I think a discussion on good carbs is a worthy topic given my recent travels to Costa Rica and Mexico. God knows I crushed enough bad carbs to feed an under 21 Rugby team.
Good carbs, bad carbs, carb timing… let’s take a closer look.
You’d be amazed by how many low- and no-carb diets are hugely popular these days. Everything from the Paleo Diet to the Atkins Diet to the No Carb Diet recommends that you cut carbohydrates from your diet—or, at the very least, cut back on the amount of carbs in your diet.
- Less appetite, particularly fewer cravings for unhealthy (read: sugary and processed) foods
- Faster weight loss, even if you don’t restrict your calorie intake
- Better fat loss; specifically, a lot of the fat lost comes from your midsection
- Lower triglycerides (fat in storage form floating around in your bloodstream)
- Higher HDL (good) cholesterol, which in turn keeps your LDL (bad) cholesterol in check
- Lower blood sugar levels, which can prevent insulin resistance and reduce your risk of diabetes
- Lower blood pressure; better cardiovascular health overall
- Reduced risk of metabolic syndrome, and a faster metabolic function
As you can see, there is good to be had from managing your carb intake.
But is there such a thing as cutting back TOO MUCH? Should you eliminate carbs from your diet completely, or are they a necessary part of a balanced meal plan. In case you didn’t already know, the answer is definitely more along the lines of “you need carbs, just not so many”…
Why Good Carbs Matter
Do you know why carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients (along with protein and fat)? It’s because they’re of MACRO importance for your health. Specifically, they’re needed by your body in order to produce energy.
When you eat carbs, your body absorbs them and sends them off to the liver, where they’re turned into glucose. Glucose is one of your body’s primary energy sources. Your brain uses glucose, as does your heart, lungs, skeletal muscles, eyes, and other internal organs, functions, and systems. Without glucose, your body wouldn’t function properly, unless you were to switch your primary energy source into a Fat Adapted State.
Carbs are your body’s “quick-acting” energy source. If you need to suddenly burst into action (such as when fleeing a predator), your body taps into carb-based energy to give you that rush of energy. Only after a few minutes of work does it make the shift to burning fat.
This means your body NEEDS carbs in order for you to be active and engage in physical activity. Aerobic exercise (low intensity) uses stored fat, but anaerobic exercise (high intensity) uses carb-based energy. There are a wide range of exceptions to this very general rule, but in terms of basic principles, this logic remains sound.
At a basic metabolic level, without carbs, your body wouldn’t be able to produce the energy needed to keep going. You would fatigue more quickly, at least in the weeks/months it would take to train your body to use fat more efficiently. The modern human has adapted to using primarily carbs as the energy source, and they play a role in the production of hormones, enzymes, and other internal chemicals. Carbs are VITAL to a healthy body!
Types of Carbs
But here’s the caveat: the TYPE of carbs you eat can determine whether you’re “healthy” or “unhealthy”. Certain carbs are loaded with nutrients along with the carbs, which we consider good carbs, while others contain very little nutritional value and a lot of carbohydrates.
Tubers like potatoes and sweet potatoes tend to be high in carbs, but they also have plenty of nutrients that your body needs. For example, white potatoes are loaded with potassium, niacin, and B vitamins, while sweet potatoes deliver a lot of Vitamin A. Tubers are a natural source of carbs, and they are among the healthiest option.
Grains like rice, wheat, and quinoa are incredibly healthy in their natural state. They contain quick-acting energy to help keep you going through your workout or a long day of physical labor. When fully natural (brown rice, whole wheat, etc.), they’re amazing for your health, thanks to their high nutrient and fiber content.
Refined Carbs fall into the BAD category. Basically, they’re grains like rice and wheat that have been refined, meaning they have had the fiber removed and gone through a bleaching process to make them white. White rice and white flour are very low in nutrients but contain A LOT of carbs. They are the kind that raise your blood sugar levels, leading to increased fat storage, insulin resistance, and decreased metabolism.
Sugar comes in two basic forms: natural sugars (fructose, found in fruit) and processed sugars (sugars that may have come from natural sources, but which have been refined/bleached/processed so as to be sweet with little nutritional value).
Sugar is 100% pure carbohydrates, with no fiber to slow down the absorption/conversion-to-glucose process. Eaten in high quantities, it’s the carbohydrate that leads to all the health problems.
To get even more technical, there are three types of carbohydrates you need to know about:
- Monosaccharides – These are single units of carbohydrate molecules, and are easier to digest. Glucose, galactose, and fructose are all monosaccharides.
- Disaccharides – These are two monosaccharides connected in a two-molecule chain, and are also easier for your body to absorb and put to use. Sucrose (also known as table sugar) is a mix of glucose and fructose.
- Polysaccharides – These are multiple monosaccharides connected in longer chains, which are harder for the body to break down. The starch in beans, wheat, and potatoes is an example of polysaccharides.
