Are Carbs Really that Bad for You?

Carbs, or carbohydrates, have been demonized in the news and social media as of late. Does it seem like several of your friends are on some sort of low-carb diet? Maybe they know something you don’t, or maybe carbs aren’t really all that bad for you. If you are confused by the mixed messages about how many starchy foods you’re supposed to eat, you might need to look at carbs in a new way.

What Are “Good” Carbs?

When you hear carbs being categorized as “good” carbs that usually means they are complex, or naturally-occurring carbohydrates. Your body takes longer to process these types of carbs, which generally results in less of an insulin spike. Why is this important? Well, good carbs are less likely to be stored as body fat because of this lower and slower increase in insulin. There is usually a substantial amount of other nutrients, like fiber and protein in foods high in complex carbohydrates. Some examples of foods that are categorized as good carbs are:

  • Fruits that are higher in fiber, like berries, cherries, avocados, and kiwi
  • Green, leafy vegetables, like kale, spinach, arugula, and watercress
  • Most other vegetables, like cucumbers, peppers, celery, tomatoes, and broccoli
  • Legumes and beans
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Grains that are high in fiber, like quinoa, bulgur, barley, and oats

What Are “Bad” Carbs?

Simple, processed, or refined carbohydrates are commonly thought of as “bad” carbs. These types of foods tend to spike your blood sugar rather quickly after you eat them, which can result in several health issues. The body may not be able to use all of that insulin, so it will be stored as fat. Also, you will feel hungry shortly after you finish a meal high in simple carbohydrates, meaning you might eat more calories per day. Chronic high levels of insulin can contribute to your risks of developing diabetes. An occasional bad carb is probably okay, but if your diet is full of these types of foods (aka junk food), then you are probably gaining weight and harming your overall health in the process. Examples of simple carb ingredients or foods are:

  • Sweeteners, like cane sugar, honey, molasses, corn syrup, and powdered sugar; and all foods that contain a lot of added sweeteners
  • Foods made with white flours – bread, pastries, cakes, cookies, pasta, and donuts
  • Starchy vegetables, like white potatoes
  • Fruits that have a high sugar content, like dried fruits, bananas, apples, grapes, and pineapples.

How Many Carbs Should You Eat?

The answer to this question will be different for everyone. Some folks can, maddeningly, get away with eating however many simple and processed carbs their heart desires with no ill effects. Others gain weight just by looking at a carb. There are several factors that you should discuss with your doctor to come to a healthy balance of carbs in your diet. Start by exploring these questions to determine how many carbs you should eat per day.

  • Do you currently have any health issues, like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol?
  • How much and what kind of exercise do you do?
  • Are your hormones balanced?
  • Do you have an eating disorder?
  • Is weight loss one of your health goals?
  • Do you find it hard to stop eating carbs once you start?
  • Are you hungry all day?

Upgrade Your Carbs – Easy Replacements

If you think you might need to cut down on the number of refined carbohydrates that you eat on a daily basis, there are some easy switches you can make to upgrade your “bad” carbs to “good” carbs. Starting with breakfast, instead of a processed, sugar-laden cereal with milk, try plain oatmeal with fruit. Try sweetening your morning coffee or tea with a more natural sugar substitute, like xylitol, stevia, or erythritol, or just drink your warm beverages without any added sugars. Step up your snack game by switching out sweet potato chips for your usual corn or potato chips. Cauliflower rice and quinoa are excellent substitutes for white rice. Finally, try subbing out your pasta with zoodles – noodles made out of spiraled zucchini. Start slowly when introducing new foods to your meals. Experiment with different recipes, and you may just learn to love some of these healthier versions of your favorite simple carbs.

What About All Those Low-Carb Diets?

Cutting an entire macronutrient out of your diet long-term could prove to have some detrimental side effects on your health. Several fad diets do just that. Therefore, it’s a good idea to work with your healthcare provider if you want to try a diet that severely restricts carbohydrates. Atkins, Keto (the ketogenic diet), VLC (Very Low Carb diet), and simply a low-carb diet are all ways of eating that seem to be trending. The range of carbohydrate grams that are allowed in each diet varies. Atkins can range from 20 to 100 grams of recommended daily carbs, while Keto sticks closer to 20 grams per day. VLC suggests eating 40 grams or fewer each day, and a “low-carb” diet could be defined as any way of eating that includes up to 150 grams. One of these may be beneficial for your specific health goals, so it’s worth it to do your research.

The bottom line is everyone’s body is different, and the amount of carbs each of us should be eating to attain optimal health varies. By doing some trial and error, you may be able to determine the best amount of carbs for you. While you will certainly see benefits by cutting down on processed carbohydrates, you may be able to eat more carb-rich foods depending on how efficiently your body can handle them. Carbs may not necessarily be the evil macronutrient that many tout it is, but you could, on the other hand, thrive on a diet that has fewer carbs than you are currently eating. Work with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian to design a way of eating that is most effective for your unique body.