Carbohydrates: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

By Natalie Collier, MScN

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The human body produces energy from the food we eat; and carbohydrates are a universal fuel. They are used in a variety of forms as an energy source among organisms, ranging from bacteria to humans. The traditional importance of carbohydrates spans across cultures; In Japan, white rice is widely consumed, Mexico uses maize in a variety of dishes and Italians are known for their pizza and pasta. African nations Rwanda and Burundi rely mainly on carbohydrates including sources such as plantains, cassava, peas, and maize. Carbohydrates are an easy and ancient fuel for the body.

In Western culture carbs are often vilified. Despite popular diet theory; not all carbs are created evil. Several of the healthiest nations with the longest life expectancies in the world eat high carbs diets including Japan. Blue Zones are identified as areas with the highest number of centenarians (people living over 100) eat primarily a plant-based and complex carbohydrate rich diet. Blue Zoner’s diets focus on vegetables including spinach, kale, turnips, chard and collards. In addition they eat seasonal fruits, beans and whole grains throughout the year.

The quantity and quality of carbohydrates we eat is important in determining how it will impact the body and overall health. Fueling up with carbs is often especially important for athlete’s performance and energy level. Much like a car runs on gasoline to operate, the human body will run off carbohydrates and in the absence of carbohydrates can also effectively run on fats. When the diet is low in carbohydrates, the body will switch to using fat for energy, also known as ketosis. 

What are carbohydrates? Carbohydrates are a source of sugar (glucose) that our body converts into energy. Insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas, brings glucose into the cells to use for energy production. A wide variety of foods (both unhealthy foods and healthy foods) contain carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are found in all vegetables, fruits, sugars, dairy and grains.

There are two types of carbohydrates: simple carbohydrates (bad carbs) and complex carbohydrates (good carbs). Simple carbs are stripped of their fiber, vitamins and minerals. Simple carbs break down quickly into your system and should be limited in the diet. While (good) complex carbohydrates are found in whole unprocessed foods and are filled with essential nutrients and fiber. Complex carbohydrates are an especially important food source for those experiencing thyroid conditions or adrenal fatigue.

The Good vs. the Bad:

  • Healthy good-for-the-body sources of carbohydrates are unprocessed carbohydrates in their whole food form. These unprocessed, complex carbs, are in their natural states containing rich sources of phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals and fiber. The fiber in these foods helps to slow the absorption of the sugars down. Good sources of carbohydrates include vegetables, fruits and whole grains (if tolerated).
  • Unhealthy sources of carbohydrates include highly processed foods like sodas, refined sugars, white rice, white bread, candy, baked goods, cakes and cookies. These carbohydrates are examples of simple carbs, stripped of their fiber, vitamins and minerals. These carbohydrates are easily digested causing quick spikes in blood sugar and contributing to health problems such as weight gain, diabetes and heart disease.

Complex Carb List
Complex Carbs include non-starchy vegetables like mushrooms, kale, cabbage, cucumbers, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce varieties. Starchy vegetables are higher in carbohydrates but are a great sources of minerals, vitamins and fiber. Starchy vegetables include yams, parsnips, plantains, potatoes, acorn squash, butternut squash and beets. Whole grains such as oatmeal, brown rice, sprouted grains, and rice varieties (white, brown, wild, etc) are also healthy sources of complex carbohydrates. Other sources include legumes and beans.

Simple Carb List
Simple carbs include foods that turn quickly into sugar such as candies, soda, white foods (white rice, white potato and white sugar), white bread, processed foods, cakes and cookies. How many carbohydrates to eat on a daily basis is up for debate, it depends on the individual and an individual’s health goals. There are many types of dietary programs with various macronutrient recommendations for carbohydrate consumption. High carbohydrate diets with an emphasis on simple carbs increase risk factors for a variety of diseases. However, high carbohydrate and low fat vegan diets are touted as health-promoting for certain individuals. On the complete other end of the spectrum are low carbohydrate diet programs and keto diets which suggest carbohydrate intake of 5%.

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. The other important consideration is the type of carb you are choosing, is it a complex carb or a simple carb? Your body is not designed to handle overly processed simple carbohydrates. Perhaps, simple carbohydrates give carbs a bad reputation.

If you just want to make sure that you're making good choices (for carb intake, anyway), contact a Wellnicity Clinician Today!