The more molecules in the chain of carbohydrates, the longer it takes your body to break them down and put them to use. This means a slower rate of absorption, which in turn means lower glucose levels, better insulin control, and a steady stream of energy rather than “all at once”. Metabolically speaking, the steady stream of energy is far better (and more conducive to weight loss/management) than a sudden dose of easily-absorbed energy (from simple sugars).
The Fiber Factor
As you read the information above, did you notice the pattern? The types of carbs that were considered “good” were the ones that had a lot of fiber and nutrients?
It’s always important to get vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and enzymes in your diet, which is why fruits and veggies are so vital to your health. But in the case of carbs, it’s fiber that matters most.
Fiber does two important things:
- It slows down carb absorption. Fiber stops your body from absorbing ALL the carbs at once. Instead, it allows only a slow trickle into your bloodstream, preventing high glucose levels (which contribute to insulin resistance and increased fat storage). The more fiber a carb has, the healthier it is!
- It increases metabolic rate. Fiber has been linked to a decrease in a wide range of health problems, including cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. It can change the way your body absorbs and uses ALL nutrients (not just carbs), and can help your body to utilize the food you eat more efficiently. It will also increase calorie-burning, leading to a faster metabolism.
Can you see where this is heading? Fiber is linked to good health. Fiber plays a role in digestion, nutrient absorption, waste elimination, even immune function. It also raises your metabolic rate and helps you to have more energy for longer periods of time.
The Bad Carbs: Cut These Out
This doesn’t mean you have to be militant and never enjoy some of the amazingly decadent creations, but with anything moderation is critical and infrequency are important words to remember.
For a healthy metabolism, there are a few carbs you need to cut from your diet. Simply put: they’re any carbs that don’t contain a lot of fiber, vitamins, minerals, or enzymes. Let’s take a look at the most common “bad carbs”:
Refined Sugar – Sugar (sucralose) can come from many sources, though a large amount of is it derived from sugar cane. In its natural form, it’s actually quite healthy (look at molasses and its high nutrients). Sadly, by the time it ends up on our table, it has gone through a complex refining process that eliminates most of the nutritional value and concentrates the sweetness (carbohydrates). It’s a simple sugar that’s easily broken down, meaning it floods your body with energy and raises your blood sugar levels.
Note: Artificial sugars like aspartame aren’t any better! They can raise your blood sugar levels, even if they don’t have “calories”.
High-Sugar Foods – Have you ever looked at the sugar content of your condiments and beverages? Ketchup, BBQ sauce, teriyaki sauce, fruit juice, fruit “drink”, and soda are all CRAZY high in sugar. And it’s the “bad” kind of sugar that slows down your metabolism and promotes fat storage. Cakes, cookies, pastries, candy, chocolate (unless it’s bittersweet/dark/natural), and other goodies are also on that list. If it’s sweet and doesn’t grow on a tree, it’s a no-no!
Low-Fiber Foods – There may not be any sugar in your pasta, white rice, white flour, homemade white bread, or flour tortillas, but that doesn’t make them healthy. The refined starches in these foods are broken down too easily by your body and turned into glucose. There is also no fiber to slow down absorption of the carbs, so it ends up being just as harmful as a high-sugar food. If it doesn’t have a lot of fiber, it’s off the menu.
These foods are the ones that will slow down your metabolism, store fat, and contribute to metabolic syndrome and obesity. Avoid them as much as possible!
The Good Carbs: Include Them in a Healthy Diet
Here’s a harsh truth: carbs are the worst of the macronutrients. Your body is used to turning them into energy so it makes you believe you NEED them. Ideally, you should start cutting back on carbs to train your metabolism to burn more fat. Over time, this will lead to more effective fat-burning, weight loss, and metabolic function.
For now, here are the “good carbs”, the ones that will keep your metabolism working at full steam:
Fruit – Fruit is loaded with dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. However, it’s also loaded with fructose. You should stick with 1-2 servings of fruit per day—for the sake of getting more nutrients, not more carbs!
Whole Grains – Whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, and barley are all good sources of carbs, yet they contain a lot of dietary fiber to slow the absorption rate. This makes them a balanced food, and a good addition to your diet. But (and this is a big BUT), they’re still high in carbs. You should stick with no more than 2-3 servings of whole grain per day if you want to train your body to burn more fat. If you’re just trying to maintain a healthy weight, you can up it to 4-5 servings of whole grains.
Tubers – Potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams are rich in polysaccharides, but they contain very little fiber. They’re the sort of “middle ground” between healthy and unhealthy. Eating a single tuber per day is a good way to get more of the nutrients unique to this food type, but any more and you risk the same effects as eating a lot of refined grains.
As you can see above, carbohydrates are vital for a healthy metabolism. They provide you with the energy your body needs for activity and exercise, but they can also lead to health problems (obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, even cardiovascular disease) if consumed in manner that isn’t balanced. Now I am not saying you can’t have a beer and a pizza, but limit your exposure.
Stay consistent with the “good” carbs, and work to eliminate the bad carbs from your life.
Slowly reduce the excess carbs in your diet until you’re eating plenty of protein, veggies, fiber, and healthy fats, with a bit of carbohydrates for energy!