Carbohydrates: The Real Truth Revealed in the Good Carbs Vs. Bad Carbs Battle

Good Carbs Vs Bad CarbsIntroduction

In the last decade the reputation of Carbohydrates has suffered several body blows. Carbs are now so mis-understood that many people seek to avoid them altogether. As we will see this is not a good plan for a long term healthy eating system. It would seem that not all carbs are created equally and there are some that we need just to be able to function normally.

What are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are one of the elements that make up the food we eat. The other elements are protein, fiber, fat and vitamins and minerals. The majority of foods contain all of these elements, although in differing proportions. The exceptions being oil (nothing but fat) and sugar (nothing but carbohydrates). Carbs are our body's main source of energy. Although we can also get energy from fats, it is generally recommended for the goodness of our long-term health that we get the majority of our energy from carbs. The energy we receive is measured in Kilocalories, more normally written as just calories. For those who prefer metric then it is measured in kilojoules. Carbohydrate no matter what form it is in will deliver 4 calories per gram. However not all of these calories are nutritionally equal, as we will see as you delve deeper into what Carbohydrates are.

Being our primary energy source, a diet with little or no carbs may leave us not having the energy to carry out all our daily activities which include everything from breathing to digestion, from walking up the stairs to brain functions. These low carb diets are often high in fat, leading to health problems such as heart disease later in life. Also we get much of our fiber from foods high in carbohydrates. By restricting our carb intake we are also, maybe without knowing it, restricting our fiber intake. This can lead to problems such as constipation and bowel cancer as without fiber waste will not be easily expelled from our body and toxins can build up.

Carbohydrates fall into two groups – Starches and Sugars. These groups are then split down further to  – Simple and Complex. Starchy carbs are those such as potatoes, bread, cereals, pulses, pasta and rice. Sugars are classed as either intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic means that the sugar in the food is part of its cellular structure, often bound up with fiber. The sugar in fruits is mostly of this type. Extrinsic is where it is free form such as that in pure sugar and honey. We will discuss this further below when we look closer at what makes a good carb and what makes up a bad carb.

What is the Recommended Daily Intake of Carbohydrates

Know we know a bit about what they are how much Carbohydrate should we have in our diet? In 2002 the National Academy Institute of Medicine after carrying out a study recommended that adults should be getting between 45% to 65% of their calories from Carbs.

In the UK it is recommended that the total carbohydrate is 230g for Women and 300g for Men.

Source –

In the USA the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is 130g for both Females and Males aged between 10 and 70+. If you are pregnant or lactating you may need more, but check with your health professional.

Source – Files/Nutrition/DRIs/5_Summary Table Tables 1-4.pdf

They both agreed that complex carbs should make up around 50% of your diet and sugar should be no more than 25%, of which extrinsic sugar should be no more than 10% of this.

If you are interested in learning more about how to reduce the amount of sugar in your diet have a look here – Low Sugar Diet

Good Carbohydrates

The term "Good Carbohydrates" refers to the complex, fiber rich foods. Their sugar is in intrinsic form (see above). The body normally absorbs them more slowly than simple carbs. This helps us to regulate both our blood sugar level and our blood pressure. Examples include whole grain breads and cereals. Many green-leafy vegetables and some fruits are also examples of complex carbohydrates. These Good Carbs are also know as this because they have very few health drawbacks and can contain a whole range of useful nutrients.

Potatoes - CarbohydratesBad Carbohydrates

These are simple carbohydrates; the foods offer little or no nutritional value. By their nature the sugar they contain is extrinsic, meaning it is not attached to any fiber. They are the ones that if you want to live a healthy lifestyle should be avoided. Foods that are white in color – white bread, white rice, and white pasta are sources of bad carbs. If trying to eat a healthy diet also go for the wholegrain version of foods if you can.

Many processed foods and even so called "diet" foods contain added sweeteners or sugar. These contain what is known as "empty" calories. They have the ability to add weight on, but contain little or no nutritional value. They should be avoided.

They include such things as sweets, cakes and sugar, which although once high in starch and complex carbohydrates have now had much of their fiber and goodness they once had knocked out of them.

How to read the nutritional label on products

Total Carbohydrate – This shows the actual amount of carbs in the food. You should find that the amount of fiber, sugar and "other carbs" add up to this total. Compare this to the recommended daily allowance to ensure you are not eating too much.

Dietary Fiber – This is the amount of carbohydrate that is indigestible by the body and will pass through without being absorbed. The higher the fiber contents the better for our health.

Sugars – This tells you the amount of carbohydrate there is that is in sugar form, from all its sources both natural and added. If sweeteners or sugar are in the top five ingredients on a label then they have been added and make up the bulk of the food. You want to try and pick a food that is low in sugar and has very few added sweeteners.

As a guideline more than 15g of sugar per 100g of food is high, 5g of sugar per 100g of food is low.

Other Carbohydrates – This shows the carbs that are not considered sugar – natural or added.

