Most people are confused about whether carbohydrates are good or bad for you. With the popular low-carb diets over the last few decades, what is the real truth? I’m going to break through all the trends and hoopla and get to the truth of the matter right now! Also, check out the YouTube video below!
What Are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are the starches, fiber, and sugars found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains. They have gotten a bad reputation, because of the refined, junk-food carbohydrates that people most often eat. Low-carb diets even restrict the complex carbohydrates. Let’s take a quick look at the difference.
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients that we can only get from food. Protein and fat are the other two. See my blog on protein for more information. Most people consume between 50% and 80% of their daily calories in carbs. Raw vegans and fruitarians usually end up on the highest scale, while diabetics end up on the lowest scale, depending on their doctor’s advice.
Carbs are important because they give fuel to the central nervous system and brain and energy for muscle performance and metabolism. They can give us quick energy and can influence mood and memory. There’s no getting around it; we all need carbs.
Simple and Complex Carbs
Now, what’s the difference between simple and complex carbs? Simple carbohydrates have just one or two sugars in their chemical structure, which are called monosaccharides and disaccharides. They are most often found in candy, soft drinks, and syrups, which are considered junk food and empty calories. Complex carbohydrates have three or more sugars, which are called polysaccharides. Most people call them starches, which are found mostly in whole grains, legumes, and root vegetables, but also in fruits and vegetables.
Simple carbs may give you quick energy, but they will often cause a blood-sugar spike, since they are digested and absorbed very quickly. Complex carbs also give you quick energy, but due to their high-fiber content, they digest more slowly and give you a much more even source of energy.
Fruit is a complex carb, but some people say to avoid it, due to its high-sugar content. However, when you eat fruit with all of its fiber intact, it slows down absorption and gives a steady source of energy, preventing those unpleasant sugar highs and crashes that junk food gives. Also, if you eat lots of it together as a full meal, you will feel more satisfied and less likely to get hungry so quickly. Due to fruit’s high-water content, it doesn’t stay in the stomach long, so it’s best to eat it alone or before anything else. Otherwise, it will sit on top of the foods that take longer to digest and begin to ferment. That’s why some people complain about digestion issues with fruit. So, if you want fruit for dessert, eat your dessert first!
Now, when carbs are digested, the small intestine absorbs the glucose or fructose, where it enters the bloodstream and is taken to the liver. Whatever form of sugar enters the liver is converted to glucose, which it sends through the bloodstream with insulin so that the body can use it for energy. Whatever is not needed is stored in the liver and skeletal muscles as glycogen. Once those glycogen stores are full, only then are carbs stored as fat. This process alone burns about 10% of the original calories consumed.
What happens if you don’t consume enough carbs or run out of stores? That is when the body uses fat for energy after they have been broken down into fatty acids. After fat, it begins to use protein for fuel. Protein is needed for maintaining healthy cells and tissues, especially muscle, not producing energy. Your digestive system breaks protein down into amino acids, which your cells and tissues use to make new cellular proteins. If we use protein for fuel instead of carbs, it puts stress on the kidneys.
When we eat whole-food carbs, they will also contain fiber. Although it is recommended to have 30 grams of fiber per day, our ancestors ate three times that much. Fiber helps greatly with our digestion by moving things along, but even more importantly, it helps our gut microbiome. We can’t digest fiber, but those little critters down there can. And they love it! It’s the best way to balance our microbiome. Feed those little guys! If you take care of them, they’ll take care of you, since the gut is about 80% of our immune system. What is your favorite high-fiber carb? Let us know in the comments below!
Good and Bad Carbohydrates
So, then, there’s no doubt that whole-food carbohydrates are good for us, but don’t let the reputation of processed junk food turn you away from eating them. Those “good carbs” are so often misunderstood. They not only contain fiber and energy, but also many nutrients that our body must have. Those “bad carbs” are usually much higher in empty calories, refined sugar, refined flour, sodium, and unhealthy fats. Avoid these at all costs! Stick with the whole-food versions, where the grains and sugars are not refined. Check out our free 5-day meal plan to help you get started with the right carbs.
Also, the good carbs can help us lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. The high-fiber content helps us to feel full and can prevent us from overeating. Anyone can lose weight on a low-carb diet and maybe even faster over the short term, but long-term they are about the same effectiveness on weight loss. However, health wise, it has been proven countless times that plant-based, whole food is the best for improving health and preventing disease.
Optimal Carbohydrate Intake
So, what is the optimal caloric intake of carbohydrates? Well, let’s take a look at the Blue Zones of the world. A “Blue Zone” is a geographic region where some of the world’s oldest, healthiest people live, including those over 100 years old. The five regions Dan Buettner discovered are Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; the province of Ogliastra in Sardinia, Italy; the community of Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California; and Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula. One of the primary lifestyles they all have in common is eating a 95% plant-based diet that starts at 70% carbohydrates.
I recommend starting with that number and seeing how you feel. Adjust until your body feels balanced. As you may remember from my protein video, about 10% is all we need, so that leaves 10-20% for fat intake, depending on what percentage of carbohydrates makes your body feel its best.
Ruairi Robertson, PhD. “Why People in ‘Blue Zones’ Live Longer Than the Rest of the World.” HealthLine. August 29, 2017.