Carbohydrates get a bad rap. We are taught that carbohydrate-rich foods should be avoided, but the reality is that carbohydrates are essential to a balanced diet. On 45% to 65% of our daily calories must come from carbohydrates. Some are generally called “good” and some are called “bad” because not all carbohydrates are created equal when it comes to their nutrition. It helps to understand why some carbs are less healthy than others, because you shouldn’t rule out the category entirely.
Part of the reason there’s an uprising obesity epidemic in the United States is that the typical American diet is rich in refined carbohydrates, such as those found in fast food and white bread. “When we look at the standard American diet, we’re eating a very high amount of refined carbohydrates and very few complex carbohydrates, fresh fruits and vegetables,” he explains. Julia Smith, DR., a registered dietitian at the University of Toledo Medical Center. “We should fill half our plate with fruits and vegetables, then fill a quarter with some type of lean protein, and then limit those carbohydrate options to the other quarter of our plate.”
What are refined carbohydrates?
Refined carbohydrates are sugars and starches that have been altered in the process of making them into packaged foods. They originally come from natural whole grains, but are heavily processed to remove the outer shell and seed from the grain. After grinding the grain, you are left with better tasting carbohydrates and foods with a longer shelf life.
Peeling parts of the kernel also removes nearly all essential vitamins, nutrients, and dietary fiber. “The outer portion is actually what gives our body all the nutrition that grains give us and all the fiber, so they processed it to remove it,” says Smith.
You can find refined carbohydrates in white bread, pizza dough, cornflakes, and rice.
What is the difference between complex carbohydrates and refined carbohydrates?
If refined carbs are the “bad” carbs, complex carbs are the “good carbs.” Complex carbohydrates provide the nutrients and fiber the body needs to maintain itself.
“We should make sure that at least half of our carbs are complex carbs, like whole grains and sweet potatoes, and really try to limit those refined carbs to 50% of our total carbs per day,” says Smith. You can find complex carbohydrates in oatmeal, whole wheat bread, sweet potatoes, and brown rice.
Why should refined carbohydrates be limited?
Refined carbohydrates do little to keep your body running smoothly.
You will miss out on essential nutrients
Whole grains and other complex carbohydrates are a rich source of vitamins and minerals. These may include:
- B vitamins: maintain healthy brain activity and cell function
- Iron: Helps red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.
- Fiber: Helps with digestion and keeps you full
- Potassium: regulates blood pressure and supports muscle and nerve activity
- Magnesium: Helps support muscle and nerve activity and helps convert nutrients from food into energy.
- Folate: Also known as vitamin B9, it removes an amino acid called homocysteine which at high levels can harm the body
- Selenium: A mineral that protects against cell damage
You are more likely to have digestive problems.
Your gut bacteria depend on fiber for fuel. Without fiber to feed on, your gut microbiome loses its diversity as all kinds of bacteria die, including those that promote good health in your body.
The fiber in whole grains or pasta can also promote healthy bowel movements and relieve your constipation.
Avoiding Refined Carbs May Help Keep Chronic Diseases at Bay
A diet high in refined carbohydrates is associated with:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- early death
- poor metabolic health
- increased cholesterol
Benefits of healthy (complex) carbohydrates
You will feel full without overeating.
Since refined carbohydrates strip fiber, they don’t fill you up as much as whole foods; eating a lot of refined carbohydrates can lead to overeating. “Oatmeal or a slice of whole-wheat bread have complex carbohydrates that take longer for your body to digest and will keep you full until your next meal,” says Smalling. Fiber also releases a chemical called acetate that sends a message to your brain of your satiety.
If you’re looking for a snack between meals, Smalling recommends sliced fruit or vegetables. They both have complex carbohydrates and are high in fiber.
Maintains constant blood sugar levels.
All carbohydrates are made from sugar, but it is the chemical structure between refined and complex that makes the difference. Refined carbohydrates have only one sugar molecule, while complex carbohydrates have long chains of sugar molecules. The body breaks down both types of carbohydrates and converts them to glucose for energy. However, Smalling says that breaking down a long chain of sugar takes time, raising blood sugar but at a slow and steady rate.
keeps your brain working
Your brain runs on carbohydrates, more specifically, the nutrients in carbohydrates. Magnesium and potassium help neurons send messages to brain cells through electrical activity. Magnesium also helps overexcited neurons to frequently signal to calm down, returning them to a resting state. “Your nerve cells’ first choice of energy is carbohydrates. Why would you want to deprive your brain and nerves of the energy they need? Smalling explains.
How to choose complex carbohydrates
Both experts agree that reading food labels is the best way to choose foods rich in complex carbohydrates. You will want to pay special attention to the fiber content. “In the United States, people are required to replace lost nutrients in refined carbohydrates. So you’ll often see on a label that a product is fortified with niacin, riboflavin, and iron, but food brands don’t typically add fiber back in, and that’s one of the main nutrients you end up missing out on,” Small explains. Even If a whole grain product like brown rice only has a few grams of fiber, it is better than white rice, which has even less.
The bottom line: Carbohydrates are an important part of any healthy diet, and dieticians agree that complex carbohydrates are better than refined carbohydrates. If you think you may need to adjust your diet for more energy or better overall health, consider consulting a nutritionist. They can help set up a nutrition plan that works best for you.