Following a healthy diet is one of the most effective measures you can take to support your health and well-being, and the carbohydrates you eat can make or break you. The right carbohydrates will provide slow, steady-release energy along with important nutrients; the wrong carbohydrates, such as high fructose corn syrup, refined sugar, and bleached flour, can set you back and actively work against your pursuit of health. Here, we’ll cover what you need to know to choose the right carbohydrates.
What Are Carbohydrates?
Along with fat and protein, carbohydrates are one of the three main macronutrients that make up the average diet. Their primary function in the human body is to provide energy. Carbohydrates, which are categorized as simple or complex, encompass a broad range of sugars, starches, and fiber.
Sugar, Starch, and Fiber
In nature, sugar is found in animal milk and fruit. Sugar is categorized as either monosaccharides or disaccharides. Monosaccharides, which are the simplest of sugars, are individual sugar molecules. The human diet contains three monosaccharides—glucose, fructose, and galactose. Individual monosaccharides combine to form disaccharides—maltose (glucose + glucose—malt sugar), sucrose (glucose + fructose—table sugar), and lactose (glucose + galactose—milk sugar).
Starches, also called polysaccharides or complex carbohydrates, are longer chains of individual sugar molecules.
Fiber, which is undigestible, non-starch polysaccharides, encourages bowel regularity and significantly reduces the risk of many lifestyle-related conditions. Dietary fiber also feeds the health-promoting microbes in the gut to boost immune function, encourage healthy weight and metabolism, and even influence mental well-being.[5, 6,7]
What Are Complex Carbohydrates?
Simply put, complex carbohydrates are the good carbohydrates you should base your diet around. Complex carbohydrates are sugar molecules that are strung together in long, complex chains. Because of that complex structure, the body digests them slowly and they generally don’t produce a spike in blood sugar. Oatmeal, brown rice, beans, green vegetables, and alternative grains are all good sources of complex carbohydrates. As you might guess from those examples, one of the benefits of complex carbohydrates is that they’re typically a good source of vitamins, minerals, and other important micronutrients.
What Are Simple Carbohydrates?
Simple carbohydrates, also called simple sugars, are just that—simple. They’re comprised of one or two sugar molecules and the body is able to digest them quickly, which makes them a fast-acting source of energy. If, for example, you’re an athlete in the middle of a competition and need energy to burn, that can be a good thing. But, if you’re sedentary, simple carbohydrates are more likely to spike your blood sugar and make you gain weight.
Not all simple carbohydrates are bad. Fresh fruit provides simple carbohydrates, but it also provides fiber. Simple carbohydrates with fiber are more like complex carbohydrates, and the body digests and absorbs them more slowly as such.
Refined Carbohydrates: Too Simple
Conversely, removing fiber from complex carbohydrates will make it act like simple carbohydrates. These carbohydrates, often referred to as refined carbohydrates, come from whole, natural foods, but they’ve been processed to the point that they are no longer resemble their original form. High fructose corn syrup and bleached white flour are common examples. High fructose corn syrup is better described as a chemical sweetener than a natural corn product. Pasta, white bread, and even fruit juice are examples of refined carbohydrates.
The questionable value of fruit juice is a surprise to many people. It’s easy to think a large quantity of fresh fruit juice is nothing but good, but keep in mind that the fiber has been removed and the simple sugars remain, sometimes a high level of sugar. It’s best to limit your intake of simple carbohydrates, especially if they’re refined. If you need to clean up your diet, eliminating simple sugars is the best place to start.
Choosing the Right Carbohydrates
Selecting the right carbohydrates is easy when you keep a few fundamental guidelines in mind.
Eat Your Vegetables
First, build your diet around whole, organic vegetables and fruit. Plant-based nutrients encourage graceful aging, promote healthy cell division, and reduce your risk of lifestyle-related health conditions. Lean toward produce that has bright, vibrant colors as it provides a wide spectrum of phytonutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Unfortunately, less than 3% of adults get enough fiber every day. That’s no surprise, considering 76% of Americans don’t get eat enough fruit and 87% don’t eat enough vegetables. As a rule of thumb, I try to consume twice as many vegetables as fruit.
Beans, Seeds, Nuts, and Alternative Grains
Legumes like lentils, beans, and peas are nutrient dense and versatile. Seeds and nuts, especially almonds, walnuts, macadamias, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds are good sources of carbohydrates. When selecting starchy foods, such as rice, bread and any other products made from flour, it’s best to opt for whole grain versions of these products. Whole grain foods affect blood glucose levels albeit more slowly than other carbohydrates.
Many people depend on the glycemic index to determine if their food is a good source of carbohydrates. The glycemic index rates carbohydrates according to how quickly they raise blood sugar. Although the glycemic index can provide food for thought, it’s best to treat the index as more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule. Some research suggests the accuracy of the glycemic index may vary.
Good Sources of Carbohydrates
There are a number of good sources of carbohydrates that provide energy and important nutrients without artificial ingredients or additives.
- Organic steel cut or rolled oats
- Organic nuts and seeds
- Organic whole, unprocessed grains: quinoa, spelt, buckwheat, millet, and wheat berries
- Organic legumes: black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, and mung beans
- Organic fruit: berries, tomatoes, and citrus fruits
- Organic vegetables: beets, carrots, purple potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squash
Bad Sources of Carbohydrates
Even more than simply being devoid of nutritional value and fiber, bad carbohydrates like high fructose corn syrup, white flour, and refined sugar are actively detrimental to your health and well-being. Minimize (or, preferably, eliminate) refined and processed carbohydrates from your diet. Soda, white flour, refined sugar, and the like don’t provide any real nutritional value and often times are the very food that clutters up an otherwise healthy diet.
- Baked goods: bread, muffins, bagels, and cornbread
- Sweetened beverages: soda, energy drinks, fruit juice cocktails, alcoholic mixers, sweet tea, sweetened smoothies, sugary coffee-based drinks, and milk shakes
- Packaged snacks: cereal, gummy snacks, pretzels, and cereal bars
- Overly processed foods: french fries, chips, most frozen meals, toaster pastries, pizza dough, and cereal
- Confections and candy: ice cream, cake, brownies, and cookies
- White pasta, vermicelli, fideo, and couscous
A Balanced Diet Is Key
A balanced diet is key to experiencing good health and wellness. To thrive, consider what’s best for you, not just what’s good enough. If eating clean isn’t helping you meet your health goals quickly enough, consider fasting. I designed a Vegan Ketogenic Fast to cleanse the body of stored toxins and help you shed excess weight.
What’s your take on carbohydrates? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts with us.