Our relationship with carbohydrates is complicated. You've probably heard that carbs are bad for you, but then you've also probably seen diet plans that include carbohydrates in some form. So which is it: healthy or not?
The truth is that carbohydrates can be part of a healthy diet, depending on the type and amount that you consume. But before you set out to eat more carbs, there are a few things you should know about how they affect your body and how to choose the right kinds.
In this article, I'll break down what carbs are and why they're important, how they affect your body, and the best sources of healthy carbs. By the end of this post, you'll have a better understanding of how to incorporate them into your diet safely and healthily. Let's get started!
What Are Carbohydrates and What Do They Do?
In reality, carbohydrates are the body's primary source of energy, making them an essential component of every diet. Glucose, the byproduct of the breakdown of carbohydrates, is what powers your body's cells and organs. Carbs also provide fiber, which helps keep your digestive system healthy and running smoothly.
But not all carbs are created equal—in fact, there are two distinct types: simple and complex.
The Two Types of Carbs: Simple vs Complex
Carbs come in two types: simple and complex. What's the difference?
Simple carbs are easily broken down by the body, quickly releasing sugar into your bloodstream. Examples of simple carbohydrates include sugary foods such as candy, cake, and soda.
Complex carbohydrates are made up of multiple sugars linked together and are harder for the body to break down. They take longer to digest and provide sustained energy rather than a quick spike in blood sugar like their simpler counterparts. Complex carbohydrates such as vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds are healthful sources of energy that can help fuel your day-to-day activities.
Why Carbs Get a Bad Rap: The Glycemic Index and Blood Sugar
Carbs get a bad rap for their ability to spike your blood sugar, but that's not the entire story. To understand why, you need to take a closer look at glycemic index (GI). The GI is a measure of how quickly and how much 50 grams of particular food will raise your blood sugar level.
Low glycemic index foods take longer to digest, which results in a slower release of glucose into the circulation and less of a spike in blood sugar levels. Foods with a high glycemic index digest more quickly, causing your blood sugar levels to rise more quickly.
So what does this mean in terms of carbs? Well, it means that some carbs are more likely than others to cause an increase in blood sugar levels when consumed. Carbs that have a low GI rating—like oats—are released slowly into the bloodstream and don’t cause spikes in your blood sugar levels. Other carbs like white bread, with its high GI rating, will cause spikes in your blood sugar levels if you eat too much of it.
The bottom line? Not all carbs are bad for you – it just depends on the kind you’re eating. Knowing the GI rating of each kind can help you make smart choices about which carbs to include in your diet.
The Truth: Carbs Are Not Bad
When it comes to carbs, the truth is they are not bad. Carbs can actually be beneficial to your health and well-being when eaten in moderation and combined with other macro-nutrients.
In fact, eating carbohydrates can help ensure that you are getting enough of the vital vitamins and minerals your body need. Carbs contain vital dietary fibers that support a healthy gut microbiota as well as important minerals like iron and magnesium.
Benefits of Eating Carbs
Eating the right amount of carbs can have a positive effect on your health:
- Carbohydrates provide energy for physical activity and support cognitive functioning
- Eating the right kinds of carbs can maintain muscle mass
- Carbohydrates help protect against colon cancer because they contain dietary fiber
- Eating complex carbohydrates (i.e. whole grains) helps maintain normal blood sugar levels
- Eating unprocessed carbohydrates helps reduce inflammation in the body
- Eating healthy carbohydrates reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease
So, don't be afraid to enjoy some carbs in moderate amounts as part of a balanced diet that includes lean proteins, healthy fats and fruits and vegetables.
How Many Carbs Should You Eat? Calculating Your Macros
When it comes to carbs, it's all about finding the balance that works for you. The current general guidelines suggest that 45-65% of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates, but this number can greatly vary depending on a range of factors.
To play it safe, you should try and get your individual macro numbers—protein, fat and carbohydrate for your specific body composition—calculated so that you know exactly how many grams of carbs you should be eating each day. If you're serious about getting the right macros for optimal health and performance, consider talking to a nutritionist or working with a dietician.
There are several online macro calculators that will estimate your macros based on information like height, weight, age and activity level. Remember though: these are only estimates, so it's best to talk to an expert if you want to dial in your macro goals.
No one-size-fits-all approach exists when it comes to counting carbs or tracking other macros—it's all about customizing personal nutrition plans that work for individual goals and lifestyles. Ultimately finding the right balance of protein, fat and carbohydrates is key in reaching any health goal you have set for yourself.
Choosing the Right Carbs: The Most Nutritious Options
Do you want to know the truth about carbs? It's actually pretty simple: not all carbs are created equal, so it's important to make sure that you’re choosing the right ones. As a general rule, the most nutritious options are usually unprocessed, wholesome carbs like fruits and vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
These types of carbs are packed with essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. They can also provide other health benefits such as improved digestion and a stronger immune system. Here are some of the best complex carbohydrate sources:
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables should be at the top of your grocery list when it comes to nutritious carbs. The most nutrient-dense options include dark leafy greens (such as kale), cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli), colorful fruits like blueberries or strawberries, and citrus fruits like oranges or grapefruits.
Whole grains offer plenty of fiber and other important nutrients like vitamin B12 and iron. Quinoa is one of the most nutrient-dense grains, but other options include oats, barley, brown rice and rye.
Legumes such as beans, lentils and peas are not only high in complex carbohydrates — they’re also an excellent source of protein, making them a great choice for vegetarians or vegans who need an alternative source of dietary protein.
So now you know that not all carbs are bad — just make sure to choose the right ones! Eating more unprocessed whole foods will help you get all the nutrition your body needs without packing on extra calories
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It’s clear that carbs are an important part of a balanced diet. While there are some misconceptions about them, the science is clear: eating a variety of healthy carbs can help support sustained energy, manage blood sugar levels, and support overall health.
Instead of falling into the traps of fad diets and believing the hype around carbs, we should be focusing on our overall nutrition. That means eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods, including protein, fruits, vegetables, and healthy carbs.
By eating a balanced diet that includes carbs that are high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, you’ll be giving your body the nutrition it needs to function at its best. So instead of vilifying carbs, embrace the power of whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables to provide your body with the energy and nourishment it needs.