Ever since the Atkins low-carb, high-fat diet exploded on the American scene, carbs have been branded as bad. Unfortunately, this is only half true and has led to a lot of confusion among the public.
While some carbohydrates are bad, others are good and should be the core of a healthy diet. But how can you distinguish the good carbs from the bad ones?
Before distinguishing, it is important to understand that all carbohydrates, 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 difference is that good carbohydrates contain naturally occurring sugars such as those found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Bad carbs, on the other hand, are the sugars that are “added” to processed foods and soft drinks and dumped into your coffee or tea.
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Another difference is that good carbohydrates are “complex”, meaning that 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 it is good because the sugar in good carbohydrates slowly penetrates the bloodstream, in a “time-released” way. This is important because a slow release of sugar slows down the insulin response. (When blood sugar enters the cells and the level in the bloodstream drops, so does insulin.)
In contrast, bad carbohydrates are “simple” sugars that quickly enter the bloodstream. When this happens, the body misinterprets what is happening and thinks that a huge amount of sugar is coming. In turn, a large insulin reaction occurs to handle the sugar and escort it into the cells. A high insulin response signals the body to store body fat, especially in the abdominal area as visceral (deep) body fat around the liver and other organs. Excess visceral fat contributes to insulin resistance, pre-diabetes and ultimately to the onset of type 2 diabetes.
A third difference is that good carbohydrates provide lots of useful nutrients (vitamins, minerals and protein), and because they saturate, you eat less. Bad carbohydrates are sugars that represent “hollow” calories, meaning they provide energy but no nutrients, and excess energy is stored as body fat. In addition, bad carbohydrates do not satisfy hunger, but instead inspire you to eat more, consume more calories and add even more body fat.
Although excess body fat is a primary cause of health damage, it is important to point out that sugar itself is a problem. Recent research suggests that people of normal weight who consume plenty of excess “added” sugar may double their risk of dying from heart disease.
How can I read food labels to choose good carbs?
Food brands in the past were not always helpful when trying to make good diet decisions. Was it because food manufacturers wanted to keep consumers in the dark, especially those who specialize in health-destroying foods high in fat and sugar? It certainly seems that way.
Take the fact that labels previously did not reveal the size of a serving. Therefore, if the label told you that the product contained 100 calories (kcal) per 400 calories. This is especially misleading for highly concentrated foods with a high calorie content of just a few bites.
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Fortunately, after decades of efforts by health advocates seeking to make useful changes, we now have food labels that make more sense. This has been particularly useful for carbohydrates on labels. Now labels tell us how much “added” sugar per. portion is in the product. This is important because you can use this valuable information to cut down on your poor carbohydrate intake.
Be aware, however, that “added” sugar is stated in grams, and you need to know what that means. Remember the number four. To interpret and put this in perspective, you need to know that there are 4 calories per gram of sugar and 4 grams of sugar in a teaspoon.
What are healthy guidelines for added sugar?
For women, the daily max should not be more than 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 be more than 9 teaspoons of added sugar (144 calories).
So how are we? The average American consumes as much as 22 teaspoons of sugar a day (352 calories), and the majority of it comes from soft drinks. For example, only a 12-ounce can of coke contains 9.75 teaspoons of “added” sugar (39 grams). Can you imagine the incredibly high sugar intake of people who walk around with quartz-sized soft drinks and sip them all day long?
Unfortunately, soft drinks are not the only culprit. “Added” sugar is everywhere, including sweets, cakes, ice cream, fruit juices and canned fruits, fast food, cereals and cereal bars. “Added” sugar is also found in many unsuspecting places, such as barbeque sauce, ketchup, spaghetti sauce, sports drinks, granola, flavored coffee, high-protein bars, ready-made soups, canned baked beans, ready-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 carbohydrates that are complex, full of fiber and healthy nutrients. Conversely, some carbohydrates certainly deserve a bad reputation, and at the top of the list are simple carbohydrates, foods high in “added” sugar that provide nothing but calories.
Now Bryant Stamford, Professor of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology at Hanover College, at firstname.lastname@example.org.