What are carbohydrates? What is going on with low-carb and no-carb diets? Which foods contain carbohydrates? And how can you spot the good carbs from the bad?
If you haven’t given them much thought before now, carbohydrates can be a monolith of information, from how they’re metabolized at a cellular level, to all the dire warnings that carbs are bad for you. Let’s take a look at carbs step by step and demystify the topic.
The building blocks of carbohydrates are carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. When compounded, they are sugars, starches, and fiber.
There are two main types of carbohydrates, simple and complex. They are classified that way based on their chemical makeup (simple short chains vs. complex longer ones) and based on how your body processes them.
These are sugars like fructose, glucose, and sucrose. You’ll find them in refined sugars, like the shimmering white table sugar in your kitchen cabinet, or the sugars added to candy, sodas, and baked goods. You can also find natural simple carbohydrates in milk and fruit as well.
When choosing foods, it’s better to get simple carbs from an apple a day rather than a spoonful of sugar, because an apple will also provide fiber and other nutrients, while refined white sugar will not. Artificially added and refined sugars should be enjoyed mostly in moderation.
These come in the form of starches and dietary fiber, the likes of which are found in starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, etc.), rice, legumes, grains, and cereals.
The same as with simple sugars, complex carbs come from both healthy and not-so-healthy sources. Refined grains like white rice and white flour have been processed so much that a lot of their fiber and nutrients have been removed. When unrefined, grains retain the fiber valuable for a healthy and comfortable digestive system and also cause you to feel fuller for longer after a meal. That is because the longer chains of these molecules take more time for the body to break down and convert into energy, which also provides a slower and more consistent source of energy, as opposed to the “sugar high” blood sugar spikes associated with simple carbohydrates.
The body takes most sugars and starches and turns them into glucose, a simple sugar that is an important energy source in the body. The functions of carbohydrates are important enough that it’s necessary for you to eat some carbs, but which types? Which foods are high in carbohydrates that will help? Both simple and complex carbs can be part of a healthy diet, but there are good and bad choices that can be made in both categories.
When it comes to good vs. bad carbs, think natural vs. refined. Outside of food processing, the word “refined” often has positive connotations: refined taste, refined manners, a refined way of speaking. It means taking on a large, messy subject, carefully selecting the most important elements, and discarding the rest so you’re left with only the elegant essentials.
When refining foods, however, that isn’t always the case. What gets refined out of foods are often the nutrients they originally had, which means eating refined foods adds calories to your diet without many or any benefits. This refining process is done in an effort to make these foods taste better, to change the texture from coarse to fine, and to extend the shelf life of the products. It’s good from a business standpoint, but not necessarily good for you.
Here are some examples of carbohydrate foods, the good and the bad.
Good whole grain sources include:
Other foods with good carbs:
Foods that contain refined grains include:
More carbs you should limit are:
Many foods will contain more than one type of carbohydrate, so it’s not always as simple a matter of choosing from one list and not the other. However, a good rule to keep in mind is the higher the sugar content and lower the fiber, minerals, and vitamins, the worse the food is for you carbohydrate-wise. You should veer towards whole foods rather than processed foods, but when you do choose processed foods, be sure to check the nutrition label for artificial and added sugars.
On food labels, added sugars may appear as:
A big issue with refined carbs is that they have a high glycemic index. The glycemic index (GI) is a ranking system of measurement based on how quickly a carbohydrate causes blood sugar to spike. To show the contrast, brown rice has a low GI score of 50, while white rice has a high GI score of 87. A low GI food is defined as 55 or less, but to reduce the risk of chronic disease, it is necessary to aim lower for our overall diet (around a GI score of 45).
Frequent high spikes in blood sugar levels can be very dangerous to your health; specifically they can help contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes. While being genetically predisposed to diabetes is another significant risk factor, eating a healthy diet and getting enough physical activity can prevent diabetes from developing even in someone with a family history of the disease. Conversely, an unhealthy diet and sedentary lifestyle for a person with no genetic predisposition to diabetes at all can still cause the disease. Staying physically fit and eating a diet high in fiber (which you can get from grains, vegetables, and fruits) makes even someone with a genetic mutation for type 2 diabetes less likely to develop it. Your food and and lifestyle choices greatly influence how well your body regulates insulin, which is a tremendous power to wield responsibly.
