There is no question that carbs are the most controversial macronutrient. Carbs have been blamed for everything from waistlines to disease, however, it is important to understand that not all carbs are created equal. In fact, many carbohydrates are rich sources of energy and nutrients making them a valuable part of a healthy diet. So, let’s review carbohydrates, and the different types, and answer the question; what are good carbs?
What are Carbs?
Carbohydrates, also known as carbs, are one of three primary macronutrients, along with protein and fat, that are found in our food. The term “carbohydrates” is actually an umbrella term for foods that contain single, double, or multiple units of sugar known as saccharides. The three primary dietary components of carbohydrates are:
Sugars: Sweet-tasting, short-chain sugar molecules which include glucose, fructose, galactose, and sucrose, also known as monosaccharides (meaning one), disaccharides (meaning two), or oligosaccharides (meaning few).
Starches: Long-chain sugar molecules which are converted into glucose by digestion, also known as polysaccharides (meaning many).
Fiber: Non-digestible form of polysaccharides found in plant foods.
With the exception of fiber, the primary function of carbohydrates in the diet is to provide energy. Once consumed, all carbohydrates are broken down into sugar (glucose) by the digestive tract to be used as a source of energy by the body. Essentially, any food that contains sugar, starch, and/or fiber contains carbohydrates.
Complex Carbs vs. Simple Carbs
Depending on the total number of saccharides (sugars) present in the structure, carbohydrates are classified as mono- (1), di- (2), oligo- (3-20), or poly- (20+) saccharides. Monosaccharides and disaccharides (sugars) are considered simple carbohydrates, while oligosaccharides and polysaccharides (starches and fiber) are considered complex carbohydrates.
Simple carbohydrates can be identified by their sweet taste and can be found in both whole food and processed food forms. Simple carbohydrates can be found in natural sweeteners such as maple syrup or honey, fruits, and some vegetables, however, the most prominent form of simple carbohydrates is processed food. This includes items such as fruit juice, soda, candy, and any form of processed sugar. Given simple carbohydrates are (typically) low in fiber and starch, they are quickly digested, reach the bloodstream more rapidly, and, therefore, have a large effect on insulin and blood sugar.
On the contrary, complex carbohydrates are rich sources of starch and fiber and are predominantly found in vegetables, whole grains, beans, and lentils. Thanks to their fiber content, these forms of carbohydrates take longer to be digested, are slower to reach the bloodstream, and, therefore, have less of an effect on insulin and blood sugar. However, the format in which complex carbohydrates are consumed can greatly influence whether they remain a source of complex carbohydrates or not. For example, whole grains are a form of complex carbohydrates, but when milled into refined flour and baked with sugar they become a form of simple carbohydrate given the fiber and nutrient-dense bran and germ are removed in the process. These forms of carbohydrates are often referred to as refined carbohydrates and include items such as cereals, muffins, cookies, crackers, and pastries, just to name a few.
Although almost all forms of carbohydrates will contain a combination of sugars, starches and/or fiber, carbohydrate-based foods are typically categorized by what they contain the most of. Because natural sweeteners and fruit contain more sugar than starch or fiber, they are categorized as sugars; because whole grains and legumes contain more starch than sugar or fiber they are categorized as starches; and because vegetables contain more fiber than sugar or starch, they are categorized as sources of fiber.
What Are Good Carbs?
The term good carbs typically refers to sources of complex carbohydrates because they are lower in sugar and higher in starch and fiber. Thanks to their long chains of sugars, they take longer for the body to break down and digest, which means that their energy will be released at a more consistent rate throughout the day. Not only are these forms of carbohydrates rich in fiber and starch, but they are also rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Forms of good carbs include:
- Vegetables: Leafy greens, peas, carrots, broccoli, beets, etc…
- Starches: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, etc…
- Whole Grains: Oats, rice, barley, millet, teff, etc…
- Beans: Black beans, kidney beans, white beans, chickpeas, etc…
- Lentils: Red, green, yellow, etc…
In fact, when opting for high-quality versions that are high in fiber and low in sugar, sourdough bread, sprouted grains bread, whole-grain bread and some forms of pasta can also be considered forms of complex carbohydrates.
What Are Bad Carbs?
On the contrary, the term bad carbs is typically applied to forms of simple carbohydrates. Because these forms of carbohydrates are higher in sugar and lower in fiber and starch, they are considered less than ideal sources of carbohydrates. However, it is important to make the distinction between whole food sources of simple carbohydrates (fruit, milk, honey, etc..) and refined food sources of simple carbohydrates (soda, candy, and sugar). As the name implies, refined carbohydrates are carbohydrate-based foods that are no longer present in their natural form. Although they may have been harvested in the fields, the way they have been processed is very far removed from their original format. The term refined carbs specifically refer to grain-based products and/or sources of processed sugar. Not only are refined carbohydrates devoid of their own nutrients, but they are considered forms of “empty” calories. Conversely, whole food forms of simple carbohydrate, such as fruit, are still in their natural form and, in addition to natural sugar, also contains fiber and essential nutrient. Therefore, to make the generalization that all simple carbohydrates are “bad carbs” is not accurate, since it is the format in which they are consumed that is most important.
So, What are the Healthiest Carbs to Eat?
When it comes to carbs, it is important to understand that any form of whole-food carbohydrate can be considered healthy. Although complex carbohydrates are often considered “good” carbs, whole food forms simple carbohydrates such as fruit, milk, maple syrup, and honey can most certainly be considered healthy and can be included in a healthy diet. Almost all carbohydrate-based whole foods contain a combination of sugar, starch, and fiber, so trying to pit them against each other is largely a waste of time. Instead of picking apart carbohydrates in their whole food form, it is best to focus on limiting refined sources of simple carbohydrates as much as possible.
The Bottom Line
Although the terms “good carbs” and “bad carbs” are commonly used, they are a very confusing way to define carbohydrates. Whether or not a carbohydrate is a healthy choice or not, should not be defined by whether they are good or bad, or simple or complex. Just because processed carbohydrates are not ideal sources of nutrients, it makes no sense to demonize all carbohydrate-containing foods. So, rather than solely focusing on good carbs and bad carbs, focus on whole food carbohydrates instead; fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and lentils. All of these forms of carbohydrates, simple and complex, are rich sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and can help to work as a sustainable source of energy for the body throughout the day.