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What’s the Difference Between Good and Bad Carbs?

With the rise of low-carb eating and the Atkins diet, carbohydrates as a whole have gotten a bad rap. But just as all fat is not created equal, nor are all carbs. There are good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates, but how can you tell the difference?

Avoid the Package, Embrace Health
In the world of common sense nutrition, if something is highly processed, it is low in nutritional value and generally high in calories, fat, additives, preservatives, and chemicals. This applies to carbohydrates as well. Any carbohydrate that is highly processed has been stripped of most of its nutritional value and can accurately be called bad—not just because it is a bad carbohydrate, but because it’s bad nutrition. These non-nutritional foods are generally good tasting, but they are hard for the body to digest and they spike blood sugar, which causes an energy rush (also considered a blood glucose spike), followed by a plummet in energy (or drop in blood glucose). These foods include:

  • Candy
  • Baked goods with refined white flour
  • White pastas
  • Sodas

In general, a good carbohydrate is one that has not been processed or has had minimal processing and is in or close to its natural state. These foods include:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Whole grain breads, cereals, and pasta
  • Some dairy products

That out of the way, is there such a thing as a good or bad carbohydrate when dealing with highly nutritious carbohydrates? Not necessarily. There are carbohydrates that perform differently however, and this is where one can make smart choices on the types of carbohydrates ingested.

Starting Out Simple
So, what is a carbohydrate? Simply put, it is food that your body quickly and efficiently converts into sugar or glucose, which is then used as energy. Carbohydrates perform differently by providing two different types of energy—quick release and slow release. One is not necessarily better than the other, but when used to perform the right job, one will be more efficient than the other.

Simple carbohydrates provide a quick release of energy and can be found in most processed foods. Minimally processed foods that provide quick energy are white (as opposed to whole grain) pastas and cereals. But this same quick release can be found in more nutritional, less processed options. Foods in their natural state that provide a quick release of energy (with low simple sugar content) include most fruits and honey. These quick bursts of energy may be the choice for certain types of physical activity.

Often pasta and cereal are the carbohydrates that are given a bad rap. But they do have a function. And as long as the most nutritional choice is made, these carbohydrates will perform as desired. Simple carbs are often chosen by athletes looking for a fast energy source, as they have a higher glycemic index, thus the quick release of energy. But that speed can cause a spike in levels of the hormone insulin, which the body needs to process glucose into physical energy. Unless one is diabetic, this is generally not important, especially when a varied diet provides both quick and slow release glucose.

Pasta and cereal are not stored as fat more readily than other calorie sources are, as some fad diets would have us believe. What is often stored as fat are the excess calories ingested from non-nutritional carbohydrates. And this is simply because they are full of empty calories that don’t fill us up and they generally have a much higher caloric content than a nutritionally dense carbohydrate.

Getting Complex
Complex carbohydrates provide a slower release of energy. These foods usually come in less processed form and are high in vitamins and minerals; examples include wholegrain breads, oats, muesli, and brown rice. Complex carbohydrates have a lower glycemic index and are the choice to make when looking for a steady release of energy and especially when looking to lose weight. Since complex carbohydrates have high fiber content, they help fill us up. Obviously the sensation of being full causes one to eat less, which, in turn, contributes to weight loss.

The high fiber content also somewhat traps the release of glucose, causing a slower and steadier release of energy. If one is monitoring blood glycogen spikes (as in the case of diabetics), carbohydrates that have the lowest glycemic index are ideal. They include sweet potatoes, brown rice, leafy greens, and fat-free milk. These carbohydrates break down very slowly and result in lower insulin levels.

So simply put, “bad carbohydrates” are just bad food choices—highly processed foods with high levels of additives and low nutrition. Beyond this, the choices come down to the type of energy required; quick release or sustained energy. When in doubt, look for whole foods that you know are healthful and the good carbs and nutrition will inevitably follow.

Updated April 12, 2011