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Carbs: Friend or Foe?

Woman with hand on chin contemplating a decision

If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me “carbs are bad for you, right?” I’d be sipping on a refreshing tropical drink sitting on the beach getting kissed by the sun instead of sitting behind my desk. Because of diet culture, so many people see carbohydrates as their enemy. What people don’t know is, they can actually be your friend!

What Are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates, popularly known as “carbs,” are a macronutrient, meaning your body needs them in larger amounts for sustenance. Principally, your body needs carbs to break down into glucose (or blood sugar) for energy.

  • Simple carbs: broken down easier and quicker by your body leading to a quick spike in blood sugar. Otherwise known as our “quick-burning fuel." Includes: fruit, fruit juice, dairy products, honey, syrups, soft drinks, and table sugar.

  • Complex carbs: take longer to be digested and have a less sudden impact on glucose levels keeping you energized for longer throughout the day. Also known as our “slow-burning fuel.” These are usually more filling and higher in fiber and essential nutrients. Includes: breads and pastas made with whole grains, brown rice, quinoa, some vegetables like potatoes and corn, and legumes

What Are Refined Carbs?

  • Simple carbs that have lost their bran, germ, and thus most nutrients during processing

  • Typically known as “bad” carbs

  • The bran and germ contain an abundant amount of dietary fiber as well as essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals that promote digestive health

For example: brown rice (whole grain) versus white rice (refined grain). During the manufacturing process, brown rice gets striped of its bran and germ to make white rice. In general, brown rice is a more nutritious option and has a higher fiber content than white rice.

Refined carbs are digested quickly and have a high glycemic index that leads to a sharp increase in blood sugar and insulin levels, whereas whole grains are digested slower and have a lower glycemic index. Glycemic index is simply a measure of how a certain food will affect your blood sugar levels after consumption and insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas that helps regulate blood sugar levels.

A diet high in refined carbs and processed foods is a potential risk factor for weight gain, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease (CVD) due to their high glycemic index and low nutrient content. When we consume more than we need and have multiple instant spikes in blood glucose levels, our bodies can’t burn off those excess calories, so they get stored as fat, which can lead to health consequences including weight gain and type 2 diabetes. Individuals with certain health conditions, like diabetes and obesity, don’t necessarily need to avoid these foods but instead should pay more attention to their intake.

More examples of refined carbs include:

  • High fructose corn syrup

  • Table sugar

  • White flour

  • White rice

  • White bread

  • Soft drinks

  • Candy

  • Breakfast cereals

Food for Fuel

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommends that 45-65% of your daily caloric intake should come from carbs, with the majority coming from complex carbs. Carbs are essential in providing you with sustainable energy, as both your body and brain use glucose as their main source of energy.

Complex carbs are also important for athletes, as they produce a more gradual spike in blood sugar, rather than an immediate spike, keeping you energized for long endurance activities and strenuous exercise. They also make you feel fuller for longer which may help reduce cravings for refined carbs that may lead to weight gain.

So...Should I Count My Carbs?

All in all, there’s no reason to be scared of carbs! Whole food carbohydrates, like quinoa, potatoes and whole grains, serve as an important source of essential nutrients, like vitamins, minerals and fiber, which you need to fuel your body and promote good digestive health. Limit your intake of refined carbs and processed foods, but there’s no need to avoid them unless you need to for health reasons, like for diabetes management or heart disease.

The DGA recommends that 45-65% of your daily caloric intake should come from carbs. You don’t need to completely cut out refined carbs, everyone deserves to enjoy a nice slice of cake every once in a while, instead be conscious of your intake and include more whole grains in your diet.

Learn more about healthy eating and other wellness programs offered by Wellness Workdays.

Written By: Natasha Greeve, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern



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