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.
- 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.
What Are The Good Carbs?
Most of us know what the good carbs are: plant foods that deliver fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals along with grams of carbohydrate, such as whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits. You can’t judge a carb as “good” without considering its fiber content (unless it’s a naturally low-fiber food like skim or low-fat milk).
Why Fiber in Carbohydrates Counts
Fiber is the part in plant foods that humans can’t digest. Even though fiber isn’t absorbed, it does all sorts of great stuff for our bodies.
Fiber slows down the absorption of other nutrients eaten at the same meal, including carbohydrates.
- This slowing down may help prevent peaks and valleys in your blood sugar levels, reducing your risk for type 2 diabetes.
- Certain types of fiber found in oats, beans, and some fruits can also help lower blood cholesterol.
- As an added plus, fiber helps people feel full, adding to satiety.
The problem is that the typical American diet is anything but high in fiber.
“White” grain is the American mode of operation: we eat a muffin or bagel made with white flour in the morning, have our hamburger on a white bun, and then have white rice with our dinner.
In general, the more refined, or “whiter,” the grain-based food, the lower the fiber.
To get some fiber into almost every meal takes a little effort. Here are three tips:
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Just eating five servings a day of fruits and vegetables will get you to about 10 or more grams of fiber, depending on your choices.
- Include some beans and bean products in your diet. A half-cup of cooked beans will add from 4 to 8 grams of fiber to your day.
- Switch to whole grains every single possible way (buns, rolls, bread, tortillas, pasta, crackers, etc).
What Are the Bad Carbs?
- “Added” sugars
- Refined “white” grains
There’s no way to sugarcoat the truth: Americans are eating more sugar than ever before. In fact, the average adult takes in about 20 teaspoons of added sugar every day, according to the USDA’s recent nationwide food consumption survey. That’s about 320 calories, which can quickly up to extra pounds. Many adults simply don’t realize how much added sugar is in their diets.
Sugars and refined grains and starches supply quick energy to the body in the form of glucose. That’s a good thing if your body needs quick energy, for example if you’re running a race or competing in sports.
The better carbs for most people are unprocessed or minimally processed whole foods that contain natural sugars, like fructose in fruit or lactose in milk.
Avoid Excess “Added Sugars”
“Added sugars, also known as caloric sweeteners, are sugars and syrups that are added to foods at the table or during processing or preparation (such as high fructose corn syrup in sweetened beverages and baked products),” explains Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a spokeswoman with the American Dietetic Association.
Added sugars supply calories but few or no nutrients, Gerbstadt says.
“Americans are very aware of low-fat diets and because of that we’ve been eating more fat-free and low-fat products,” notes Shanthy Bowman, USDA food scientist and author of a recently published study on sugar in the American diet.
“But what many people don't know is that in many of these products, sugar is being substituted for fat, so we've really been trading fat for sugar,” Bowman says.
The USDA recommends that we get no more than 6% to 10% of our total calories from added sugar -- that’s about nine teaspoons a day for most of us.
Use the Nutrition Label to Track Your Carbohydrates
The Nutrition Facts section on food labels can help you sort the good carbs from the bad carbs. Here’s what to look for on the Nutrition Facts label.
Total Carbohydrate. For tracking the total amount of carbohydrate in the food, per serving, look for the line that says “Total Carbohydrate.” You’ll find that often the grams of “fiber,” grams of “sugars” and grams of “other carbohydrate” will add up to the grams of “total carbohydrate” on the label.
Dietary Fiber. The line that says Dietary Fiber tells you the total amount of fiber in the food, per serving. Dietary fiber is the amount of carbohydrate that is indigestible and will likely pass through the intestinal tract without being absorbed.
Sugars. “Sugars” tells you the total amount of carbohydrate from sugar in the food, from all sources -- natural sources like lactose and fructose as well as added sugars like high-fructose corn syrup. It’s important to distinguish between natural sugars and added sugars. For example, the average 1% low-fat milk label will list 15 grams of “sugar” per cup. Those grams come from the lactose (milk sugars) not from added sweeteners.
To get an idea of how many grams of sugar on the label come from added sugars – such as high fructose corn syrup or white or brown sugar -- check the list of ingredients on the label. See if any of those sweeteners are in the top three or four ingredients. Ingredients are listed in order of quantity, so the bulk of most food is made up of the first few ingredients.
Other Carbohydrate. The category "other carbohydrate" represents the digestible carbohydrate that is not considered a sugar (natural or otherwise).
Sugar Alcohols. Some product labels also break out “sugar alcohols” under “Total Carbohydrate.” In some people, sugar alcohol carbohydrates can cause intestinal problems such as gas, cramping, or diarrhea. If you look on the ingredient label, the sugar alcohols are listed as lactitol, mannitol, maltitol, sorbitol, xylitol, and others. Many “sugar free” or “reduced calorie” foods contain some sugar alcohols even when another alternative sweetener like Splenda is in the product.