nutrients and fiber, and consuming them on a regular basis can be beneficial to better health and weight maintenance. On the other hand, simple carbs provide little to no nutritional value and should be avoided as much as possible.