What is meant by the Glycemic Index (GI)

This was designed to help those with diabetes choose foods, which would help regulate their blood sugar level. It has become popular in diets, although little scientific evidence exists to show if it helps in weight loss.

It is in its most basic definition the rate at which glucose (from carbs) is absorbed into our blood stream. If a food is classed, as high GI the glucose is absorbed very quickly, pure sugar is an example. A low GI food is absorbed slowly, such as from apples.

When you eat a food with a High GI position blood sugar levels rise quickly. Insulin is produced by the body to deposit this excess blood sugar into the muscle cells as glycogen. When the glycogen stores are full the glucose left over is converted into fat and stored. What this means for you is that the glucose in the blood is rapidly depleted meaning that the "sugar high" you felt when eating the food is soon gone and you may feel hungry again and even suffer an energy drop.

When you eat a food with a low GI position, insulin is released much slower as the glucose in the blood is not very high. This means that there is not as much excess in the blood stream and thus more is used up and much less is converted into fat. As your blood sugar level is more even you feel fuller for longer and therefore do not need to eat as much.

Many factors of a food affect its position on the index. These include whether or not it is in a processed form, the type of starch it contains, the amount of fiber it has and its ripeness e.g. that of fruit. For example fruit that is ripe tends to have more sugar than un-ripe, so will be higher on the GI list. The fat content and what form it is in is also considered. This is because the more fat a food has the slower its carbohydrates are converted to glucose and thus can be absorbed into the blood stream, so it will be lower on the index.

The University of Sydney, Australia maintains a list and searchable database. The list now has almost 2000 foods on and can be found at –

The problem with the Glycemic Index

The GI does not take into account how much digestible carbohydrate a food contains. For example Watermelon is classed as high GI, but it contains little carbohydrate and not much fiber. A Mars bar is classed as a low GI food, but is not a very healthy food containing a high proportion of fat. This is why it is not enough to say "I am going to go on a Low GI diet", you still have to be careful in your food choices. It also does not rank foods that contain no carbohydrate at all like meat, fish, eggs and cheese. It does though include them if they have been processed, such as sausages as they may now contain flour. It also only includes whole foods, not meals. This means that depending on how something is cooked it could change its GI value. For example potatoes are high GI, but fried chips are low GI because of their high fat content. Overall this means that following a low GI diet is only half the story. You should choose food based on its nutritional value as well as its place on the index.

Another index came about because of this called the Glycemic Load. This shows the measure of carbohydrate in a food and the impact on blood sugar levels.

The GI should be used as a guide. Potatoes for example should only be eaten occasionally because they have both high GI and high Glycemic load.

Examples of High GI Foods

These are quick release, short-term energy foods. They should be eaten as part of a meal containing protein and fat and low GI foods.

They include such things as:

Baked Potatoes, Mashed potatoes, parsnips, cooked carrots, squash.

Honey, Sugar, Pineapple, Watermelon, Raisins and Bananas.

Cornflakes, Bran Flakes, Popcorn, Instant oat cereal, muffins

White Bread, Rye Crisp breads, rice cakes, bread stick, and couscous

Low GI FoodsExamples of Medium GI foods

These are medium-term energy and can be eaten as part of a healthy eating diet.

They include such things as:

White pasta, whole-wheat pasta, porridge, oats, all bran, noodles, white and brown rice, pitta breads.

Grapes, Oranges, Kiwi Fruit, Mangoes, Beetroot, sweet potatoes, boiled potatoes, yams, raw carrots, sweet corn and peas.

Example of Low GI Foods

These are slow release, long-term energy foods. You should try to include many of these in your diet.

Natural yoghurt, milk, peanuts, all pulses including lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas and baked beans.

Apples, Asparagus, Broccoli, Celery, Cherries, Cucumber, Tomatoes, and Zucchini, Mange-Tout, Brussel Sprouts, Peas, Cauliflower, dried Apricots, Peaches, Grapefruit, Plums and Cherries.

Carbohydrates – Conclusion

I hope you can now see that a diet comprising complex carbohydrates with intrinsic sugar should be part of your healthy eating strategy. This means choosing whole-wheat or wholegrain forms of our favorite foods such as pasta and bread and foregoing the white forms. We should also ensure our diet is high in fruit and vegetables and low in cakes, sweets and sodas.

Having a diet low or even with no carbohydrates in, may at first lead to weight loss as calories are cut, but it is not a long-term solution.

Hopefully now armed with this knowledge of Carbohydrates you will be able to make more informed choices about what you put in your mouth and live a long and healthy life.

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Further Reading

1) Carbs Without Cause: 8 Foods Worse Than White Bread – This article on the Huffington Post shows how you could be thinking that you are doing well, but actually the hidden carbohydrate value may mean you need to rethink. For example that breakfast bagel, may not be all it is cracked up to be health wise.

2) This post on the Harvard site gives more scientific information on Carbohydrates and their importance to a long-term healthy eating plan. You can read more here –

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Carbohydrates, bad carbs, good carbs, good carbs vs bad carbs, low sugar diet, ketosis diet, low GI foods, glycemic index


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