Carbohydrates have been called everything under the sun. Depending on the diet or school of thought you follow, carbs can either be necessary for your survival or the worst thing you can eat! With so much conflicting information swirling around diet books, the internet, and the media, we decide to uncover the truth: Are carbs good for you?
While you should always consult with a medical professional before making drastic changes to your diet, and we at the Fabulous can’t replace advice from nutritionists or doctors, we’ve done our best to sum up everything you need to know about the true nature of carbohydrates and the role they play in your body.
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates, or carbs, are one of three macronutrients you find in food (the other two being fats and protein). Macronutrients provide the body with energy, are eaten in large quantities, and form the foundation of any diet, as the body cannot create these nutrients itself and must come from food.
Carbs have three components:
- Sugars: Sweet, simple molecules like glucose or fructose. Are good for quick energy and have the most intense effect on blood sugar levels.
- Starches: Longer chains of glucose molecules, which are broken down into glucose during digestion. Affects blood sugar levels more gradually.
- Fiber: Humans can’t actually digest fiber, but it does feed friendly bacteria in the digestive system and also aids in digestion by bulking up stool and softening it, which makes it easier to pass.
Sugars are known as simple carbs while starches and fibers are considered complex carbs.
What do Carbohydrates do?
The main purpose of carbs is to provide your body with energy. When we consume carbohydrates, our body breaks them down into glucose, which is then sent to the bloodstream. Our cells absorb this glucose and, through a process called cellular respiration, produce adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which your body uses as fuel. If we consume more carbohydrates than our bodies can use at the moment, the glucose can be converted into glycogen, which is stored in the liver and muscles for later.
Most cells in our bodies can produce ATP from a variety of sources but prefer carbs as their primary energy source, especially the brain, which uses up to 20 percent of the body’s energy stores and runs almost exclusively on glucose.
Carbs, particularly fiber, also aid in our digestive health. Complex carbs help us stay fuller longer, which can be useful for weight management. Finally, complex carbs and fibers are good for cardiovascular health and maintaining healthy cholesterol levels.
Are Carbs Bad for You?
No matter what side of the argument you’re on, everybody needs a certain amount of carbohydrates to stay healthy. This number can vary wildly from person to person depending on age, sex, general health, and nutritional goals, but according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, carbohydrates should make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories.
The American Diabetes Association has a simple guideline: Imagine a dinner plate divided in half with one half divided again, making three sections total. The largest portion should be filled with non-starchy vegetables, such as spinach or carrots. One of the small sections should be filled with a lean protein. The final section should be dedicated to carbohydrates.
While carbohydrates aren’t inherently unhealthy, excessive consumption of simple carbs have been linked to poor cardiovascular health and weight gain. Some simple carbs occur naturally in fruits and milk, but most of the simple carbs come from added sugar in foods.
Simple carbs should be avoided or substituted out for complex carbs, which keep you fuller longer and have a gentler effect on blood sugar levels.
Complex carbs, starches and fiber, contain more nutrients than simple carbs, aren’t as heavily processed or refined, and digest more slowly, which keeps you fuller for longer and can help manage blood sugar spikes for type 2 diabetics. You can find complex carbs in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts.
Simple Carb Substitutions
Many of the simple carbs that have become dietary staples can be easily substituted out for better options. Here are some of the worst offenders, along with potential substitutions you can make to lower your simple carb consumption:
Soda: Try water flavored with fruits and herbs, or unsweetened iced tea.
Baked goods: Fruit is the best substitution for baked treats, but if they’re not enough for your sweet tooth, try making your own cookies or cakes and substitute sugar for applesauce or plain flour for whole-wheat.
Fruit juice concentrate: If you can’t make your own juice at home, always look for 100 percent fruit juice when out shopping.
Breakfast cereals: The bad news is even the low-carb breakfast cereals still tend to be loaded with simple carbs, though some are better than others. While best avoided entirely, some brands, like Special K or Cheerios, are high enough in fiber to justify enjoying occasionally.