Are Carbohydrates Bad?
By: Allison Lesko, RD, LD
Carbs have been getting negative attention for years now. We are here to clear the air. Carbs are not bad and they do not make you fat - you just have to be sure you're eating the right kind of carbs in appropriate portions. We'll cover everything you need to know about carbs in this article.
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient that provides energy to the body. “Macro”, standing for large, are the larger nutrients that our bodies need each day for fuel. Other nutrients, which we won’t focus on today, such as vitamins and minerals, are considered “micro” for their need in smaller amounts. Carbohydrates, commonly referred to simply as carbs, are in nearly everything! Sweet treats, fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, dairy…they’re unavoidable. Consisting of 4 calories per gram, carbohydrates are a key part of a well-balanced diet.
What role do carbohydrates play in the body? How does the body use carbs for fuel?
Carbohydrates are made of smaller units called polysaccharides, which are a series of sugar molecules bonded together. Once they enter the body, these long chains are broken into even smaller parts (monosaccharides), consisting of glucose, fructose, and galactose. Our bodies are only able to use glucose as fuel, so the liver converts fructose and galactose into glucose. Then, glucose is either (1) used immediately for energy, (2) stored as glycogen in the liver and skeletal muscles (to maintain blood glucose levels during short periods of fasting such as sleep, and for energy during exercise, respectively), or (3) converted into fatty acids and triglycerides, if consumed in excess, for long term energy storage.
What are the different types of carbohydrates?
Not all carbs are created equal! They are metabolized at different rates in our body and the larger, more complex molecules help us live a healthy lifestyle. Here are the two different types of carbohydrates:
Simple carbohydrates: Consist of shorter sugar molecules that are more easily broken down and absorbed by the body. Includes refined/processed foods such as white bread, pasta, crackers, sugary snacks, and soda. Healthier foods such as fruits and vegetable juices are considered simple because they are made up of fructose and glucose. Typically, simple carbohydrates are fast digesting, low in fiber, leading to a “crashing” effect soon after you eat them. Then leaving you hungry again soon after.
Complex carbohydrates: Consist of longer sugars that take more time for the body to break down. Includes whole grains like brown rice, oatmeal, whole wheat pasta, and starchy vegetables like potatoes, squash, and peas. Typically, complex carbs are slow digesting, high in fiber, and keep you full and energized for longer periods of time after consumption. Fruits with their fibrous skin on and seeds intact are a great choice and considered complex because the fiber prolongs the breakdown of the more simple juices within.
What kind of carbohydrates are best to consume/will help me reach my goals/stay healthy?
Complex carbohydrates will help you live a heart healthy lifestyle. They are nutrient dense and will keep you full and focused long after you eat! In general we want to keep fiber high and sugar low. We can do this by choosing whole foods. The recommended daily fiber intake is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. At the age of 50 your daily fiber needs drop to 21 grams for women and 30 grams for men. Sugar can be tricky though, and isn’t simply black and white. Different sources of sugar have different effects on our bodies due to their varying rates in breakdown and absorption. For example, the sugar in a soda is broken down much quicker than an apple with its skin on, therefore, both cannot be considered equal.
What is the glycemic index?
The glycemic index is a scoring system that ranks carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 to help manage blood sugar levels. This Glycemic Index (GI) score indicates how quickly carbohydrates are digested and absorbed into the bloodstream. The higher the GI number, the sharper, more immediate rise in blood sugar. Pure glucose, which is a simple sugar, equals 100 on the GI scale. In general, high GI foods tend be be starchier, more sugary, and refined (simple carbohydrates), whereas low GI foods are more fibrous (complex carbohydrates). We want to choose low GI foods, with their slower digestion and absorption because they produce a gradual rise in blood sugar and insulin levels. Studies have shown that consuming complex carbohydrates with low GI scores, improve management of sugar levels in people with diabetes and help control weight.
Additionally, the GI of a food is different when eaten alone than it is when combined with other foods. When eating a higher GI food, you can combine it with other low GI foods (like fat and protein) to balance out the effect on blood glucose levels. For example, eating a sweet potato isn’t bad on it’s own, but to make it even better nutritionally, and to keep us full, we pair it with other things like chicken and green beans for a balanced meal.
How many carbs should I eat?
This is a great question, and to be honest it is going to vary for everyone based on multiple factors such as: gender, age, height, weight, and activity level. We recommend meeting with a Registered Dietitian to work together in determining the amount that is best for your body and lifestyle. Our recommendations, through experience and in accordance with the Dietary Guidelines of Americans, include the following percentages:
Additionally, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for carbohydrates is a minimum of 130 grams per day for adults. It is important to consume enough carbs to fuel the brain, red blood cells, and central nervous system.
What’s the difference between starch, fiber, and sugar?
Here’s the technical difference between them:
Starches: odorless, tasteless complex carbohydrates, occurring in plant tissue and chiefly from cereals and potatoes. Think of what a raw potato, corn or unripe banana tastes like.
Fibers: indigestible complex carbohydrates including cellulose, lignin, and pectin. Fiber helps fill you up and slow down the breakdown of food. Think of foods that swell when added to water such as whole grains like oatmeal and brown rice, fruits with their seeds/skins, vegetables and legumes.
Sugars: simple carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables such as fructose and glucose that are easily broken down and quickly absorbed by the body. Added sugars, from cane sugar and sugar beets, are often used as sweeteners in many processed foods and drinks and these are the ones you truly want to limit.
How do I know if a meal/product has simple or complex carbs in it?
This can be tricky due to the marketing on the outside of packaging, though very possible to distinguish with the use of the ingredients list. Remember, items on an ingredient list are listed in order of abundance. This means there are greater amounts of the ingredients at the top of the list and lesser amounts at the end of the list.
What if the packaging says “gluten free”…doesn’t that mean carb-free?
Contrary to popular belief, gluten is not a source of carbohydrates. Gluten is actually a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye.
I heard that in order to lose weight I need to cut out most/all carbs. Is that true?
No. In order for you to meet any sort of nutritional/health related goal, we recommend meeting with a Registered Dietitian to determine your personal needs. In our experience, we can surely say that cutting out the majority of anything is unsustainable and while you may experience some results in the short term with macronutrient “cutting”, you will not be able to keep up with that lifestyle long term. We believe in a balanced, sustainable diet consisting of whole foods, lean proteins, healthy fats, and low glycemic index carbohydrates.
About The Author
Allison is the Licensed and Registered Dietitian at fit-flavors. She strongly believes we should have positive experiences at mealtimes and truly enjoy the food we eat. Allison is passionate about teaching others on mindfulness and portion control to achieve your goals. She encourages all her clients to view eating healthy as a lifestyle, not a diet. Learn more about Allison and one-on-one nutrition counseling at fit-flavors.com.