In the past 10 years or so, carbs have gotten as bad a rap as fat did the decade before. But just as experts have come to categorize fats into “heart-healthy” and “heart-hurting” buckets, there’s greater understanding of how different carbs affect our weight, and by extension, our overall well-being.
Although carbs are often broken down into good and bad categories, Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, a registered dietitian and the director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic, prefers to describe the two main groups as “nutrient-dense” (fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains) and “less nutrient-dense” (carbs such as white bread, white rice, cookies, cakes and fruit juice). To properly fuel your body and be your healthiest, your goal should be to replace the less nutrient-dense carbs with more nutrient-dense carbs (in the right portion sizes).
The more nutritious carbs (which are usually minimally processed) can help lower your cholesterol, control your blood sugar and make it easier for you to lose weight — all factors in preventing disease and improving your health. The less nutritious kinds (which are usually refined foods) can adversely affect your health, especially if eaten in large quantities, because they typically have added sugars and are stripped of most of their nutritional value during the refining process.
Change Your Carbs to Eat (and Weigh) Less
Whether you’re trying to reach or maintain a healthy weight, there are carbs you can do without, or at least do with in very small quantities: sugary, highly processed ones. For one thing, if you consume mostly simple carbs, you’re more likely to eat larger quantities. Because simple carbs are absorbed into your bloodstream more quickly, you will most likely get a jolt of energy from eating them, but feel hungry sooner.
And when you eat those refined carbs, the calories from them can add up in all the wrong places. People who eat more processed foods, such as white bread and white rice, have more belly fat (also known as visceral fat), which is linked to heart disease, diabetes and impaired lung function, among other problems. Visceral fat, explains Jamieson-Petonic, surrounds your organs and collects in your abdomen, and is more harmful to your health than the fat lying directly below your skin (subcutaneous fat). Why? Current thinking is that visceral fat acts almost as an organ, releasing substances that increase inflammation within the body. Inflammation, the body’s normal response to infection, injury or irritation (think of the red swelling around a cut), is a problem when it occurs in the lining of your blood vessels, in your joints and in your organs — and is linked to heart disease, osteoarthritis and a host of other diseases.
Choosing unrefined, complex carbs, on the other hand, can actually help you lose or maintain your weight. “When you consume whole-grain carbs, you tend to take in less calories,” Jamieson-Petonic says. In fact, a recent study found that the more high-fiber carbohydrates the participants ate, the lower their body weight. The reason for this phenomenon is that high-fiber foods tend to make you feel full longer and therefore help prevent you from snacking and overeating.
Balance Your Blood Sugar
Swapping sugary, processed foods for ones high in fiber and whole grains can also help you ward off certain diseases by controlling your blood sugar, or glucose, levels, especially if you have or are prone to diabetes.
Conversely, when you eat refined or simple carbs frequently throughout the day, that is going to adversely affect your health because your glucose levels will spike,” he says. “And glucose molecules can attach to proteins, resulting in low-grade inflammation, which increases your risk for heart disease, arthritis and other low-grade inflammatory disorders.” If that’s not enough to have you tossing your cookie jar, eating refined carbs tends to increase the likelihood of heart disease because it impacts the number of triglycerides — a type of fat — in your bloodstream.
How, exactly, do refined carbs and simple sugars do all that? According to Michelle May, MD, author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle, the cycle runs like this: After you eat, your blood sugar level rises, causing your pancreas to release insulin. Insulin is needed to move glucose from the blood into the cells, Dr. May explains, where it can be used as a source of energy. But chronic overeating, a genetic predisposition, inactivity or weight gain (or all of the above) can cause some people to develop insulin resistance. Subsequently, the body tries to compensate by making more insulin. These high insulin levels promote fat storage and inhibit fat burning.
Eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly is the only way to reverse this unhealthy cycle. “Naturally nutrient-rich carbs should be eaten throughout the day for energy and nourishment,” Dr. May says. An ideal day’s diet, she explains, would include five servings of fruits and vegetables, including legumes, six or more servings of whole grains and grain products and three servings of low-fat dairy.