Some of the most popular diet trends in recent years have been low carb diets. The keto diet has actually been so popular that it’s easy to think that carbs should be avoided at all costs. But before you cut your carb intake, don’t you want to know more? With a little research, it’s easy to learn that there doesn’t have to be a blanket, yes-or-no answer.
First things first—what are carbs?
Carbohydrates are one of the three main macronutrients we consume—the others are protein and fat. Macronutrients provide the body with the energy it requires to function. Once metabolized, carbs are converted into glucose and distributed throughout the body to be used as an energy source. The USDA recommends that no matter your age or gender, you should consume about 130g of the macronutrient per day.
And now, for the million-dollar question: are carbs good or bad for you?Similar to fats, the answer depends on the type of carb.
Simple vs Complex Carbs
Carbohydrates are classified into two categories: simple and complex. This differentiation comes down to the chemical makeup of the macronutrient, and whether or not it is quickly digested and absorbed.
Simple carbs are sugar, whereas complex carbs are starches. Simple carbs can be healthy, like most fruits, or full of processed sugar, like candy and soda. Complex carbs can be healthy and full of fiber, like vegetables, whole grains and potatoes. Bad complex carbs are processed starches, like pasta, potato chips and white bread.
As a general rule, complex and simple carbs are both considered healthy when they are not processed (think fruits, veggies, whole grains) because they keep you full for longer and often contain beneficial nutrients and vitamins. On the other end of the spectrum, eating processed sugars and starches can cause blood sugar spikes, which leads to increased hunger and makes it harder for the body to burn fat.
Beyond being simple or complex, carbohydrates are further broken down into three different types:
- Fiber is essential for digestion and healthy bowel movements and helps to prevent chronic diseases. Examples include whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables.
- Starches are simple sugar molecules that form chains to become complex carbs. Starch is also the main carb category that Americans consume. Examples include potatoes, beans, pasta, lentils, breads and whole grains.
- Sugar is the most basic, simple type of carbohydrate. Sugar can be found naturally, like in dairy products and fruits, or in processed, refined foods like syrups, soda and candy.
Health Benefits of “Good” Carbs
Though they should be consumed in moderation, complex starches and fibers are associated with a host of health perks. Regular fiber intake promotes weight control, supports immune function, and may even prevent colon cancer. There is also evidence that the fiber found in whole grains may improve cholesterol levels, and lower the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
Incorporate plenty of slow-burning, nutrient-dense carbs like leafy greens, quinoa, squash, apples, sweet potatoes, beans and oatmeal into your diet. These carbs offer the most benefits, and because the carb-count is low in most of these foods, they can help you maintain or lose weight much easier than complex carbs.
Low-Carb Diets Today: The Keto Diet
Despite the nutritional benefits that can be reaped from “good” carbs, several current mainstream diets discourage starch intake for various reasons. One of the trendiest lower-carb diets circulating right now is the ketogenic diet, aka the keto diet. This diet focuses on minimizing the intake of starches and protein and increasing the consumption of fats.
The diet aims to put the body into a metabolic state called ketosis. Ketosis replaces glucose and sugar—which is typically the body’s main energy source—with fat. This puts the body into a fat-burning state. Although the keto diet focuses on fat intake, “good” starches are permitted in small allowances. Get an idea of what the ketogenic diet looks like here.
So… What Gives?
The biggest takeaway The Healthy Fish offers is that you shouldn’t be afraid of all carbs, you should just be wary of the kinds you’re consuming and how they can effect your body. Continue to enjoy a Christmas cake or wintry soup from time to time—after all, the holidays are about indulging—but aim to eat more unprocessed carbs, whether they are simple or complex, as they have more health benefits than processed ones.
Learn more about how macronutrients impact your overall health in Revisiting the Food Pyramid: How Much of Each Food Group Should we Really be Consuming?
Photo Credits: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock Inc., farbled / Shutterstock Inc., Joshua Resnick / Shutterstock Inc.