Aak, carbohydrates are vilified as public enemy number one. Again and again and again. Carb-bashers claim carbohydrate foods are the root of obesity, inflammation, diabetes, heart disease, you-name-it. No berries and yogurt for these folks. No sandwiches, tacos, lentil soup or brown rice either. They dine on bun-less bacon-cheeseburgers. They toss the crusts of pizza into the trash, but happily gobble up the pie’s cheese and meat.
I spend a lot of effort talking people into eating healthy foods – yes, healthy carbohydrate foods – and helping them to stop fearing their food. I’ve put out several posts about carbs lately because this is such an area of confusion. Today’s blog is frequently asked questions about carbohydrates. Here’s to putting fear aside and learning to love your food.
Q: What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients – major nutrients our bodies need. Protein and fat are the other two. Protein, fat, carbohydrates and alcohol are the only nutrients that provide calories. Sugars, starches and fibers are carbohydrates. Generally speaking, each gram of digestible carbohydrate gives us 4 calories. However, the quality of foods containing carbohydrates varies dramatically. Some foods with carbs are broccoli, brownies, carrots, candy, white rice, brown rice, kidney beans, jelly beans, milk, milkshakes, oranges and orange soda.
Q: Are simple carbs the bad ones?
Nope. I frequently hear people identify foods with simple carbs and complex carbs incorrectly. Even though you’re likely to hear that white rice and white bread are simple carbs, most of the carbohydrates in bread are complex in nature. Similarly, if someone tells you that fruit is mostly complex carbs, you can tell them that they’re wrong.
The basic structure of carbohydrates is a sugar molecule, and carbs are classified by how many sugar molecules they contain. So simple carbs are smaller compounds with just one or two sugar molecules (sucrose, fructose, lactose, glucose, galactose). And complex carbs – whether in refined or unprocessed foods – are longer chains of sugar molecules.
- Simple carbs. Simple carbohydrates are sugars. They’re naturally present in fruit, milk, vegetables, vinegar and other unprocessed foods. Sugars can also be refined and processed into table sugar and syrups, which are then added to sodas, desserts, sweetened yogurts, breakfast cereals, granola bars and more.
- Complex carbs. Complex carbohydrates are any that contain more than two sugar molecules. Some chains may be hundreds and even thousands of glucose molecules long. Starch and fiber are complex carbs. They are both strands of glucose molecules linked together, but the main difference is the way in which glucose units are hooked up. The glucose in starch is linked in ways that our bodies can digest it. The glucose is fiber is linked in such a way that we cannot digest it.
Both white pasta and whole-wheat spaghetti largely provide complex carbs (starch). There are other differences between the two types of pasta, but one is not simple and the other complex.
The terms simple and complex carbohydrates tell us nothing about nutrition or health. They are just terms to describe the chemical structure of carbohydrate molecules and say nothing about the quality of carbohydrate foods.
Q: Don’t the simple carbs get turned into glucose faster?
Not necessarily. How quickly carbohydrate in food becomes sugar in your blood depends on a number of factors, including the ripeness of fruit; the presence of other foods; the presence of fiber, protein or fat; whether the starch chain is largely straight or if it has branches (this has to do with the ease our digestive enzymes have at reaching their target); how the food is prepared; and how much you’re eating.
The amount of carbohydrate you eat has a bigger effect on your blood sugar level than whether you’re eating simple carbs (like in fruit and milk) or complex carbs (like it whole wheat bread or white bread).
Q: Which are the good carbs?
First carbs are not a type of food. Carbohydrates are in food. Just like vitamins, minerals and protein are part of food, carbohydrates are part of food.
I’m not a big fan of the terms good carbs and bad carbs, but I do know what people mean when they use these terms. I think they mean healthful, wholesome foods that are heavy in carbs versus not-so-wholesome foods that are heavy in carbs.
Keep these carb-containing foods on your table
- non-starchy vegetables
- starchy vegetables
- whole grains
- yogurt without a lot of added sugars (like honey and sucrose)
- nuts and seeds
- pulses (lentils, beans and peas)
- Soy (soybeans, tofu and edamame beans)
Limit or avoid these carb-containing foods
- table sugar, honey, molasses, brown sugar
- sugary drinks (soda, punch, sweet tea, coffee drinks)
- cookies, cakes and other baked goods
- ice cream
- snack crackers
- cereals and granola bars with lots of added sugars
- other highly processed grains such as pretzels and instant noodles
Q: Shouldn’t people with diabetes or prediabetes stop eating carbs because they raise blood sugar?
