The reputation of carbohydrates has taken quite a beating in recent years. What was once considered an essential component of a healthy diet is now thought of as a significant cause of obesity according to some fad diets.
While the dietary guidelines suggest that we must get half our calories from carbs, other experts believe that carbs can lead to type 2 diabetes and obesity.
So, are carbs good or are they bad for our health? Well, the answer to this question is that they are both. We all need carbohydrates in our diet.
Some carbs like vegetables, whole grains, and fruits that contain fiber are good for our health and should be included in our meals.
Some other carbs like refined grains and processed foods can lead to spikes in blood sugar, and obesity and should not be a part of our diet.
Read on to learn more about carbohydrates, how they affect our health and ways to choose the right kind of carbs.
What is a carbohydrate?
Carbohydrate is an essential macronutrient that our body needs. It is an essential organic compound made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.
Carbs are the primary source of energy for our body. Most sources recommend that we should get 45 to 60 percent of our calories from carbs.
Carbohydrates are divided into sugars, starches, and fiber. Sugars are short-chain carbohydrates found in foods like milk, fruit, and honey. Glucose, fructose, galactose, and sucrose are examples of sugar carbohydrates.
Starches are long strings of glucose molecules and are broken down into glucose in the digestive system. Starches are found in root vegetables, cereal grains, corn, and rice.
Fibers cannot be digested and do not contribute to the calorie count. They help in maintaining a clean and healthy intestinal system. Fruits and vegetables are rich sources of fibers.
Refined vs. whole carbs
Not all carbs are created equal. The refined and starchy carbs are digested much faster than less processed high-fiber complex carbs.
The rate at which our body converts the carbs in foods into glucose is called the glycemic index (GI). Two meals with the same amount of carbs can have a different glycemic index.
The smaller the glycemic index of food, the lesser is the impact of that food on your blood sugar. Food with 55 or less glycemic index is considered good, while food 70 or more GI is deemed to be bad.
For example, sugar has a GI of 100, and the GI of white bread is 97. On the other hand, nuts have a GI of 15.
Unrefined or whole carbs are rich in fiber and have a lower GI. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, potatoes and whole grains are examples of whole carbs.
They also can cause a spike in blood sugar, which is usually followed by a crash.
The foods containing refined carbs also usually do not have any additional nutrient, which means they provide empty calories.
Whole carbs, on the other hand, are loaded with nutrients and dietary fiber. They do not cause sugar high and crashes. Consuming whole carbs has been linked to numerous health benefits like lower risk of disease and improved metabolism (3, 4).
Have more good carbs
As mentioned earlier, carbs that are rich in nutrients and dietary fiber are considered to be good carbs. These include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans that are rich in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber.
Fibers help prevent spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels which helps reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. The fiber founds in oats, beans, and some fruits can also assist in lowering blood cholesterol levels.
Fibers are also helpful in weight loss as they make you feel full and hence increase satiety.
It is easy to switch to foods that are high in fiber. Add more fruits and veggies to your meals. Switch from unhealthy white pasta to whole grain pasta. Add whole grain bread and bagels to your diet. Beans can also add to the fiber content in your food.
Cut down on bad carbs
These carbs have given all carbohydrates a bad name. Bad carbs are simple processed carbohydrates that contain added sugars and refined grains.
These include white bread, soda, pastries, energy drinks and white pasta. These carbs do nothing for the body. Eating low fiber, and low nutrient carbs lead to energy slump and weight gain.
Americans are eating more sugar now than ever before. Added sugars are everywhere including beverages, bakery items, and sauces. Even low-fat products are loaded with extra sugars.
According to USDA, we should not get more than 10 percent of our calories from added sugars. This amounts to around nine teaspoons of added sugar.
How many carbs should you eat?
Your carb requirements can vary according to your age, sex, activity level, and overall health. Most experts recommend that you should get around 45 to 60 percent of your total daily calories from carbs.
This amounts to approximately 225 to 325 calories if you consume a diet of 2000 calorie a day. If you are a sportsperson or follow a more active lifestyle, you should add more healthy carbs to your diet.
The truth about low carb diets
A low-cal diet is a diet that restricts carbohydrates like bread, sugary foods, and pasta in your diet. This kind of diet includes proteins and healthy fats.
There are many different kinds of low-carb diets, and many studies show that they work.
These diets allow you to eat vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, dairy, fats, healthy oils, meat, fish, eggs, and even non-gluten grains. Sugar, refined grains, processed foods, starchy vegetables, and trans fats are a complete no-no in this diet.
During a 2007 study, 311 participants were asked to follow different low-carb diets for 12 months. Most of the participants lost weight, which lead the researchers to conclude that a low-carb, high-protein and high-fat diet is a feasible alternative to traditional weight loss diets (5).
When researchers compared the effects of energy-restricted very low-carbohydrate ketogenic (VLCK) and low fat (LF) diets, they discovered that VLCK diets are much more effective in weight loss than LF diets, especially for men (6).
Low-carb diets are also beneficial for people with metabolic syndrome.
Carbs and obesity
While restricting carbs can reverse obesity, they are not the reason why people become obese in the first place. People have been eating carbohydrates for thousands of years without any problems.
Our ancestors were fitter than we are today. The reason – they ate unprocessed carbs, while we have more and more refined carbs in our diets today. Refined carbs and processed foods are what lead to obesity.
Are carbs an essential nutrient?
Carbs are not necessarily building blocks for other molecules, which means unlike fatty acids and amino acids, carbohydrates are not an essential nutrient.
The body can obtain all its energy from protein and fat. In other words, you can eliminate carbs from your diet if you consume enough protein, fats including essential fatty acids, minerals, vitamins, and water.
So, while carbs aren’t essential, this doesn’t mean they are not beneficial. The best sources of carbohydrates are the ones that are slowly absorbed, like fruits, beans, green leaves, roots, brown rice and whole grains.
Tips to add healthy carbs to your diet
- Start your day with a healthy whole grain cereal like oats.
- Opt for whole grain bread for your lunch or snack.
- Bowls of brown rice or quinoa make a healthy option for a meal.
- Choose whole fruit instead of juice. You will double your fiber intake and halve your sugar intake.
- Beans and chickpeas provide a healthy dose of slowly digestible carbs.
- Nuts like almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, and peanuts make excellent snacks.
- Avoid foods that contain simple sugars. Sodas and candies lack nutrients and contain empty calories.
- Watch your portions as carbohydrates can pack in a lot of energy.
- Apples are one of the best sources of carbohydrates you can eat as they contain pectin, potassium and vitamin C.
- Avoid low-fat or fat-free products as they are usually loaded with sugars.
Final thoughts on good carbs and bad carbs
Don’t write off carbs; they play an important role in a healthy diet. You have to be sensible about the type of carbs that you choose.
Highly processed low-fiber foods are considered bad carbs as they raise blood sugar levels and can lead to obesity. Healthy whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables are high in dietary fiber and other nutrients, which makes them good carbs.
Low-carb diets are beneficial for some people with health problems like metabolic syndrome and type-2 diabetes. However, if you are fit and physically active, having carbs is helpful for you.
Make sure you choose healthy carbs and stay away from refined foods or foods that contain added sugar.