If you are aware of common food trends then you know that carbohydrates have been in the spotlight lately. Carbohydrates make up the bulk of the modern diet, but there is a huge range in quality with regards to carbs and because of this, there is a lot of emphasis on good and bad carbs these days.
All of this good and bad ideology can create a tremendous amount of confusion around carbs and what to eat and why. Let’s clear up the carb confusion with some simple nutrition basics to help you make healthier choices for your body type and dietary needs.
What are Carbs?
Carbohydrates are a category of foods called macronutrients. In short, macronutrients are chemical elements that humans consume in the largest quantities which provide us with the bulk of our energy source. There are three major macronutrients and they include proteins, fats and carbohydrates.
Most of us are familiar with protein foods such as animal meats and fish and fats, which include foods like nuts, seeds and cooking oils. Carbohydrates are a more complex category of foods as they contain various food groups. They are also a food group that gets a lot scrutiny these days. So let’s take a closer look at carbs, their food groups and common characteristics.
Types of Carbs
Carbohydrate foods include fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains. You may be surprised to know that carbs include foods like fruits and vegetables, as some might think carbs are associated with grains only. Legumes are another common misconception. Many people consider legumes (beans) to be protein and they do contain decent amounts of protein.
The reality is that legumes contain about one quarter protein and three quarters carbohydrate. Because they are primarily comprised of carbohydrate, they fall into a carb category and not the protein category, although for vegetarians and vegans who do not consume animal meats, legumes would be a primary protein source.
What’s Good and What’s Bad?
To put it simply, carbs fall into healthy and not so healthy categories, although I think it is important not to get too linear with our thinking about good and bad foods. In terms of healthy carbs, good choices include vegetables, especially leafy and crunchy veggies, fruits, legumes and whole grains. Whole grains foods include whole wheat bread and whole wheat flour products like whole wheat pasta, quinoa, brown rice and oats. These foods are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Not so healthy carbs include processed grains and sugar based foods. The most common processed grain in the standard American diet is processed white flour. White flour is found in many common foods such as white bread, pasta, pizza, bagels, cereal, muffins, cookies, cake and baked goods, crackers. White flour products are highly refined, and in that process, most of the vitamins, minerals and fiber is removed. So many nutrients are stripped away in the refining process that vitamins are actually added back in by food manufacturers to prevent nutritional deficiencies in the public.
Although white four has some added in nutrients, due to their refining, they break down to primarily sugar in the bloodstream. Eating an occasional bowl of pasta or a muffin will not hurt you but problems will develop when people consume large amounts of processed carbs with frequency. Many people start their day with cereal or a muffin, have a sandwich for lunch, then something like pastas or pizza for dinner. All that processed carb will flood the blood stream with sugar, and over time this can translate to weight gain and eventually more complicated health problems.
Sugar, Not Good For Anyone
Let’s face it sugar tastes good. Ice cream, sweet treats, candy, cake, sodas, mochas, energy drinks, fruit juice and alcohol are all forms of sugar. Most of us learn from a very early age that sugary foods taste good and that can translate to feeling good emotionally when we consume them. I’m all about quality of life and because of that I think an occasional sweet treat can be enjoyed by most of us without harm.
The downside is that sugar contains absolutely zero nutritional value. It does nothing but add empty calories to your diet and spike blood sugar. Eating sugar or drinking sugary beverages with frequency will negatively impact your health, lead to weight gain, promote tooth decay and put you at greater risk for diseases like type 2 diabetes and fatty liver.
The bottom line with sugar is, a little here and there may be ok for some people. If your eating sugar multiple times per week or daily, that’s too much and it’s time to rethink your diet. Sugar is also highly addicting, so although it may seem easy to control your consumption, for most people it's a slippery slope to over consumption and excess. I suggest limiting sweets to special occasions and ditch regular dessert eating all together.
Healthy Carb Consumption
From a nutritional perspective healthy carbs mean lots and lots of leafy and crunchy veggies consumed daily, moderate amounts of low glycemic fruits, moderate amounts of whole grains and legumes and low to no processed grains and sugars. Try and eat veggies at every meal and if that is not possible, make sure that you are eating a fruit in its place. Fruit does contain a lot natural sugars, so make sure not to overeat fruit and don’t substitute fruit juice for an actual serving of fruit.
If you are not dealing with any significant health or weight issues, having 1 or 2 whole grains per day would be appropriate and save sweets and processed carbs for special occasions. Emphasizing healthy carbs is an important piece in optimizing health.
Still feeling confused about carbs and where they fit into your life? Need more clarity of what is healthy and what is right for your body? I work one on one with clients to help create clarity on food choices for their specific health needs. Learn more about healthy foods and high quality nutrient choices, meal planning and preparation. Contact me to schedule a private health consultation and learn about the best foods for promoting weight loss, lowering inflammation and optimizing health.