A carb is a carb, right? Wrong. If you think the carbohydrates you’re getting from a blueberry muffin are the same as the ones you’re getting when you chow down on a bowl of leafy greens, you’re sorely mistaken. There are good carbs and there are bad carbs. Carbs you need in your daily diet and carbs you don’t. Despite the dozens of diet plans that cut out carbs, they’re important for your physical well being. Understanding what carbohydrates do in your body and why, can help you fit the right carbs into your routine to help you meet your goals.
Don’t be scared of carbs, either. They’re not the enemy. Carbs provide fuel for your body and, without them, you won’t be able to function properly. Cutting them out completely is not the answer, nor is it practical. Your best bet is to aim for understanding so you can make good choices. Here’s a helpful primer on carbohydrates: what they are, what they do, why you need them and how to get them.
What Is A Carbohydrate?
The term “carb” gets tossed around a lot in nutrition. There’s “low-carb” this and “carb-free” that, but before you fall prey to marketing tactics, it’s important to understand what exactly carbs are and why they’re necessary to your good health.
“Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient found in many foods and beverages,” according to the Mayo Clinic. It’s as simple as that. For humans, the other macronutrients are fat and protein. Carbs occur naturally in a lot of plant-based foods, like grains and fruits. You can also find carbs in vegetables, milk, nuts, seeds and legumes. They are completely natural and completely necessary.
Carbs come in three different forms: sugar, starch and fiber. Sugar is chemically the most simple form of carbohydrate. In an ingredients list, pretty much anything that ends in -ose is a sugar. Fructose is fruit sugar, sucrose is standard table sugar and lactose, to which some people are intolerant, is milk sugar. Starch is a complex carbohydrate, meaning it’s made up of many sugar units bonded together. Same goes for fiber. Foods offer different proportions of these three types of carbohydrates.
Why You Need Carbs
Carbs do a variety of things for your health. First and foremost they are a source of energy. During digestion, sugars and starches break down into simple sugars, particularly glucose and fructose. They are absorbed into your bloodstream, according to the Mayo Clinic. Blood sugar, or blood glucose, is often monitored as a measure of metabolic health. Glucose is used by your body for energy, its first choice for fueling everything you do. If it’s not used up, it’s stored in your liver, muscles and other cells for your body to use later. Either that or it’s transformed into fat. Fructose is a simple sugar that is readily transformed into fat, so beware of “high fructose corn syrup” on an ingredient list.
Carbs can help protect you from disease, too. According to the Mayo Clinic, there is some evidence that whole grains and dietary fiber from whole food sources can help to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. That fiber, which is essential for your digestive health, can also aid in the battle against obesity and type 2 diabetes. It can help you control your weight by making you feel fuller on fewer calories. Fiber also helps support your health by maintaining the health of your gut microbiota.
You need carbs. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, they should make up between 45 and 65 percent of your daily calories. If you’re eating 2,000 calories a day, between 900 and 1,300 of those calories should come from carbohydrate sources. That works out to about 225 to 325 grams every day. But not all carbohydrates are considered equal. There are healthy sources of carbohydrates, and then there are those that should be consumed in moderation or avoided altogether.
Good Carbs Vs. Bad Carbs
Not all carbs are created equal. There are carbs in apples and there are carbs in Twinkies, but you know you’re not getting the same nutrition with both foods. So what are the bad carbs? According to WebMD, sugars, added sugars and starchy, refined white grains are the kind of carbs you should seek to reduce. In general, Americans are eating more of these than ever. All of these supply a quick burst of energy to the body in the form of glucose. Good when your body needs fast energy, but bad for the long term health and sustained energy needs of your body.
The calories you get from carbs should be mostly from complex carbohydrates, like starches from whole grains and fiber from fruits, nuts and vegetables. Fiber in particular is going to give you the most health benefits when you incorporate it into your diet to meet your daily carbohydrate needs. Soluble fiber absorbs water and improves heart health, resistance to diabetes and aids weight loss. Insoluble fiber aids colon health.
The Best Sources Of Good Carbs
For all of the sources of bad carbohydrates, there are equally as many delicious sources of good, healthy carbohydrates – the kind you want in your diet. For every crappy cupcake there is a fiber-rich fruit. The Mayo Clinic advises focusing on whole fresh, frozen or canned fruits and veggies without added sugar to get your fiber fix. Fruit juices and dried fruits are OK, but you won’t be getting the same fiber and they’re often loaded with natural sugar, which ups the calories.
When you’re reaching for a bread product, choose one made from whole grains. These will be a better source of fiber and other essential nutrients than refined grains. The process that refines grain strips out some of the good stuff. You’re safe with low-fat dairy products, though. Just stay away from those with added sugar. Legumes, like peas, beans and lentils, are great sources of fiber and protein.
The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has a few suggestions about how best to work carbohydrates into your daily diet. Try starting your day with some whole grain, like steel cut or old fashioned oats. Just don’t toss in a whole bunch of extra sugar. Incorporate whole grain breads into your lunches and snacks. Brown rice and quinoa are also great ways to go beyond bread for your grains. At dinner, swap your side of potatoes for beans that provide a healthy dose of protein with your carbs.
Now that you understand how carbohydrates work within your body, why they’re so important and how to incorporate them into your diet in the healthiest way, you can stop fearing carbs and start reaping all of the benefits of healthy carbs.