Carbohydrates are a part of a well-balanced diet, but not all carbohydrates are created equal. In fact, some carbohydrates are very good for your health, while others can have a bad effect on your body.
So, what exactly are carbohydrates and how can they be “good” or “bad?” Here is what you need to know.
Also known simply as “carbs,” carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients in food used by the body. The other two macronutrients are protein and fat. You get energy from carbs, protein and fat in the form of calories. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories should come from carbohydrates. This means that, if you normally consume 2,000 calories a day, between 900 and 1,300 of those calories should be from carbohydrates.
The human body converts the carbohydrates you eat into glucose, or sugar, which it uses for energy. When all its energy needs are met, the body can also convert carbohydrates into fat to use as energy later.
Your body digests food by breaking down large or long chains of molecules into shorter chains of molecules, which makes it easier for your body to absorb and use the nutrients. In the case of carbohydrates, your digestive tract converts the molecules into single-molecule form of sugar that is easy for your tissues to use as energy. The sugar molecules, or glucose, enter your bloodstream; as the result, your blood glucose levels rise.
Your pancreas reacts to the rise is blood glucose levels by producing insulin, which is a hormone. Insulin “unlocks” muscle and tissue cells so that they can absorb the glucose from your bloodstream as you exercise. Absorption of the sugar from the bloodstream causes blood glucose levels to drop – the more you exercise, the more your blood sugar levels drop down towards normal. Your body turns any leftover glucose into fat, and stores it for later use.
Health professionals and nutritionists often refer to carbohydrates as simple or complex, based on the chemical makeup of the carbs and how your body deals with them. Carbohydrates are molecules that contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. These carbohydrate molecules can be in long chains, containing dozens of molecules, or very short chains.
Simple, or “Bad,” Carbohydrates
Simple carbohydrates are small, with only one or two molecules. Because simple carbohydrates are small, your body quickly and easily breaks down these simple sugars for use as instant fuel. This can cause your blood sugar levels to rise quite high very quickly – too quickly, in fact, to use all the sugar as instant energy. As the result, blood sugar levels climb higher and higher. The pancreas reacts by producing more insulin to help cells absorb the glucose, which causes high insulin levels too. Eventually, blood sugar levels crash, leaving you feeling drained of energy.
To make matters worse, simple carbohydrate foods are often nutrient-poor, which means they do not provide the vitamins and nutrients the body needs. The lack of nutrients can leave you feeling hungry and craving more sugary foods, even after a high-calorie meal containing simple carbohydrates. This spells disaster for any weight loss plan.
The Western diet is high in highly processed and refined foods, which contain great amounts of simple carbohydrates. These foods include sugar-sweetened beverages and fruit juices, white bread, pastries, white rice, and white pasta. Healthcare professionals believe that consuming a diet high in simple carbohydrates is associated with health problems, such as obesity.
“Good” Complex Carbohydrates
Unlike the short chains of simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates contain long chains of two or more sugar molecules. Your body has to work harder and longer to break down complex carbohydrates into glucose; slower digestion means the sugars enter your bloodstream over a longer period, so you don’t experience the “blood sugar roller coaster” of glucose that spikes and crashes.
Vegetables, whole fruit, legumes, potatoes and whole grains contain ample amounts of complex carbohydrates. They are also nutrient-rich, so your body gets the vitamins and nutrients it needs for good health – and to leave you feeling satisfied after a meal or snack.
Many foods contain a combination of simple and complex carbohydrates, which makes it tricky to determine if a food is healthy or not. For more information on carbohydrates, and the differences between good and bad carbohydrates, consult with our weight loss doctor at Dr. Urshan Health and Weight Loss Center. We can create a personalized weight loss plan that contains the right amount of “good carbs” to help you lose weight and feel great.