Good Carbs vs. Bad Carbs

Choosing the right carbohydrates can often be complex. Learn more.

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Most people can’t tell a good carbohydrate from a bad one if their life depended on it. But it does. Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap of late. But before you vote all carbs off the island, learn how to tell a good carb from a bad carb.


Carbohydrates are the most misunderstood and maligned of all the calorie-producing foods. They have been blacklisted by skittish dieters who worry that they are the bane of their weight gain. But low-carb dieters may be misinformed. Eating a diet rich in carbohydrates doesn't necessary cause weight gain, but eating too much of the wrong ones can.


Complex Life of Carbs

At times it may feel like you need a PhD to figure out carbohydrates. Simply put, carbs are the body's main source of energy. The energy derived from fat metabolism can provide back up, but carbs are the preferred source of energy, particularly in the brain.


Foods that contain sugars, starches and fiber all belong to the carbohydrate camp. With the exception of unabsorbable fiber, all carbohydrates are converted during digestion into smaller molecules of glucose, the essential source of energy used by every cell in the body. Carbohydrates are mostly plant-based foods – fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes – with the exception of dairy products, which are animal-based carbohydrates. They are comprised of single, double or multiple groupings of hydrogen and oxygen molecules? linked together in chains.


Simple carbohydrates are all single (monosaccharides) and double-chained sugars (disaccharides). You can recognize them because they usually end with “-ose” – glucose and fructose (from fruit), lactose (from dairy) and the table sugar sucrose (from cane or beet sugar). Simple sugars are usually added to low-fat foods to give them flavor. They are usually devoid of nutrition because they don't contain many (if any) micronutrients, vitamins, minerals or phytochemicals.


Complex carbohydrates are many chains of simple sugars joined together (oligosaccharides and polysaccharides). They include starch, a form of carbohydrates that plants store, and fiber, the mostly undigested part of the plant. Foods that contain complex carbs include grains, breads, pasta, beans, potatoes, corn and other vegetables.


The Good, the Bad and the Better

Does the body care if glucose comes from simple carbs versus complex carbs?

Technically, no. The body will digest what it is given, but not all carbs are good. Feed the body simple carbs (like fructose and glucose) and it is likely you are downing "empty" calories that don't have any nutritional value. The body doesn't have to work very hard to get the glucose unleashed into the bloodstream, so sugar spikes rapidly.

Although sugar extracted from fruit is no different than the sugar in candy, maple syrup, honey or brown sugar, if you eat fruit that's a complex carb, you get worthy calories because they contain vitamins, minerals and fiber, nutrients that the body needs to perform properly.

One dangerous carbohydrate to avoid is high fructose corn syrup; it’s a simple carb that’s commonly found in sodas and processed foods. They sabotage your diet because your body converts it into fat much faster than complex carbs. This can end up packing on the pounds. Though we’ve been exposed to natural sources of fructose, like apples, figs and honey, for centuries, high fructose corn syrup sweeteners were not commercially used until the 1960s. Now they comprise more than 20% of our total daily carb intake.


Some complex carbs are more beneficial than others. Whole grains are not only more nutritious, they are digested more slowly and are less likely to cause a rush of glucose. White flour and white rice are complex carbs, but during processing, have had all the fibrous goodies stripped out. And while French fries are made from nutritious potato, deep-frying it in oil sabotages any health benefits.

Keep these tips in mind when consuming carbohydrates:

  • Skip refined and processed foods altogether.
  • Read the label to see if there is added sugar. Be wary of the "-oses" like high fructose corn syrup.
  • Choose whole grains (oats, some cerials, rye, millet, quinoa, whole wheat and brown rice), beans, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
  • Try to have 40% of your total caloric intake come from complex carbohydrates.
  • Avoid the lure of low-fat foods, which contain a sizable amount of calories from sugar.
  • Avoid the lure of low-carb foods, which sometimes have more calories from fat.
  • Try some of Chris Powell’s high-carb recipes, which provide good complex carbs for your diet.