Good Carbs vs. Bad Carbs | What's the difference?

By Martha McKittrick, RD, CDE

If you’re confused about carbs, you’re not alone. The advice on carbs seems to differ from one day to the next. One day, fat is bad and carbs are good; the next day we are told the opposite. The truth is there’s not a simple answer.

Carbs 101

There are two different categories of carbs: sugars and starches. The classification depends on the chemical structure of food and how quickly the sugar is digested and absorbed in the body. Sugars are considered simple carbs, while starches and fiber are complex carbs. The three basic sugars, which are simple carbs, are: glucose, the body's main fuel; fructose, found in honey, fruit and high fructose corn syrup; and galactose, a sugar found in milk. These basic sugars combine with each other to form other simple sugars including sucrose (table sugar), maltose and lactose (a milk sugar).

Long chains of sugar are called complex carbs, or starches. Examples include breads and cereals, legumes and starchy vegetables, such as corn and peas. Fiber, also known as roughage or bulk, is another complex carb. It includes all parts of plant foods that the body doesn’t digest.

All carbs are not created equal.

Healthy simple carbs: Naturally-occurring simple carbs found in fruits, milk, milk products and vegetables contain vitamins and minerals and should be included in your diet.

Not-so-healthy simple carbs: Processed and refined sugars found in candy, soda and sweetened beverages, syrup and table sugar are often referred to as "empty calories" and can contribute to weight gain. Keep your intake of these foods and beverages to a minimum.

Healthy complex carbs: Examples include legumes, whole grain breads, pastas, cereals, oatmeal, and brown rice. These foods contain vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting antioxidants, as well as fiber. Fiber-rich foods have numerous health benefits including regularity and overall bowel health. They also lower cholesterol, help to lower blood glucose and aid in weight management.

Not-so-healthy complex carbs: This category includes white rice, white bread, white pasta, cereals and crackers with less than 3 grams of fiber per serving. The more refined or processed a complex carb is, the fewer nutrients and fiber it contains. In addition, these foods tend to have a higher glycemic index.

Bottom line, some carbs are healthier than others. So skip that candy bar in the vending machine and choose an apple instead!

What's the buzz on glycemic index?

All carbs eventually break down into sugar in your blood. Your body releases insulin to control blood sugar levels. The glycemic index measures how quickly a particular carbohydrate will affect blood sugar levels. The higher the index, the quicker the rise in blood sugar. In general, starchy foods that are processed, like refined grain products (i.e. white rice) have a high glycemic index. Non-starchy vegetables such as greens, milk, legumes and some fruits have a low glycemic index while whole grains, sweet potatoes and other fruits have a moderate glycemic index. Research has suggested that a diet including moderate and lower glycemic carbs has health benefits. You can use the glycemic index as a guide for selecting your carbs; however keep in mind it is far from a perfect science; for example, a candy bar with nuts can have a lower glycemic index than brown rice!

How much added sugar should you eat a day?

Added sugars are sugars and syrups that are added to foods or beverages during processing or preparation. This does not include naturally occurring sugars such as those that occur in milk and fruits. Our intake of added sugar is a growing problem. It plays a major role in obesity and is linked to numerous diseases. The American Heart Association has specific guidelines for added sugar — no more than 100 calories a day from added sugar for most women and no more than 150 calories a day for most men. That's about 6 teaspoons of added sugar for women and 9 for men. You may be saying “I don’t add sugar to my foods”. But here are the stats: most Americans get more than 22 teaspoons — or 355 calories — of added sugar a day! Check food labels for hidden sources of added sugars including brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, raw sugar and sucrose.

Tips for choosing healthier Carbs.

  1. Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages. This includes soda, flavored waters, bottled iced teas, flavored ice coffee drinks and sports beverages (unless you plan on doing a strenuous workout.).

  2. Become label savvy. Check labels for sugar grams as well as servings per container. For example, check out the food label on a 20 ounce bottle of iced tea. The serving size is only 8 ounces, so if you drink the entire bottle, you'd actually consume 2 1/2 servings. This comes out to a whopping total of 45 grams of added sugar or 11 teaspoons! FYI: 4 grams of sugar = 1 teaspoon

  3. Select whole grain rice, breads and cereals instead of refined grains. Examples of whole grains include whole wheat, whole barley, whole oats, bulgur, quinoa, kamut, spelt, buckwheat, wheat berries and amaranth. Look for “whole” or “whole grain” before the grain’s name in the ingredient list on a food label.

  4. Limit juice. Even juice without added sugar is a concentrated source of calories. Eat whole fruits instead. They contain more fiber and are more filling than juice.

  5. Don’t worry about the naturally occurring sugars found in fruit, milk or plain yogurt, unless you have been advised to limit these foods for a medical condition, like diabetes.

For more from Martha, visit her website, City Girl Bites, follow her on Twitter @citygirlbites, or head to her Facebook page.

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