Fact: Not all carbs are created equal. Myth: Carbs are the enemy. Carbohydrates are an essential component of a healthy diet and banning carbs from your plate can pose serious health problems. Below, we explain everything you need to know about carbs.
But First, What Are Carbohydrates?
We know, we know, carbs are confusing. Before you start cutting out carbs, it’s important to understand the basics.
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients in the diet along with proteins and fats. The macro provides necessary energy that’s used by the body to perform countless tasks, including some biggies like moving and thinking. There are two major forms of dietary carbohydrates: complex carbs and simple carbs. Let’s break them down.
Complex carbohydrates consist of three or more sugar molecules bonded together in a complex chemical structure. The number of sugar units in a carbohydrate sounds like the stuff of organic chemistry, but the length of the molecule is actually key when it comes to health. That is, complex carbohydrates take the body longer to digest. As a result, the breakdown product of these carbohydrate chains — which is called glucose — enters the bloodstream at a slower rate. Translation: Complex carbs are less likely to cause blood sugar spikes that, over time, can lead to conditions like insulin resistance.
Examples of foods containing complex carbs include:
- Unrefined whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, oats, farro, couscous, soba, 100% whole wheat bread
- White bread, pasta, rice*
- Leafy greens
- Starchy vegetables like corn and potatoes
- Legumes like beans, chickpeas, and lentils
*Some complex carbohydrates are refined, meaning they’ve had their fiber component removed during processing and are instead made solely from the starchy portion of the grain. That’s not ideal, since fiber helps slow down those blood sugar spikes we just mentioned by reducing the rate at which carbs are digested. Bottom line: Try to choose fiber-rich whole grains over refined grains as much as possible.
Simple carbohydrates consist of shorter chains of sugars. Sucrose AKA table sugar, for example, consists of just two sugar molecules, while glucose consists of a single sugar molecule. You can think of complex carbs like a house and simple carbs as the individual rooms within the house.
Since simple carbs are made up of just one or two sugar molecules, the body digests them much quicker than complex carbs. This can cause a rapid spike in blood sugar and insulin release, followed by an inevitable crash. Because what comes up must come down, right?
Over time, too-high consumption of simple carbohydrates can also increase our risk of cavities as well as some of the very health issues that a high-fiber diet helps prevent, like type 2 diabetes.
Examples of foods containing simple carbs include:
- Table sugar
*Some simple sugars (think: fructose and lactose) occur in whole foods like fruit and yogurt, respectively. You may be wondering, ‘What’s the difference between the simple sugars in fruit versus soda then?’ Great question. The simple sugars found in fruit not only occur naturally but also exist alongside other key nutrients, like antioxidants, our BFF fiber, and H2O. Regularly eating fruit has also been linked to a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes. Drinking soda daily? Not so much.
Does It Matter How I Cook My Complex Carbs?
Actually, yes! Cooking then cooling potatoes can increase their resistant starch content (which is great for our gut health), while boiling potatoes may cause some of the spud’s water-soluble nutrients, like vitamin C, to be lost to the water. Not surprisingly, deep frying potatoes ups their calorie count significantly.
How Carbs Can Help (Not Hurt) Your Health
Ultra low-carb diets may sound sexy, but the long term effects of these meal plans are anything but healthy. Compared with low-fiber diets, high-fiber diets are associated with a 15 to 30% lower risk of colorectal cancer, heart-related deaths, stroke, coronary artery disease, and type 2 diabetes.
Not sure what constitutes a high-fiber diet? Women and men should aim to consume at least 25 and 38 grams of dietary fiber daily, respectively.
While it’s true that conditions like IBS or type 2 diabetes may require you to be more mindful of the types and amounts of carbohydrates you consume, there’s no need to nix the macro entirely if you’ve been diagnosed with either condition. People with type 2 diabetes may benefit from carbohydrate counting, a practice that helps individuals determine the right amount and serving size of carbs for their body rather than completely banning them from the diet. After all, starches like potatoes are an important source of fiber as well as micronutrients like vitamin C, vitamin B6, and potassium!
By now you know that most complex carbs are an important part of a healthy diet. As for simple carbs, eating them in moderation is a-ok for most individuals. Remember that the quality and quantity of carbs matters most, along with how you consume them. Pairing carbs like pasta with fiber-rich veggies, lean proteins and healthy fats will not only promote better blood sugar stability but also improve satiety.