Ever since Robert Atkins first revealed his miracle “Atkins Diet,” a regiment that requires very close control of carbohydrate consumption, in the early 90s, some nutritionists have been obsessed with eschewing carbohydrates altogether. Even today, after learning many more decades’ worth about nutrition, carbohydrate consumption is still a topic of debate. The problem is, regardless of the facts presented on the subject, no one can seem to make up their mind on whether carbs are good or bad.
Some say that carbs are good for exercise and nutrition, others say they’re the first step on the slippery slope to diabetes. Frankly, this constant back and forth is confusing for most of the general public. Because of this ambiguity, we’ve compiled some general information on what constitutes “good” and “bad” when it come to carbohydrate consumption.
Low-Carb Or No Carb?
There have been a number of trendy diets over the years. Some of these, like the popular Atkins Diet, instruct people to avoid carbs entirely, focusing only on protein. Others speak of eliminating carbs for a period of time before reintroducing them into your diet. Most recently, the low-carb, high-fat Keto Diet has become the newest fad.
It’s safe to say that there are many different schools of thought in the world of nutrition when it comes to carbohydrates and diets. It’s precisely because of so-called “fad diets” that the majority of people, particularly those who have struggled with weight loss for years, are confused about what they should do.
No Single Solution
Now, many of these diets work just fine for some people, but as we’ve learned, everybody is different. People react differently to different types of food, carbs or otherwise. Therefore, if we can’t center-in on a carb-centric diet, we need to explore the carbs themselves. First and foremost, we need to answer the question: What exactly is a carbohydrate?
What Are Carbs?
The long and highly technical answer, which is simplified here for convenience, is that a carbohydrate is a molecular compound that consists of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. Carbs are one of the three macronutrients, like it’s fellows, protein and fat, that we as human beings need to sustain our metabolism and our energy levels. As we consume carbohydrates, our digestive system converts them to glucose, which is burned to produce heat and energy.
There are several different types of carbohydrates and it is the distinction between them discussed here. In understanding the three categories, we can determine which carbs are good for us and which are bad. The first types of carbohydrates are short-chain sugars like glucose, sucrose, galactose, and fructose.
Chains of Glucose
The second type of carbohydrate is composed of long-chain glucose molecules. Unlike the simpler, short-chain sugars, these molecules get broken down into glucose once they’ve reached the digestive tract. This glucose is transformed into energy by mixing with oxygen in cell mitochondria which creates heat and carbon dioxide.
The final type of carbohydrate is fiber. This is a carb that is broken down by the 300-500 different types of gut bacteria that live in our digestive tract, which have no problem breaking down fiber for fuel. High fiber foods are good for you and are great sources of prebiotics, not to be confused with probiotics, which help fuel gut bacteria.
Now that we know the difference between the three types of carbohydrates, how do we tell which are good carbs and which are bad? First, we must remember that, contrary to the tenets of many strict carb-free diets, not all carbs are “bad.” As we’ve seen even from the above descriptions, some carbs are actually quite good for you.
The best carbohydrates, and the healthiest, are those that are whole and completely unprocessed. Some examples of these very good carbs include sweet potatoes, bananas, potatoes, brown rice, yucca, legumes, buckwheat, and dates. Because they are unprocessed, the nutrients in each of these foods have remained intact and therefore, nutritious.
Healthy carbohydrates, that is, those which are high in sugar and starch, affect the body differently than those that are heavily refined. Take, for example, purple sweet potatoes. These tubers are high in various unrefined, complex sugars and starches. They are also high in vitamins, minerals, and anthocyanins, which are antioxidants that help fight free radicals and may offer anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, or anti-cancer benefits.
Now we come to the bad carbohydrates. These refined carbs are mostly bereft of fiber content, which means they are anything but complex. Processing and refinement have stripped these once-healthy carbs of many key vitamins, minerals, and healthy fatty acids.
Processed carbs can adversely affect blood sugar throughout the day, which in turn impacts our mental and physical performance and overall longevity. Some examples of refined carbs include fruit drinks, white flour, white rice, white pasta, and pastries. These bad carbs also impact insulin in the body much differently than unrefined carbs.
Blood Sugar And Memory
Doctors have discovered that the intake of bad carbs correlates directly with impaired glucose intolerance. This can lead to greater insulin concentrations circulating throughout the bloodstream, and caused an increased risk for type-2 and type-3 diabetes, which can cause the well-known condition Alzheimer’s Disease.
A fairly recent study about the effects of refined carbs on coronary heart disease revealed that bad carbs don’t just increase the risk of diabetes and cause obesity, they can also lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. This may seem like an elementary conclusion to some, but it’s also more proof that some carbs are indeed bad and some good.
So now we come to it. We know about good carbs and bad carbs, but what we don’t know is how much is too much when it comes to carbohydrates? Again, we must answer this question by restating that everyone’s body is different and reacts differently to carbs. Age, sex, body type, physical activity and metabolism must all be taken into account.
Doctors agree that for anyone looking to lose weight should consume a range of 100–150 grams of good carbs per day to keep up energy levels. This means that when it comes to going on a diet, good carbs should be roughly 15 to 30 percent of one’s total calories coming from healthy carbs.
Further information about your daily caloric intake indicates that 45 to 65 percent of total daily calories should come from carbohydrates. This is for a normal, healthy, non-diabetic person, but there are exceptions. Athletes and fitness enthusiasts, who are training intensely day-to-day, tend to require more carbs to help assist in recovery.
It’s also important to be aware that less carbs don’t always mean better health and performance. Going too low-carb or even no carb can actually negatively impact your mood, reduce cognitive performance, affect sleep quality, and cause hormone imbalances. It can even impact thyroid function and lead to unnecessary weight gain, fatigue, and brain fog.
Good Tasting, Good For You
After all this, it’s safe to say that carbohydrates, in and of themselves, can be quite nourishing and beneficial for your health. And while it’s ok to indulge in the occasional Snickers bar or fruit juice, you’ll probably want to stick to good carbs like buckwheat, dates, sweet potatoes, bananas, and quinoa.
We all respond differently to carbohydrate consumption. Some people do indeed do well following trendy diets like Atkins or Keto, but most people, in general, will do best by sticking to a diet of complex, nutrient-rich carbs. This will help balance your diet, give you more energy, and ultimately help you live a longer, healthier life.