Does the word carb leave a bad taste in your mouth? Don’t write off this food group altogether — making healthy choices holds a host of benefits for you and your body.
What Exactly Is a Carb?
Carbohydrates, which include breads, cereals, vegetables, rice, grains and fruit as well as cookies, cakes and pies, supply your body with its fastest source of energy. During digestion, carbohydrates are changed into a simple sugar called glucose. This sugar is the fuel that makes your body and organs run. Carbs, compared to protein and fat, are most quickly converted by your body into glucose. And because they can be so easily turned into this blood sugar, they give your body an immediate source of energy when you most need it.
But carbs don’t only supply you with energy — the right ones can supply your body with many vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (plant-based nutritional compounds) it needs to function, and which can prevent and reverse certain diseases. But with all the good things your body can absorb from carbohydrates, one of their biggest gifts is something you can’t absorb at all: fiber.
The Fiber Factor
Fiber, a component in many foods rich in complex carbohydrates, is the exception to the food-into-fuel process. Fiber is not converted to glucose during digestion; in fact, it’s not digested at all. But even though it’s not digested, consuming it is beneficial to your digestive system by lowering your risk for constipation, hemorrhoids, irritable bowel syndrome and the development of small pouches in your colon (diverticular disease).
Additionally, fiber can help lower your cholesterol levels by lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol levels. It can also help control your blood sugar by slowing the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream (which can prevent numerous diseases, including heart disease and diabetes). And lastly, consuming high-fiber foods can help you lose weight because they tend to make you feel full longer.
Fiber is commonly classified into two types: insoluble (does not dissolve in water) and soluble (partially dissolves in water). The insoluble kind, found in whole-wheat bread, barley and brown rice, promotes the movement of material through your digestive system and increases stool bulk, so it can be of benefit to those who struggle with constipation or irregular stools. Soluble fiber, found in oatmeal, peas, beans, apples and strawberries, can help lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels. Both types of fiber contribute to reducing your risk for heart disease, and helping you feel satiated longer.
The American Dietetic Association recommends that you consume between 25 and 35 grams of fiber daily. Breads, beans, cereals and grains sport their fiber counts on their labels; you can look up the numbers on fruits and vegetables (and learn a host of other nutritional facts) with this free online nutritional tool: nutritiondata.com. To work more fiber into your diet, try adding some fresh peas to your salad, enjoy a low-fat vegetarian chili for lunch or toss raspberries onto your cereal in the morning.
Carbs: The Good, the Bad, the Processed
With all the different types of carbs out there — simple, complex, refined — it’s no wonder many people turned against this food group altogether — or just reach for a cookie to ease the confusion.
Afraid a little chemistry is in order (we’ll try to make it more enjoyable than it was in high school). Carbs of every kind are made up of chains of sugar molecules. Simple carbs, such as table sugar and apple juice, are made up of one or two sugars; because of their structure, they are digested more quickly and raise blood sugar levels faster and more dramatically. Complex carbs (like sweet potatoes, oatmeal and popcorn — also commonly called starches) have longer chains of molecules, which take the digestive system longer to break down, so they enter the bloodstream more slowly, raising blood sugars more gradually — keeping you from experiencing a big spike and subsequent drop-off in both blood sugar and energy. Not only do these foods help prevent you from crashing, they let you go longer without feeling hungry.
Seem easy enough? Well, in comes refining and processing. “When products are refined, many of the nutrients are stripped away,” explains Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, a registered dietitian and the director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic. You can take a perfectly healthy complex carb — for instance, brown rice — and by refining it to white rice, remove the hull, bran and germ, which contain all the healthy stuff like vitamins, minerals, fiber and heart-healthy fat. The more the food is processed — say, going from whole-wheat flour, to white flour, to a chocolate chip cookie — the more likely additional sugars are to be added, packing in calories while losing the beneficial nutrients that basic whole food began its life with.
Unrefined carbs, on the other hand, are foods in their natural state, or which have been minimally processed. Think oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, broccoli. These items are still in or close to their naturally occurring form, and include complex carbs, fiber and usually a slew of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals — making them a better bang for your bite.
The Glycemic Index
The other phrase that gets thrown around a lot in reference to carbohydrates is their “glycemic index.” The glycemic index (GI) ranks foods on a scale from zero to 100 according to how much they raise blood sugar levels after eating. Foods with a high GI are rapidly digested and absorbed and result in marked fluctuations in blood sugar levels; these spikes and crashes, in turn, can lead to insulin resistance, which is a precursor to diabetes. Low-GI foods, by virtue of their slow digestion and absorption, produce gradual rises in blood sugar and insulin levels, which keep your energy and hunger levels more constant and avoid the problems that go with that sugar high-and-low cycle.
However, the scale isn’t perfect — how you combine foods affects a meal’s overall GI count, for instance — and the research on the impact of eating based on this scale varies in results. It may be just one more number that adds confusion to an already mind-boggling array of choices, without providing much guidance. “A better rule is to consume high-fiber, low-fat foods, which tend to have a low glycemic index,” recommends Jamieson-Petonic.
How to Pick the Good Guys
The USDA recommends that 45 to 65 percent of your daily food intake should be carbohydrates. That doesn’t mean eating plate after plate of pasta (even if it is whole-wheat), of course — remember that fruits and vegetables are part of that mix. Luckily carbs are found in a large variety of foods, so we have a lot of choices with which to fill our plates — but the key is to choose wisely.
So what are some easy ways to spot a good carb? Jamieson-Petonic recommends looking for foods that are made from whole grains and are high in fiber. “A good high-fiber bread will contain two to three grams of fiber per slice, and a high-fiber cereal should have at least four grams of fiber per serving,” she says. As for spotting whole grains, she advises that the first ingredient in an ingredient list should be 100 percent whole grain or 100 percent whole wheat or whole-wheat flour.
Some examples of good carbs that you should be filling your plate with: whole-grain bread and cereal, unprocessed grains like barley or quinoa, beans, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, fruit, yogurt and vegetables.