To Carb or Not to Carb? How Carbs Got a Bad Rep

Learn about good vs bad carbs.

Carbohydrates have a terrible reputation in the diet world. High carb foods such as potatoes and pastas are often blamed for extra inches around your waist. However, the USDA recommends that we consume about 50% of our calories from carbohydrates, with a much smaller portion dedicated to proteins and fats. So why would a macronutrient that causes unhealthy weight gain be so important to our diets? Are carbs bad for you?

The truth is that a few bad carbs have given all carbs a bad rep. No carb should be completely eliminated from our diets, but choosing healthier alternatives can help you get and stay in shape.

Slow- vs. Fast-Digesting Carbs
All carbs, whether they come from a decadent chocolate cake or a baked potato, are broken down and turned into glucose (blood sugar). When glucose enters your blood stream, your body reacts by releasing insulin and storing any extra energy in fat molecules. Oatmeal, pasta, and cookies will all end up as glucose. However, they won’t all cause spikes in insulin levels. How quickly a food is broken down makes a huge difference.

Sudden spikes in insulin have been linked to weight gain. When your body suddenly finds itself with too much energy, it will try to store as much of it as possible, leading to extra inches around your waist. Table sugar and bleached processed flour are easy for your body to break down. This means that within a few minutes after eating a cookie, glucose enters your blood stream in large amounts and an insulin spike occurs. This is why desserts and bread are often linked to weight gain.

Not all carbs break down so easily. Oatmeal and lentils, for example, have a high fiber content. Fiber is incredibly difficult for your digestive system to break down, which means it slows down the digestive process. Instead of getting a sudden glucose spike, you get a slow, but steady, stream.

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Which Carbs to Eat?
As a general rule, the more processed the carb, the easier it is for your body to break down. White sugar and white flour are some of the simplest carbohydrates. Your digestive system will break these down with little effort. Whole wheat flour is a better option, but it still has to be processed and ground to its powder consistency. This means that while whole wheat products might digest slower than white flour, they are still a relatively simple carb.

Whole rolled oats are popular among nutritionists because their high fiber content makes them harder to break down. Oats will keep your glucose from spiking and can help you feel fuller for longer.

The most complex carbs are found in vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower. These low-calorie veggies help prevent weight gain and curb hunger.

Glycemic Index & Glycemic Load
There are two things you should keep in mind when it comes to carb consumption. First is how many carbs there are in a serving. A serving of cake usually has more carbs than a medium apple. The second thing you should keep in mind is how quickly the carbs in a food are broken down into glucose. This is measured in the Glycemic Index (GI).

A food with a high GI is broken down quickly. These are foods with simple carbs, such as sugar. They include white bread, desserts, sodas, and fruit. Foods with low GIs are broken down slowly. These include beans and nuts.

In order to better determine which foods cause glucose spikes, researchers came up with the Glycemic Load (GL). The glycemic load measures both how quickly carbs break down (GI), and how many carbs are in a serving. High GLs indicate foods that will likely cause a glucose spike, while a low GL means the food will likely help you maintain stable glucose levels. While cake and apples have similar GI, the GL of cake is almost twice that of an apple. The sugar is broken down quickly in both cases, but if you eat a cake, you will get twice as much sugar delivered to your blood stream.

You can find the glycemic load for most common foods online.

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The Fruit Debacle
Many diet plans suggest that you limit fruit. This is because many popular fruits are high in fructose. This is what makes fruit so naturally sweet. One medium banana has about 15 grams of sugar (about 50% of your recommended daily intake), and a single cup of grapes has about this same amount. However, other nutritionists and fitness enthusiasts say that limiting fruit is a bad practice. They make the distinction between natural and added sugars.

While fruit can be high in sugar, it’s not the same as cake, cookies, and other desserts. Desserts are made up mostly of simple carbs, while fruit provides a healthy dose of vitamins and nutrients for only a fraction of the sugar. Fruit is the healthiest way to curb sweetness cravings.

No single diet plan fits the need of every individual. While some people might benefit from cutting back on fruits, others might need it to live their best, healthiest lifestyle. If you think reducing your sugar intake is the right path for you, try limiting fruit to a few servings a day. Make sure to incorporate plenty of healthy veggies to make up the vitamins and minerals. However, if you’re at your healthiest when allowing unlimited fruit, then you can consume it knowing that’s its providing tons of important nutrients to your body.

Although carbs have a bad reputation in the world, they are not inherently bad. As a matter of fact, you need to include carbs in your diet in order to proper nourishment. A healthy and balanced diet is the key. Even low-carb diets include carbs from grains, fruit, and vegetables.

Eating healthy is about progress, not perfection. Every time you make a healthy choice, you are working towards a better version of yourself, healthier and stronger. Whenever possible, include complex carbs in your diet. Look for foods high in fiber or with a low glycemic load. Try reducing sugary treats. Limit the foods you eat with high glycemic loads and save decadent desserts for special occasions.

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Sofia Lopez

Sofia received her BA from Cornell University and her MFA from San Francisco State University. She creates workouts and fitness challenges. Her hobbies include running, hiking, and listening to audiobooks from the exercise bike.

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