Healthy carbs have a place in healthy diets. And with all the information out there, it can be easy to fear carbs. But, healthy carbs can help to make up the majority of your diet, especially if you’re active. Carbohydrates can provide the energy you need to start your day, boost brain function, help with weight control and improve digestive health. They aren’t evil.
However, not all carbs are created equal. Naturally occurring sugars in fruit, added sugars, refined grains, and white rice are all considered carbs but don’t supply long-lasting energy. A quick fix of energy from unhealthy carbs works against the nature of the body and could actually cause inflammation and chronic disease. So, let’s jump right in to what you need to know, so you can make an informed decision on which carbs to eat to help your body and which carbs you might want to avoid.
What Are Macros?
A few years ago, you couldn’t be introduced to the world of nutrition without calories being mentioned. Everyone was all about counting calories and reducing the number of calories you consumed to lose weight or increasing calories to gain weight.
Nowadays, it’s all about macros. Carbohydrates, in addition to protein and fat, are one of three macronutrients in food. Macros are a group of nutrients found in food that give you energy. Whether you’re very active or are trying to eat more mindfully, all three macros are essential to a healthy, happy lifestyle. None of them should be completely cut out if you want to feel your best.
When you eat food, it’s broken down into these three macronutrient categories. Your body breaks down and uses fats, carbs, and proteins in unique ways. Despite their sometimes poor reputation, when consumed from a healthy source, carbs are essential to your overall wellbeing. Carbohydrates include sugars, fibers, and starches.
When eaten, carbs are broken down into glucose and either used immediately for energy or stored as glycogen in your liver or muscles. Although carbs are a hotly debated topic, experts believe that complex carbohydrates should make up 45 to 65% of your daily calories, depending on your goals and activity levels.
Carbs are actually especially important for runners and other endurance athletes. They provide great energy for you to keep going and train at your best.
Complex Carbs vs Simple Carbs
When it comes to carbs, you have healthy sources and sources that do more damage than good. Not all carbs are the same, and carbs from many whole foods are nutritious and healthy. Whereas, simple carbs or refined carbs have been heavily processed with most of the nutrients and fiber removed.
There are two types of simple carbs: sugars, and refined grains. Sugars include refined sugars like high fructose corn syrup and sucrose. These might be in more food than you think they are in. High fructose corn syrup isn’t always just in your favorite candy. Refined grains on the other hand are grains that have had the fibrous content removed. The main source of white flour is refined wheat. Refined carbs have had the fiber stripped and are often referred to as “empty calories”.
When you’re thinking about living and feeling your best, the foods that are the most nutrient dense are what are going to make you feel good in the long run. Sure, some of your favorite comfort foods out there might taste good in the moment, but I’m sure you’ve experienced how these foods don’t always feel the best a few hours or more later. Plus, a lot of these foods can even potentially have damaging effects on your body in the long term.
As refined carbs are digested quickly, they have a high glycemic index. Foods with a high glycemic index have been linked to overeating and an increased risk of several diseases. The glycemic index of a food refers to how sharply a serving of a certain food spikes your blood sugar.
Unfortunately, sugars and refined grains form a large part of the modern Western diet. Empty calories lead to a rapid spike in glucose and insulin levels. This surge in energy is short-lived unlike the effect of complex carbs.
The main dietary sources of refined carbs and sugars include:
- White bread
- White flour
- Added sugars
- Processed foods
Unlike simple carbs, complex carbs take much longer to digest and provide a stable source of energy throughout the day. They have longer chains of sugar molecules that provide longer-lasting energy. Naturally, your body craves complex carbs as the ideal energy source. To make sure you get enough of the right carbs, eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole-grain pasta, ancient grains such as quinoa, brown rice, and whole wheat bread.
Here are some fantastic nutrient-dense complex carbs that can form a part of a healthy diet:
- Wild and brown rice
- Sweet potato
4 Benefits of Carbohydrates
Getting enough fiber in your diet is essential to a fully-functioning digestive system and preventing digestive problems in the future. The type of fiber that doesn’t break down during digestion is known as insoluble fiber. It helps to push food down the digestive tract and speed up the digestive process. Without sufficient fiber in your diet, it can lead to constipation, weight gain, diet-related tiredness, and nausea.
Manage Weight Control
Although carbs are often blamed for weight gain, the right carbs can help promote weight loss and manage weight control. Researchers from Brigham Young University in Utah observed the eating habits of middle-aged women for two years. They found that, in general, those who increased their intake of fiber, lost weight.
Boost Heart Health
Eating dietary fiber helps to prevent cholesterol buildup in your arteries. This stops dangerous blockages that can result in a heart attack and stroke. Eating whole-grain foods like fruit, vegetables, oats, quinoa, and bran helps to give you the fiber you need to protect your heart.
In a meta-analysis and systematic review published in the journal, The Lancet, it looked at data from 58 clinical studies. They found that those who consumed at least 25 g of carbs from complex sources had up to 30% lower odds of death from any cause. The participants also had a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and colorectal cancer.
Fuel for the Body and the Brain
Whole-grain carbohydrates are especially nutritious and a great source of energy. Carbs are your body’s main source of fuel. When you consume food, your body breaks down its sugars and starches into the bloodstream and becomes glucose. Glucose is essential for energy in everything from breathing to weight training. It’s also the primary fuel for the brain.
How Simple Carbs Negatively Impact Health
Whole grains are naturally high in dietary fiber. A grain consists of three parts. consists of the germ, bran, and endosperm. Molecularly, they contain high amounts of nutrients like B vitamins, magnesium, and iron. During the refining process, the bran and germ are removed from the food along with a number of nutrients. This means that what’s left is a food that has little to no fiber, nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
The process of creating refined or simple carbs goes against nature and can lead to several issues. Diets high in refined carbs are often found to be low in fiber. Low-fiber diets have been linked to an increase in numerous health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, colon cancer, and other digestive problems.
Refined carbs are low in fiber and are digested quickly. Eating too many refined carbs may contribute to overeating and obesity. Your body may trick you into eating more food to make up for the lack of nutritional value. Long-term studies have shown that eating refined carbs is linked with increased belly fat over five years. Evidence suggests that eating too many refined carbs could result in increased inflammation. Chronic inflammation has been linked to diseases such as heart disease, stroke, autoimmune disorders, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Heavily processed and refined carbs can be sky-high in calories with little to no nutritional content. But, not all carbs are created equal. By avoiding refined grains and added sugars, you can help your body to thrive. By choosing whole foods, you can give yourself the fuel your body naturally needs to flourish for optimal energy, health, and fitness.