The difference between good and bad carbs on a low carb diet

Ever since the low-carb, high-fat Atkins diet exploded onto the American scene, carbs have been labeled as bad. Unfortunately, this is only half true and has caused confusion among the public.

Indeed, while some carbohydrates are bad, others are good and should be at the heart of a healthy diet. But how do you tell the good carbs from the bad?

Before making this distinction, it’s important to understand that all carbs, good and bad, are made up of different types of sugar, and this can be confusing. The key is how the sugar is packaged and presented to the body.

What is the difference between good carbs and bad carbs?

The first distinction is that good carbs contain natural sugars like those found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Bad carbs, on the other hand, are the sugars “added” to processed foods and soft drinks, and dumped in your coffee or tea.

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A second distinction is that good carbs are “complex,” meaning the sugars are part of a more complex configuration that includes fiber that cannot be broken down in the human digestive system. This slows down the process and that’s good because the sugars in the good carbs enter the bloodstream slowly, in a “time-delayed” way. This is important because a slow release of sugar dampens the insulin response. (As blood sugar enters cells and blood levels drop, insulin also drops.)

Bad carbs, on the other hand, are “simple” sugars that enter the bloodstream quickly. When this happens, the body misinterprets what is happening, thinking a huge amount of sugar is coming. In turn, a large insulin response occurs to manage the sugar and escort it into the cells. An elevated insulin response signals the body to store body fat, especially in the abdominal region as visceral (deep) body fat around the liver and other organs. Excess visceral fat contributes to insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, and ultimately the onset of type 2 diabetes.

A third distinction is that good carbs provide lots of useful nutrients (vitamins, minerals, and protein), and because they’re filling, you eat less. Bad carbs are sugars that are “hollow” calories, meaning they provide energy but not nutrients, and excess energy is stored as body fat. Additionally, bad carbs don’t satisfy hunger, but rather cause you to eat more, consume more calories, and add even more body fat.

Although excess body fat is the main cause of health destruction, it is important to point out that sugar, in itself, is a problem. Recent research indicates that people of normal weight who consume a lot of excess “added” sugar can double their risk of dying from heart disease.

How can I read food labels to choose good carbohydrates?

Shopper comparing food labels at grocery store.

In the past, food labels weren’t always helpful in making good food decisions. Was it because food producers wanted to keep consumers in the dark, especially those who specialize in unhealthy foods high in fat and sugar? Of course, that seems to be the case.

Take the fact that in the past, labels didn’t reveal a serving size. Therefore, if the label tells you that the product has 100 calories (kcal) per serving, but does not tell you the number of servings in the package, you might be surprised to learn that there are four servings in package, for a total of 400 calories. This is especially misleading for highly concentrated foods with high caloric content in just a few bites.

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Fortunately, after decades of effort by health advocates seeking to make helpful changes, we now have food labels that make more sense. This was especially useful for carb labels. Now, labels tell us how much “added” sugar per serving is in the product. This is important because you can use this valuable information to reduce your intake of bad carbs.

However, be aware that “added” sugar is listed in grams, and you need to know what that means. Keep number four in mind. To interpret and put this into perspective, you need to know that there are 4 calories per gram of sugar and 4 grams of sugar in a level teaspoon.

What are healthy guidelines for added sugar?

Dietitian's Pick Well shelf labels can be a great starting point for shoppers looking to consume more nutrient dense foods and limit their intake of saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars.

For women, the daily maximum should not exceed 6 teaspoons (6 teaspoons x 4 grams of sugar per teaspoon x 4 calories per gram of sugar = 96 calories). For men, the daily maximum should not exceed 9 teaspoons of added sugar (144 calories).

So how are we? The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar per day (352 calories), and the majority comes from soft drinks. For example, a single 12-ounce can of Coke contains 9.75 teaspoons of “added” sugar (39 grams). Can you imagine the incredibly high sugar intake of people walking around with quart-sized soft drinks and sipping them all day?

Unfortunately, soft drinks aren’t the only culprit. “Added” sugar is everywhere, including candies, pastries, ice cream, juices and canned fruits, fast foods, cereals and granola bars. “Added” sugar is also found in many unsuspecting places, such as barbecue sauce, ketchup, spaghetti sauce, sports drinks, granola, flavored coffees, high protein bars, premade soups, canned baked beans, pre-made smoothies, etc.

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Not all carbohydrates deserve the bad reputation that has been unfairly imposed on them in recent years. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are good complex carbohydrates, loaded with fiber and healthy nutrients. Conversely, some carbs definitely deserve a bad rap, and at the top of the list are simple carbs, foods high in “added” sugar that only provide calories.

Contact Bryant Stamford, Professor of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology at Hanover College, at [email protected]

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