Low-carb diets can often be known as high-protein or high-fat diets. You may have heard of the Atkins diet, the South Beach diet, or the keto diet, all of which seek to reduce the intake of carbohydrates and increase protein and fat consumption. Here are some examples of low-carb diets and the principles behind them.
The ketogenic diet by no means eliminates carbs from the diet, but it does aim to select the fruits and vegetables that have the best levels of protein, vitamins, and fiber when compared to their carb and calorie content. The goal in strictly limiting carbohydrate intake (sometimes to as low as 30 or 20 grams per day) is to put the body into a state of ketosis. Ideally you would get the energy you need each day by burning fat already stored on the body, instead of using the quick energy of simple sugars or the slower-burning energy of complex carbs. Restrict access to these easier sources of energy, and your body will put forth the effort to break down body fat instead. The upside is you can lose a lot of fat in a relatively short amount of time. The downside is possibly feeling that you’re limiting yourself to a diet of mostly protein, fats, and nonstarchy vegetables.
The diet that began the trend of low-carb diets is the Atkins diet, started by Dr. Robert C. Atkins in the 1970s. The Atkins diet is split into four phases, removing and then slowly reintroducing carbs to your food intake. The first phase is a ketogenic-like period of 2 weeks where carbohydrates are limited to under 20 grams per day, while high-fat and high-protein foods are encouraged. The next phase allows low-carb fruits and veggies back in, the next phase a few more carbs, with the final phase being long-term maintenance that allows you to eat all the healthy carbs you want so long as it doesn’t come with regaining the weight previously lost. At best, the Atkins diet teaches you moderation, and at worst it tends to feature prepackaged foods and snacks, which brings the danger of refined foods, despite labels which say they are low-carb items.
The Paleolithic or Paleo diet is based on the premise that modern humans should eat foods similar to what we would have had access to during the Paleolithic era, rather than the foods we’ve become accustomed to due to the rise of farming and agricultural practices. Also known as the Stone Age diet or the caveman diet, it typically allows for foods like fish, lean meats, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds—foods that would have been attainable in a hunter-gatherer society. The paleo diet limits foods that only became common through farming practices, meaning no dairy products, grains, or legumes. The focus is on eating fat and protein with fewer carbs, but there is room for consuming starchy vegetables. To stay low carb while eating a paleo diet, one would have to focus on vegetables like cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and zucchinis, all of which are naturally low in carbohydrates.
The South Beach diet is a weight-loss diet popularized (like the Atkins diet) by a best-selling book, written by cardiologist Arthur Agatston and published in 2003. Like the paleo diet, the South Beach diet isn’t strictly a low-carb diet, as it allows for good carbs after the first phase. However, it, too, encourages the use of branded snacks and prepackaged frozen meals to adhere to the plan. This is possibly beneficial for those who don’t want to do their own research and calculations on whole foods and nutrition labels, or for people too busy or reluctant to cook. Unfortunately, with packaged foods there is always the drawback that you’re not getting the full nutritional content you’d gain from eating whole foods, and in addition to that, the choices and variety of meals is limited by the South Beach Diet brand’s stock.
Low-carb diets like keto and Atkins are very different from an entirely no-carb or zero-carb diet, which in many ways is not at all advised. This involves eating only meat and fat, which puts people at risk of eating too much saturated fat and not enough of the fiber, minerals, antioxidants, and essential vitamins provided by fruits and vegetables. A zero-carb diet should not even be attempted before consulting with a trusted medical professional, and that person will most likely advise very strongly against such a severely unbalanced diet.
While all carbs are not made equally, and some are far better for your health than others, carbohydrates don’t deserve the bad reputation they have of being fat-causing, heavy starches. A diet without any carbohydrates is dangerous, while the list of good carbs is long and varied. Instead of removing carbs, consider upgrading them: go from corn chips to whole corn, from white rice to brown rice, from white bread to whole wheat. That way you reap the health benefits your body needs without feeling the loss of your favorite foods. There’s good health to be had in carbs, so don’t miss out!