Carbohydrates: the Good, the Bad and the Complex

May 20th, 2009

Carbohydrates are the body’s most important and readily available source of energy. Even though they’ve gotten a bad rap recently, "carbs’ are a necessary part of a healthy diet.

The two major forms are:

•    complex carbohydrates — starches found in vegetables, breads, grains and cereals
•    simple carbohydrates — sugars found in milk, fruit, vegetables, juice, honey, candy, soda as well as foods made with refined sugars

Complex carbohydrates, if they’re processed, can be converted to simple carbohydrates. Corn, for instance, can be converted into high fructose corn syrup. In the process, the grain gains a longer shelf life — and loses most of its nutritional content.

Not All Carbs Are Created Equal

Whether they’re complex or simple, all carbohydrates are broken down into the simple sugar glucose, which is absorbed into the bloodstream. As the blood sugar level rises, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin, which helps move sugar into the cells to be used as energy or stored as fat.

Simple carbohydrates are easy to digest and cause your blood sugar level to rise (and then fall) quickly. This creates a quick energy peak, also known as a sugar rush, followed by a dip in energy which can leave you feeling tired and/or hungry.

On the other hand, complex carbohydrates are broken down more slowly, causing a more sustained rise in blood sugar. The energy you get from whole, unprocessed carbohydrates is steadier and more long-lasting.

“Good” Carbs vs. “Bad” Carbs

In addition to being a good source of energy, fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains contain plenty of fiber and are loaded with vitamins and minerals. That’s why these are often referred to as “good” carbs.

Excessive consumption of refined and/or simple carbohydrates like soda and foods made with refined sugar, white flour and corn syrup is one reason behind the obesity epidemic. These so-called “bad” carbs are often tasty, cheap, come in large portions and aren’t too filling. Foods like cola and candy give us “empty calories” with none of the nutrients we need.

Eating too many sugary foods can also lead to tooth decay. What’s more, a diet high in foods that cause a rapid rise in blood sugar may increase a person’s risk of developing health problems like diabetes and heart disease.

The Right Amount

The average American currently eats 200 to 300 grams of carbohydrates per day. The USDA’s 2005 dietary guidelines recommend that 40 to 60 percent of the total calories in our diet come from carbohydrates. The guidelines urge us to increase our whole grain consumption, and limit our intake of added sugar.