Good vs. Bad Carbs

Is a low-carb diet right for you?

Carbohydrates have become quite the topic of conversation in the health and wellness scene as more people are turning to low-carb eating. However, are all carbohydrates bad?

Read on to learn more about what carbohydrates are and how to make the healthiest choices when it comes to deciding which to include in your diet.

We’re talking all about the good and the bad when it comes to carbohydrates.

What are Carbohydrates?

Carbs are one of the three macronutrients (the other two being fat and protein). They are split into different groups, including sugars, starches, and fiber. (1) Carbohydrates, when consumed, are broken down into glucose, which provides the body with energy. If not used as an immediate source of energy, carbs can be stored as fat to be used when the body requires additional energy. This is why a high carbohydrate diet is notorious for causing weight gain.

However, this doesn’t mean that all carbohydrates are bad. The body relies on carbs as its primary fuel source, and there are some nutritious options that can help support overall health, while also providing the body with the energy it needs. Let’s take a closer look at the healthy carbohydrates that make a great addition to a well-balanced diet.

Good Carbs

When talking about good carbohydrates, we are talking about complex carbs. These are carbs that are going to break down slower and not cause that sudden spike in blood sugar like refined carbohydrates would (more on that later).

Complex carbohydrates are also rich in dietary fiber, which helps feed the healthy bacteria in the gut. And, it goes further than that. Those healthy bacteria in the gut can then use fiber to create fatty acids, and these fatty acids can also serve as a source of energy. (2)

The carbohydrates that are rich in dietary fiber are the complex carbohydrates you want to include in your diet. Studies have found that those who consume most of their carbohydrate intake from whole food fiber-rich sources have a lower risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease as compared to those who consume mostly refined carbohydrates. (3)

Here are some great healthy fiber-rich complex carbs to include in a balanced diet:

  • Beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Vegetables- such as dark leafy greens, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage.
  • Low sugar fruits like berries
  • Quinoa
  • Brown rice
  • Oats
  • Lentils
  • Sweet potatoes 

The Good Carbs in Whole Foods

There are numerous benefits to eating whole foods rich in complex carbs and fiber. Not only are they a healthy source of carbohydrates, but they are also rich in things like vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.

Phytochemicals are naturally occurring plant chemicals that are responsible for giving fruits and veggies their color and flavor. They have been found to help reduce inflammation, stimulate the immune system, prevent DNA damage, and even slow the growth of cancer cells. (4)

In order to get these phytochemicals in our diet, we have to consume healthy carbs like fruits and veggies and limit our intake of refined and processed options.  

Carbs You Should Avoid

Now that you know more about complex carbs and the carbohydrates you will want to enjoy more of let’s take a look at the refined carbohydrates we should all be avoiding, no matter what type of diet you follow.

We want to avoid, or at least limit our refined carbohydrate intake as they can cause a serious spike in blood sugar, only to leave us with a blood sugar crash. This blood sugar roller coaster can lead to all sorts of unwanted symptoms like irritability, fatigue, and cause us to crave even more sugar by stimulating the reward system in our brain telling us we should eat more. (5)

This can quickly lead to a vicious cycle of eating more and more refined carbohydrates loaded with processed sugar. Refined carbohydrate intake has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and even heart disease, so it’s something we all want to limit. (6)

Here are the carbohydrates you will want to steer clear of:

  • Pastries
  • Soda
  • Fruit juice
  • Candy
  • White bread
  • White pasta
  • White rice
  • Table sugar (just say no to the added sugar in your morning cup of coffee or tea)

How Many Carbs Should You Eat Each Day?

Wondering how many carbs you should be eating each day? Generally speaking, for a well-balanced diet without any type of complex carbohydrate restriction, focus on getting 45-65% of your daily calorie intake from complex carbs.

For a diet with 2,000 calories per day, this would mean that you would consume about 900-1,300 calories from carbohydrates per day.

Here’s how to calculate out how many grams of carbs you will want to consume each day.  

For 45% of your daily calorie intake to come from carbs, take your total calorie intake per day and times this by 0.45. Next, take that number and divide it by four. This will give you how many grams of carbs to consume each day.

Low-Carb Diets: Who do they benefit?

So, what about low carb diets? These have been very popular over the last couple of years, with more people turning to the ketogenic diet to help support weight loss. However, are low carbohydrate diets actually a good idea?

For one, they certainly aren’t for everyone. Not everyone is going to feel their best restricting their carbohydrate intake. And, while everyone should be restricting how many refined carbohydrates they consume, it may not always be a good idea to also restrict your intake of complex carbohydrate rich foods.

There are instances where a low carbohydrate diet may be beneficial. Low carb diets with a focus on eating more healthy fats and proteins may be beneficial for someone who needs to lose weight for health reasons. A study found that participants on a low carb diet lost more weight during the 12-month study than on other diets that didn’t focus on carbohydrate restriction. They concluded that a low carb approach may be a good option for metabolic health benefits. (7) A study also found that high refined carbohydrate intake was linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. (8)

The takeaway here is that a low carb approach to eating may hold some metabolic health benefits for those who need to lose weight in order to support better health. However, those following a low carb diet need to be mindful of what other foods they are adding to their diet.

The focus should be on enjoying plenty of anti-inflammatory foods like dark leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, and berries. There should also be a balance of healthy fats and proteins by focusing on getting plenty of foods like avocados, nuts, seeds, chicken, turkey, and pasture-raised eggs in the diet.

While a low carb diet may benefit some, it definitely isn’t going to be for everyone. Those who should avoid restricting their carbohydrate intake include pregnant and breastfeeding women, those with nutrient deficiencies, athletes who rely on carbohydrates for energy and muscle recovery, or those who aren’t balancing their food intake with plenty of other nutrient-dense foods like healthy fats and clean protein.

The Bottom Line

Carbs have been villainized over the last few years but not all are bad and not all are created equal. The bottom line is that we all could benefit from avoiding refined carbs and focusing on getting all of our carbohydrates from whole food fiber-rich sources.

And, while some may thrive on a low carb diet, especially those looking to lose weight, others may do much better with complex carbs a part of their diet.

It all comes down to balance and making sure that you are getting the right carbs in your diet while avoiding the ones that are going to cause inflammatory chaos.