While it’s true that carbohydrates raise blood sugar, it’s not true that carbohydrates are bad or that they should be avoided. Remember that food is more than just carbohydrate, protein and fat. Along with fiber, vitamins and minerals, our plant foods give us a host of phytochemicals or phytonutrients. As a reminder, these are compounds in plants that help us fight disease, including type 2 diabetes and related complications such as heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers. So it’s a myopic view to look at blood sugar only. As a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), I have to look at the whole picture, not just the blood sugar number. And the good news is that it is possible to manage blood sugar levels without swearing off health-boosting carb-containing foods.
People with diabetes do have limits on their carbohydrate intake, but certainly wholesome foods with carbs should be included.
The healthfulness of a food depends on its nutrient density, not solely on the presence or absence of one or more macronutrients.
Q: Is it true that carbohdyrate foods make us fat?
No. The reasons for weight gain or obesity are many. In fact, the Obesity Society identifies a long list of contributors, including medications, gut bacteria, the environment, and even pain sensitivity and being born by C-section. Check out their infographic of potential contributors to obesity.
And here’s a great scientific rebuttal to the theory that carbs and insulin are the driving forces behind weight gain.
And there’s more. Much of the world relies on carbohydrates as their major source of energy (aka calories). Rice, for example, is a staple in Southeast Asia. And the carbohydrate-rich potato was so critical to the people of Ireland that when the blight devastated the potato crop in the mid 1800s, much of the population was wiped out. Plus, a tribe described as lean, healthy and fit in New Guinea consumes more than 90% of their calories from carbohydrate. You’ll find more examples around the world of healthy diets rich in carbohydrates in the book The Blue Zones.
Q: But don’t low-carb diets help people lose weight?
They certainly do for a lot of people. In fact, studies show that low-carb diets result in greater weight loss over the first weeks and months compared to many other types of diets. But – and this is a big but – they don’t usually show better results by the 1-year mark or later.
When you create rules about food (and follow them), cut out various types of foods, reduce calories, pay more attention to your intake, etc, you’re likely to lose weight. And that’s true whether your eating plan is high-carb, low-carb, or somewhere in the middle. Imagine what would happen if you aimed to eat only red and green foods. You’d have oodles of options in the produce section. You could eat red meat, but not fish or poultry. You could eat the red kidney beans in your 3-bean salad, but you’d have to push away the black beans and garbanzos. You could even eat the red and green M & Ms, but you’d have to give away the brown, blue, orange and yellow. I’m pretty sure if you really followed this absurd diet rule, you’d lose weight. And it has nothing to do with carbs, protein, fat or colors. It has everything to do with eliminating large groups of food.
Q: How many carbs should I eat in a day?
There’s a large range of healthful intakes. According to some experts, we need at least 130 grams of carbohydrates daily to maintain the energy requirements of the brain and central nervous system. And we require about 45 – 65% of total calories in the form of carbohydrates to allow for meeting our other nutrient needs since so many foods from nuts to oats contain carbs. If you ate 1600 calories daily, this turns out to be between 180 and 260 grams of carbohydrate over the course of your day.
I rarely recommend counting carbohydrates except for people who have diabetes. And I don’t think that most people need to count macros, or calories or anything. Here’s some basic advice: Eat a variety of wholesome foods, and include fiber-rich foods at each meal and a protein-rich food at most meals. Here are 15 ways to eat healthfully without counting a thing.
And for people with diabetes, I really do like the carb counting method of meal planning. Give these a read. And ask for a referral to an RDN who is also a certified diabetes educator (CDE).
- Diabetes blood sugar basics
- How to count carbs for diabetes management
- 7 tips and tricks to carb count like a pro
- Learn how food affects your blood sugar
Bottom Line: We need carb-containing foods for optimal health. Without them, we wouldn’t meet our needs for fiber or phytonutrients and probably for a host of vitamins and minerals too. Even though most people eat the recommended amount of carbohydrate, most people do not eat enough wholesome foods with carbohydrate (fruits, vegetables, pulses, whole grains, nuts), and they eat too much of the not-so-wholesome foods with carbohydrate (sweets, toaster pastries, soda, cheese doodles). Instead of avoiding carbohydrates, choose health-shielding, disease-fighting foods of all types.