Take’s Take: Are Carbs Really Bad for You? Good vs. Bad (but they taste so good!)

Carbohydrates always seem to get the blame when it comes to obesity and gaining weight. With an overload of information available on the internet and “expert nutritional advice” from our friends, it’s becoming increasingly difficult—not to mention frustrating—trying to decipher between fact, fiction and everything in between.  Contrary to a lot of the inaccurate information out there, carbohydrates can actually contribute to healthy weight management.

There are two key points to remember when it comes to carbohydrates:

  1. WHAT KIND of carbs you’re eating
  2. WHEN you’re eating carbs

Before I get into the details about carbohydrates it’s important to understand that we need carbs throughout the day. Our body uses carbs as it’s primary source of energy, the brain needs them to function properly and they help your body recover from your workouts. Unless you like feeling tired, sore and unproductive all day long I strongly suggest not cutting out carbs.

There are two types of carbohydrates; simple and complex carbohydrates. The difference between the two is their chemical structure with simple carbohydrates having one or two sugar molecules while complex carbohydrates have three or more sugar molecules. Don’t worry, I won’t get all scientific on you. That’s just the simple explanation, I’ll spare you the complex one (pun intended!). This is where the “WHAT KIND” of carbohydrate you eat comes in.

Simple carbohydrates and generally considered the “bad” carbs because they are usually processed or refined and are either stripped of their nutritional value or engineered with no nutritional value at all. They are often referred to as empty calories because of it. I happen to have a love affair with simple carbs, especially the sugary kind late night when my decision making process isn’t as good—late night decision making when it comes to food only! Simple carbohydrates have a high glycemic index (the rate at which your blood sugar rises and how high it goes after eating a certain food) so your body processes and burns them quickly which is where the term “sugar crashes” comes from. Sugar crashes lead make you hungrier sooner which can cause hunger pains that lead to poor meal decisions and overeating. The problem within United States is that white grain and refined sugar is a staple in the American diet because big food manufacturers are heavily invested in keeping it that way. Additionally, misleading nutrition labels that are based on “servings” and promote claims such as “low-fat” or “fat-free” make it difficult to determine which option is actually better.

Some examples of simple carbohydrates include:

  • Sugar
  • Added sugar (anything that ends in “-ose”)
  • Soda
  • Candy
  • Refined “white” grain
  • Desserts
  • (Basically all the good stuff!)

Complex carbohydrates, also known as “good” carbs, have a high nutritional value so your body processes them slower giving them a lower glycemic index. Complex carbs are plant-based and include:

  • Fruit (natural sugar is processed slower than simple sugars and has nutritional value)
  • Vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Seeds
  • Legumes
  • Whole grains
  • Sweet Potato
  • Brown rice

What really makes complex carbs indispensable with healthy weight management is fiber. Fiber is the part of the plant that your body cannot absorb making it an indigestible carbohydrate, therefore, it can make you feel fuller longer by adding bulk to your food without the calories which can prevent overeating and help you manage your caloric intake. For example, a bag of spinach (4 cups) has only 40 calories with 0g of sugar and 4g of fiber. It also slows the absorption of sugar which can prevent hunger pains by controlling your blood sugar levels.  There are also many health benefits to fiber including lower risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers as well as lowering cholesterol levels and support healthy bowel movements (basically makes you poo more frequently). The recommend daily intake of fiber for women is 25g per day and 38g for men.

To make sure you’re choosing complex carbohydrates instead of simple carbohydrates get good at reading nutrition labels and follow these shopping tips:

  • Stay away from low-fat or low-sugar foods (they usually just replace slower burn fat with faster burn sugar)
  • Choose water instead of sugary drinks or soda
  • When deciding between two complex carb options, pick the one that has lower total carbs and higher fiber
  • Avoid ingredients that end in “-ose”, especially if it’s one of the first three or four ingredients
  • Avoid processed or refined foods
  • Stick to whole grains (oats, whole wheat, brown rice and sweet potatoes)
  • Have more fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Pick lower sugar snacks such as almonds, string cheese and protein bars

Your body breaks down both simple and complex carbohydrates into sugar which is either burned for energy or stored as fat. Whether it gets burned for energy or stored as fat is where the “WHEN” comes in. Simple carbs and complex carbs along with fat and protein all have calories so regardless of how you are getting your calories, if you consume more calories than you burn over the course of the day (positive caloric balance) you will gain weight. The only way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you take in (negative caloric balance). This can be done by increasing your caloric expenditure through exercise or decreasing your caloric intake through a calorie controlled meal plan. Incorporating both is optimal and recommended by yours truly.

Where carbohydrates can become problematic is at dinner which is when many Americans have a heavy simple carbohydrate meal–think white bread to start then having pasta or potatoes followed by a sugar dessert. You can easily go into a positive caloric balance if you’re not keeping track of your portion size.

Having carbohydrates at night isn’t necessarily a bad thing but if your going to have them stick to complex carbs. My philosophy has always been to cut out what I call “intentional carbs” (bread, pasta, rice, potato, fruit and sugar) at dinner and add high fiber foods and lean protein (chicken, fish and lean beef). As I mentioned earlier, fiber is indigestible so it doesn’t have calories and it adds bulk to your meal to make you feel full and subsequently keep your caloric intake lower at dinner. All of which will help you stay in a negative caloric balance and promote weight loss. It’s a low carbohydrate meal but not a no carbohydrate meal. There are studies and data that support having carbs at night and not having carbs at night. I prefer being like Switzerland and stay in the middle on this one. You can also add fat in the evening so long as you don’t go crazy. 1g of fat has 9 calories while 1g of protein and carbohydrates has only 4 calories so the calories can add up quickly.

When it comes to healthy nutrition, having the right information that you can understand is crucial, particularly when it comes to carbohydrates.  Knowing what kind of carbohydrates you’re eating and when to have them can be the difference between success and failure in regards to healthy weight management. Remember, your body needs carbs to function properly so don’t avoid them or cut them out completely. Just be sure to have your carbohydrate heavy meals earlier in the day and incorporate complex carbs whenever possible. Save the simple carbs for your cheat meal!


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