Good Carbs vs. Bad Carbs
Carbohydrates: the latest controversy in the nutrition world. Blamed for everything from diabetes to obesity, popular wisdom these days often suggests removing them entirely.
For many people, a low or zero carb diet can be a great choice. They go keto, and substitute fat for carbs as their main source of energy.
But it’s simply not true that all carbs are bad and that you should never eat them. For many people, eating carbs can be a great foundation for their diet.
The key is to see the difference between good carbs and bad carbs. Most of the problems blamed on carbohydrates really stem from eating too many bad carbs, like sugar and white bread, and not eating enough good carbs, like whole wheat rice or pasta.
Whole vs Refined
The best way to think about carbs is to throw out the simplistic “Good vs Bad” label entirely. Instead, think of carbs as either Whole or Refined.
Whole carbs are the ones that are more “naturally occurring”. They are minimally processed, and are high in fiber and nutrition. Common examples include:
- whole grains
- brown rice
These carbohydrates have complex molecular structures that are harder for your body to turn into energy. This means they take longer to digest, and don’t spike your blood sugar immediately.
Refined carbs are, well, refined. They are usually industrially produced, and barely resemble their natural counterparts. As a result, they tend to be much whiter in color:
- white bread
- white rice
In making these carbs, the manufacturing process essentially removes all the bland tasting, high fiber, nutritional stuff, leaving mostly just… sugar. The resulting molecules are simpler than the originals, meaning your body can break them down immediately, resulting in rapid blood sugar spikes.
Carbs and Your Gut Microbiome
One of the most important reasons to favor whole carbohydrates is the way in which they affect your gut microbiome.
Your gut microbiome, by the way, is the collection of microorganisms that live in your intestines. There are actually more microorganism cells in your guts than there are human cells in your entire body!
Having a healthy gut microbiome affects nearly every aspect of your functioning as a human being. Many mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, are closely linked to disruptions in the gut.
Good, whole carbs help your gut microbiome, while bad, refined carbs hurt it. The main reason has to do with fiber. Refining carbohydrates removes fiber, leaving little else but sugar. But fiber is what your guts crave! Helpful microorganisms feast on fiber, while pro-inflammatory bacteria thrive on sugar.
Carbs and Glycemic Load
As mentioned above, bad carbs spike your blood sugar while good carbs don’t. How much a food impacts your blood sugar is its glycemic load, which is measured by its glycemic index.
The glycemic index is a number between 1 to 100. Foods with lower numbers have a slower impact on blood sugar. Foods with higher numbers have a faster impact on blood sugar.
You can see from this table that whole carbs generally have a lower glycemic load than refined carbs. But why is this important?
High glycemic load foods cause blood sugar spikes, which quickly turn into blood sugar crashes, leaving you feeling weak and tired. This easily turns into a vicious cycle, where you feel lousy, so you eat junk food to spike your blood sugar momentarily, and then feel even worse when your crash again.
Over the long term, the problem is even worse. Frequent blood sugar spikes damage your blood vessels and your pancreas, and increase your risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Sticking to whole carbs is a good way to keep your blood sugar levels stable, and avoid crashes and serious metabolic diseases.
Conclusion: Snacking Is Not Off The Table
Just because refined sugars are bad for you doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a snack every now and then. In fact, plenty of common snacks are already low in refined carbs.
Nuts, seeds, and most fruits are healthy snacks that feed good gut bacteria and don’t cause blood sugar spikes. They are also excellent sources of protein and fiber.
If you have a sweet tooth, you should know that there are alternative sweeteners that aren’t made from refined carbs. Xylitol, stevia, and monkfruit are all low-carb alternatives.