Carbohydrates: The good, the bad, and the ugly

You may think that all carbohydrates are bad. But that’s not true. Your body needs “good” carbohydrates for energy.

Here’s how it works…

To make energy, your body combines carbohydrates from the food you eat with oxygen from the air you breathe. Carbon dioxide and water are the by-products of this process. Of course, you breathe out the carbon dioxide. And the water hydrates the cells in your body. This entire biological process is called cellular respiration.

So what makes some carbohydrates “bad” and some “good”?

Chemically, all carbohydrates are made up of the same molecules: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. But complex carbohydrates as found in whole grains and legumes are better for you because they consist of longer chains of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.

These foods also contain more fiber. And it takes more time for your body to digest and metabolize these longer molecule chains and food fibers. As a result, you don’t experience a metabolic “spike” in blood sugar, insulin, or energy when you eat complex carbs. And you don’t come crashing down after eating them either.

On the other hand, simple carbohydrates are basic sugars. And they consist of short chains of six carbon molecules. They occur either as single molecules known as monosaccharides. Or they are bound to each other in pairs known as disaccharides.

Fruits contain fructose, which is a monosaccharide. But the body recognizes this simple sugar. In fact, it digests and metabolizes fructose quite easily, as I explained in a recent Daily Dispatch.

Vegetables do contain some simple sugars. But they also contain complex carbohydrates and fibers. And these fibers and complex carbs help slow down the digestion, absorption, and metabolism of the simple sugars. They also allow you to feel fuller and more satisfied for longer periods.

But not all carbs work like this.

Your body handles the “good” carbs in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains drastically differently than it handles “bad” carbs. You find “bad” carbs in all the usual places: artificial syrups, candy, snack foods, sugar, pastries, and desserts. You also find them in white bread, white pasta, and white rice. In fact, in China, they wisely classify white bread, pasta, and rice together with confections and sweets. And this makes sense, because your body handles them in the same way…with spikes and drops in sugar, insulin, and energy.

Potatoes are technically complex carbs. But they act more like simple carbs in the body. And when you eat chips or fries, they are primarily a vehicle for fats and oils.

In the end, complex carbs are better for your body because they have longer chains of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. It takes you longer to break these down. And you use up more calories digesting them. As a result, your body pumps fuel into your metabolism at a slower rate. This helps you avoid the rapid fluctuations in insulin and energy caused by “bad” carbs.

Even if you’re not on a diet, you can still choose complex over simple carbs. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to change your diet. Or change your menu choices. Just adjust your thinking. Make your spaghetti dinner with whole-wheat pasta instead of plain white pasta. Ask for brown rice at your favorite Asian restaurant.

And when buying packaged foods, look for those that show a complex carb as the first ingredient on the label. This makes it the single most predominant ingredient in the package.

So, look for whole-wheat flour or whole-oat flour at the top of the list. And put back the packages that list enriched white flour as the lead ingredient.

Lastly, try to avoid “empty” calorie snacks. Select whole grains, fruits, and vegetables to meet the daily energy needs of your body. Over time, your body won’t crave the “bad” carbs. And it will appreciate the natural sweetness of fruits and even “sweet” vegetables like red peppers. Plus, you will get a lot of other healthy nutrients together with these “good” carbs.