If you spend any amount of time reading about diet and nutrition, you've probably realized that by the fourth article or website, you're hopelessly confused. There seem to be as many opinions about what's good and what's bad as there are items in the supermarket. And all those opinions come from experts, which makes it even harder for the average person to figure out which end is up. And for all the health articles and diet explanations available, every dieter seems to get tripped up on the same subject:
How do I know which are the good and which are the bad carbohydrates?
- Provide essential energy to the body
- Aid in weight loss
- Can contribute to diabetes
- Cause weight gain
I recognize that wasn't a very clarifying list, and that's because carbohydrates are so abundant. It's impossible to classify all carbs as bad carbohydrates or good carbohydrates. When learning how to diet and live a healthy lifestyle, it's important to understand exactly what carbohydrates are, what they do, and how to ensure you're getting the best they have to offer.
Carbohydrates provide the body's main source of energy. Carbs are broken down during digestion into sugar molecules which are absorbed into the bloodstream and provide your body with a steady supply of blood sugar. Many natural sources of carbohydrates (vegetables, for example), are also a good source of fiber, which aids in digestion and helps lower cholesterol.
There certainly are bad carbs, so we need to make sure we aren't eating the wrong kinds of carbohydrates, or too many. Excess carbs are converted to fat and stored, while certain carbs are immediately absorbed into the bloodstream and can cause a spike in blood sugar levels, leading to diabetes.
So how do you know which carbs are the bad carbs avoid? Here are a few tips:
- Move beyond the simple vs. complex distinction: Simple carbs are carbs made of a single sugar chain, while complex carbs are made of multiple chains bound together by either starch or fiber. Fructose, the sugar found in fruit, is a simple, (i.e. bad) carbohydrate, but no one would advise cutting fruit out of your diet for the rest of your life. Meanwhile, the carbs in most pastas and breads are complex carbs, and plenty of people advise dropping those from your diet except under extremely rare circumstances.
- Think natural: The ultimate goal is to get the greatest benefit possible from everything you're putting in your body. The best way to ensure you're maximizing the benefit of what you eat is to eat it as close to natural as possible. Fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, and whole grains (particularly sprouted whole grain) are your best bets here. The process by which most foods are packaged and processed strips them of their fiber content as well as many vitamins and minerals, turning good carbs into empty, bad carbs.
- Consider the glycemic index: Keeping your blood sugar steady is an essential component of weight loss and diabetes prevention. When it comes to maintaining steady blood sugar levels, the glycemic index, which ranks foods based on how quickly the cause your blood sugar levels to rise, is a handy tool.