Health

What are good and bad carbohydrates?

What is the difference between French fries and a side salad made with tomatoes, carrots, spinach and kidney beans Or, the difference between a sandwich made with white bread and one made with whole grain bread?

All the foods are carbohydrates. But the latter option in both questions contains good carbohydrate foods (vegetables and whole grains). So, what are good or bad carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates: Good or bad?

In the past few years, the status of carbohydrates has rocked wildly. Carbohydrates have been flaunted as the feared food in trending diets. And some carbohydrates have also been publicized as a healthy nutrient linked to lower risk of chronic disease.

So which is it? Are carbohydrates good or bad? The short answer is that they can be both. Fortunately, it is easy to separate the good and the bad.

  • One can enjoy the health benefits of good carbohydrates by choosing carbs rich in fiber. These carbs are slow to absorb into the systems, avoiding fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Examples include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans.
  • One can reduce the health risk of bad carbohydrates by consuming lesser processed and refined carbs that take away healthy fiber. Examples include white rice and white bread.

Why do carbohydrates matter?

The National Academies Institute of Medicine recommended in 2002 that people concentrate on obtaining more good carbohydrates including fiber into their foods. The statements below are based on information provided in the report:

  • To meet the daily nutritional needs of the body while reducing the risk for chronic disease, adults should get 40% to 60% of the calories from carbohydrates, 25% to 40% from fat, and 15% to 40% from protein.
  • There is only one way of getting fiber — eating plant foods such as fruits and vegetables that are quality carbohydrates and high in fiber. Research indicates an elevated risk for heart disease with low-fiber foods. Some evidence also suggests that fiber in the diet may also help to avert the risk of colon cancer and further support weight control.

The recommendations:

  • Men at age of 50 or younger should take 38 grams of fiber in a day.
  • Women at age 50 or younger should take 25 grams of fiber in a day.
  • Since fewer calories and food are required as we get older, men over 50 years should take 30 grams of fiber in a day.
  • Women over 50 years should take 21 grams of fiber in a day.

What are the good carbohydrates?

Many among us understand what the good carbohydrates are: plant foods that provide vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals along with carbohydrates like beans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. One shouldn’t be quick to judge a carbohydrate as being “good” without examining its fiber content (unless it’s a low-fiber food such as low-fat or skimmed milk).

image taken from https://vitalrecord.tamhsc.edu

Why does fiber in carbohydrates counts?

Humans can’t actually digest the fiber in plant foods. Even though fiber isn’t digested, it provides all kinds of great benefits to our bodies. Fiber essentially decelerates the absorption of other nutrients consumed in the same food, including carbohydrates.

  • This slowing down may help in preventing highs and lows in the blood sugar levels, reducing the risk for type 2 diabetes.
  • Certain kinds of fiber found in beans, oats and some fruits may also help in lowering blood cholesterol.
  • As an added benefit, fiber also helps in feeling full, adding to satiety.

The issue is that a typical American diet is anything but rich in fiber. “White” grain is the American modus operandi: we eat a bagel or muffin made from white flour in the morning, eat a hamburger on a white bun, and later eat white rice in the dinner.

Generally, the more refined or “whiter” the grain-based food contains lower fiber content. In order to include some fiber into meals takes a bit of effort. Following are the three important tips:

  • Eat ample fruits and vegetables. Just eating 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily will get to more than 10 grams of fiber, depending on the individual choices.
  • Include beans and bean products in the diet. Half a cup of cooked beans will append 4 to 8 grams of fiber daily.
  • Switch to whole grains wherever possible (bread, rolls, buns, pasta, tortillas and crackers etc).

What are the bad carbohydrates?

  • Sugars
  • “Added” sugars
  • Refined “white” grains

There is no way to sugarcoat the truth: Americans are consuming more sugar than ever before. In fact, an adult on average consumes about 20 teaspoons of added sugar on daily basis, according to USDA. That means around more than 300 calories that can quickly contribute to extra weight. A lot of people just don’t realize how much-added sugar their diets contain.

Sugars, starches and refined grains deliver energy boost to the body in the form of glucose. That’s a good thing if the body is in need of quick energy, for instance, running a race or competing in sports.

The better carbohydrates for most people are raw or minimally processed whole foods containing natural sugars such as lactose in milk or fructose in fruit.

Avoid excess “added sugars”

Added sugars are also called caloric sweeteners, and are sugars that are added to foods at the table or during preparation, such as corn syrup. Added sugars deliver calories but few or zero nutrients.

The USDA recommends getting no more than 5% to 10% of the total calories from added sugar, which comes to around 9 teaspoons daily for most people.

image taken from https://thebettyrocker.com

Nutrition label to track carbohydrates

The Nutrition labels can help in sorting the good carbohydrates from the bad ones. Here’s what to look for on the Nutrition labels.

  • Total carbohydrate

To track the total amount of carbohydrates in the food per serving, look for where it says “total carbohydrate.” Often the grams of sugars, grams of fiber and grams of other carbs will add up to the grams of total carbohydrate on the label.

  • Dietary fiber

Dietary Fiber tells about the total amount of fiber in the food per serving. Dietary fiber constitutes the number of carbs that does not get digested and will potentially pass through the intestinal tract without getting absorbed.

  • Sugars

Sugars show the total amount of carbohydrates from sugar in the food and from all sources. It is important to differentiate between natural and added sugars. For instance, average 1% reduced-fat milk label will say around 13 to 16 grams of sugar per serving. Those sugars come from the lactose and not from added sugars.

To get an idea of how many grams of sugar on the label come from added sugars, such as white or brown sugar or high fructose corn syrup, examine the ingredients list on the label. Check if any of those sugars are in the top 2 or 3 ingredients. Ingredients are usually listed in the order of quantity, so the majority of most foods are composed of the first few ingredients.

  • Other carbohydrates

“Other carbohydrate” category shows the digestible carbs that are not considered as sugar (natural or added).

  • Sugar alcohols

Some product labels also mention sugar alcohols under “total carbohydrate” category. Sugar alcohol carbohydrates in some people may cause intestinal issues such as diarrhea, gas or cramping. On the ingredients label, the sugar alcohols are listed as mannitol,  lactitol, sorbitol, maltitol, xylitol etc.

Tom Brendon

Tom Brendon has completed his nutrition undergrad in the UK and received his Master's degree from Canada in health education and specializes in human health and pediatrics. He began his career as a writer for Nutritionline in 2014 and Authority Health in 2016. He has considerable research experience and currently writes nutrition and health articles for general readership. He enjoys outdoor activities, snowboarding and spending quality time with family and friends.

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