Carbohydrates: friend or foe? Depends on who you ask. The Diet industry claims they wreck your weight and that we need to avoid carbs like the plague, but the food industry promotes a high-carb diet pushing carbs into every meal we eat. Carbohydrates have been the biggest controversial food group for decades, so are they healthy or not?
Their bad reputation comes from being notorious for gaining weight. However, not all carbs are bad, as not all carbs are the same. Some are loaded with nutritional benefits like vitamins and minerals, while others are just packed with sugar and unhealthy fats. Which leads us to some of life’s biggest questions, brown rice or white? White bread or wheat?
We’re gonna explore these different types and how they are used in the body to help clear up this carbohydrate confusion.
Types of Carbs
Since carbohydrates are used as a great source of energy, we need them to survive, but some offer health benefits while others cause inflammation and weight gain that lead to disease. Therefore, it’s crucial to understand the different types of sugars and which ones you should be avoiding.
There are two main types of carbohydrates, simple and complex.
Complex carbs– starches, glycogen, or fiber. Commonly found in fruits and vegetables like potatoes, oats, bananas, and berries, as well as whole-grain foods.
- Slower digesting due to fiber content, easily converted to glucose for energy, gradual rise in blood sugar, and reduced insulin levels lead to less weight gain and a happier gut!
Simple/Refined carbs– monosaccharides (one sugar), or disaccharides (two sugars)
- Monosaccharides: glucose, fructose, and galactose. Disaccharides: maltose, sucrose, or lactose.
- Refined sugars are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, spike blood sugar & insulin levels, leading to weight gain and inflammation. Usually harder on the liver to process, causing higher cholesterol levels and a fatty liver over time.
Examples of commonly used sugars:
- Glucose– One of the most important energy sources. The brain can only use glucose for energy. Naturally found in fruits, veggies, and honey or processed into High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) & flour. Absorbed quickly, spikes blood sugar very high
- Fructose– Naturally found in fruits & veggies, or processed into HFCS by adding glucose. Harder to process in the liver and causes inflammation
- Sucrose– Naturally found in fruits & veggies, but mainly processed into simple table sugar (Glucose + Fructose = Sucrose)
It may not be the sugars themselves, but rather the refining process that makes them terrible for our health. Processing involves reducing sugars into a fine powder with the use of chemicals or manual refining, yielding flour used to make bread, pastries, crackers, and other processed foods. These foods are essentially stripped of their nutritional value, like fiber. Once ingested, this fine sugary powder is absorbed quickly, leading to a cascade of events causing increased fat storage and inflammation. It’s obvious that white flour used in processed foods contributes to poor health outcomes so it makes sense that white bread is unhealthy, but what about white rice?
Brown Rice is lower in calories and carbs, but higher in fiber, making this the better choice for weight management and overall health.
White rice, however, is the preferred choice for athletes. Skeletal muscles store their own glucose supply, so after an intense workout, white rice quickly replaces depleted glucose reserves and promotes muscle growth.
White bread is one of the worst processed foods since it spikes blood glucose and creates an inflammatory response that contributes to heart disease, chronic pain, allergies, and over time, chronic disease.
Whole Grain Bread
Whole Grain has vitamins, minerals, protein, & fiber to slow digestion and help balance blood sugar levels.
Digestion of Carbs
I wish I was Ms. Frizzle and could take you on a magic school bus ride to see what really happens when we eat simple carbs compared to complex carbs.
Glucose is the most usable form of energy for the body. The majority of cells in your body can use glucose or fat as energy, but the brain can only use glucose. If all we consume is fake sugars, the body has to convert these blends to glucose, which can take a toll on the GI tract and, over time, lead to disease.
HFCS is a hot topic of health right now as it’s hidden in most processed foods and beverages. Thought to be safer as it’s sweeter than regular sugar, much cheaper to make, and does not raise blood sugar as high as glucose. Seems great, but the liver has a hard time processing fructose and over time leads to a faulty system. The liver gets backed up with sugar, leading to increased fat production. Fat pockets build up in the liver, leading to a fatty liver, which ultimately dumps more cholesterol into the bloodstream. The risk for fatty liver disease, heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes, and obesity rises significantly. Many sugar substitutes act this same way, so while the blood sugar may be normal, that diet soda can still cause significant damage.
- Natural Sugars- Choose sugars that are naturally made such as honey, maple syrup, fruits, or coconut nectar. Natural sugars will still have an effect on blood sugar, so moderation is key.
- Limit/Avoid Processed Sugars- This can be hard, as they are often hidden in most processed foods under different names. There are nearly 100 different names for sugars that can be hidden in food labels. Any ingredient that ends in “-ose” is sugar (Glucose, Sucrose, Fructose, etc).
- Whole Grains- Choose whole-grain options for bread, oats, and pasta. Be sure it says “WHOLE” on the ingredient list.
- Eat You Carbs with FIBER- Fiber will slow digestion and help balance blood sugar levels while keeping you full. Less insulin spikes helps restore insulin sensitivity, which helps to manage weight.
- Flour- If you love to bake, consider switching out the traditional white flour for a healthier alternative like Almond or Coconut Flour.
Regardless of the type, carbs need to be controlled. Natural or not, any excess can lead to weight gain. We all love to have our cake & eat it too, and we still can but let’s focus on sugars that aren’t going to wreck your health. You can still enjoy that heavenly slice of chocolate cake, just not every day, and hopefully, it’s made with almond flour and natural cocoa. The 80/20 rule is eating healthy 80% of the time and enjoying the treats 20% of the time. Feeding your body healthy nutritious food that reduces inflammation and combats disease the majority of the time allows you to process the junk foods easier so they won’t have a major influence on your overall health.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health conditions without consulting your healthcare provider. Information used is based on experience and opinion, not 100% evidence. Always consult with a health care practitioner before relying on any information in this article or on this website. Some links in this article may contain affiliate links.