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What’s the difference between a sandwich made on white bread and one made with 100% whole grain bread?

Or, the difference between French fries and side salad made with spinach, tomatoes, carrots, and kidney beans?

All the foods above are carbohydrates. But the second option in both questions includes good carbohydrate foods (whole grains and vegetables).

Carbohydrates: Good or Bad?

In the past five years the reputation of carbohydrates has swung wildly. Carbs have been touted as the feared food in fad diets. And some carbs have also been promoted as a healthful nutrient associated with lower risk of chronic disease.

So which is it? Are carbs good or bad? The short answer is that they are both.

Fortunately, it’s easy separate the good from the bad.

  • We can reap the health benefits of good carbs by choosing carbohydrates full of fiber. These carbs that get absorbed slowly into our systems, avoiding spikes in blood sugar levels. Examples: whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans.

  • We can minimize the health risk of bad carbs by eating fewer refined and processed carbohydrates that strip away beneficial fiber. Examples: white bread and white rice.

Why Carbohydrates Matter

In September 2002, the National Academies Institute of Medicine recommended that people focus on getting more good carbs with fiber into their diet. The following statements are based on information given in the report:

  • To meet the body's daily nutritional needs while minimizing risk for chronic disease, adults should get 45% to 65% of their calories from carbohydrates, 20% to 35% from fat, and 10% to 35% from protein.

  • There is only one way to get fiber -- eat plant foods. Plants such as fruits and vegetables are quality carbohydrates that are loaded with fiber. Studies show an increased risk for heart disease with low-fiber diets. There is also some evidence to suggest that fiber in the diet may also help to prevent colon cancer and promote weight control.

The recommendations:  

  • Men aged 50 or younger should get 38 grams of fiber a day.
  • Women aged 50 or younger should get 25 grams of fiber a day.
  • Because we need fewer calories and food as we get older, men over aged 50 should get 30 grams of fiber a day.
  • Women over aged 50 should get 21 grams of fiber a day.