Carbs. We hear an awful lot about them these days. Mostly we hear about HOW MANY carbs we should be eating.
Many health experts now agree a low carb lifestyle, such as keto, is an excellent way to control our blood sugar levels, keep our weight down, and lower our risk of developing type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases.
But how do we know which carbs are good for us and which are bad? If we’re following a low-carb diet and are limiting ourselves to 20 – 50 grams of carbs a day, who’s to say we can’t eat 2 Snickers bars and stay under our carb limit?
Okay, I’m obviously being sarcastic about the Snickers, but it can be very confusing for many people to know which carbs are the good kind they should be focusing on eating. This blog post aims to clear up any confusion.
What are Carbs Anyway?
Carbohydrates are one of the three main macronutrients, protein and fat being the other two. Carbs can be split into three main categories:
These are sweet, short-chain carbs found in some foods. Think fructose, glucose and sucrose.
These are long chains of glucose molecules that eventually are broken down into glucose (blood sugar) in your digestive system.
While we cannot digest fiber, the bacteria in our GI tract can make good use of some types of fiber.
The main purpose of carbs in the diet is to provide energy. Once they are broken down into glucose, they can be used as energy for immediate use, or get stored as fat for later use.
People who are on the keto or carnivore diet will tell you they have PLENTY of energy, without eating hundreds of grams of carbs each day. So in this point in time, it might be more honest to say that the real purpose of carbs is to offer people something sweet or “fun” to eat. Eating just meat, eggs and cheese can get boring, but having the crunch of a cucumber or sweet juiciness of a strawberry is incredibly pleasing!
“Whole” vs “Refined” Carbs
You most likely already know that not all carbs are created equal, hence the title of this blog post. While some people refer to carbs as either being “simple” or “complex,” it is typically easier to make sense of this topic when we speak in terms of “whole” vs “refined” carbs.
Whole carbs are natural and unprocessed, so they contain the fiber naturally found in the food. Whole carbs include vegetables, fruits, legumes, potatoes and whole grains.
Refined carbs, on the other hand, have been processed and the natural fiber has been stripped out. Foods in this category include pastries, white pasta, white bread, fruit juices and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Numerous studies have shown that refined carb consumption is associated with health problems like obesity and type 2 diabetes.
But does that doesn’t necessarily mean that “whole” carbs can’t also cause sugar spikes, weight gain, and the development of diseases. It just means that as of right now, more studies have been conducted on the negative effects of refined carbs.
The truth is, there are people out there who follow a fruitarian diet, that is they eat only fruit, seeds and nuts. Yes, fruit contains fiber, which reduces the impact of the sugar spike, and fruit contains important vitamins and minerals. So if we are comparing an apple to a Snickers bar, by all means, reach for the apple.
But these people are still eating a LOT of carbs a day. And all of those carbs are still causing blood sugar spikes and the need for your pancreas to churn out more insulin. And the more insulin your body uses, the more your body stores fat. Period.
The Glycemic Index – a Better Metric
The glycemic index (GI) is a value given to foods to measure how they will increase blood sugar levels. Foods are classified as either low, medium or high glycemic foods and are ranked on a scale of 0-100. Basically, the lower the GI of a specific food, the less it will affect your blood sugar levels.
Here are the three GI ratings:
- Low: 55 or less
- Medium: 56–69
- High: 70 or above
Those refined carbs (pastries) are digested more quickly and typically have a high GI, while whole carbs (fruit) have a medium GI and foods high in protein and fat (steak) have a low GI.
Putting It All Together
When it comes to determining which carbs are “good” and which carbs are “bad,” it’s not enough to simply categorize carbs as whole (fruits, grains and veggies) or refined (fruit juice, donuts, pasta). It’s not enough to suggest that fruit is somehow better than a donut. Better, okay, maybe, but by how much?
A far better measure of how “good” or “bad” a carb is its impact on your blood sugar levels. The lower the GI, the better the carb is for managing blood sugar, keeping the weight off, and reducing your chances of developing a metabolic disease.
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