Being RiskAverse: Don't Cut All Carbs, Just the RIGHT Carbs
Carbs have recently been getting crushed by mainstream nutrition trends. Diets like Keto, Atkins, and Paleo have become extremely popular options for weight loss, and have even been touted as great ways to live a healthy life. These diets all have two major things in common: they ditch grains and seek to keep your carb intake to extreme minimums. The logic behind it is how high carb intake leads to higher blood sugar and increased weight gain, while also not satisfying your hunger as well as fats and proteins do. This is partially true, but only SOME carbs cause high blood sugar spikes, increase weight gain, and hunger pangs. The rest of them are some of the best foods for consumption, as they are loaded in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and many more nutrients. So, what even are carbs, and how can you practice proper, healthy carb intake?
What are Carbs?
According to MedlinePlus.gov, carbohydrates are sugar molecules. Along with proteins and fats, carbohydrates are one of the three main nutrients found in foods and drinks. Carbs break down further into three main categories: sugars, starches, and fiber.
- Sugars – Sugars are known as simple carbs because they are carbs in their simplest form – they are “free” in the sense that they are standalone and quickly absorbed into our blood upon consumption.
- Starches – These are considered complex carbohydrates because they are long chains of sugar that need to be broken down before they are utilized by our bodies. It takes some energy to break these down.
- Fiber – Our bodies cannot digest fiber upon consumption, so it does not get utilized as energy or cause blood sugar spikes. In fact, it keeps blood sugar levels lower because it takes up space without affecting calories or sugar intake.
The definition of a carb as simply “sugar molecules” is so misleading because that may not mean what you think it does…
Not all Sugars are Sugar
We have been taught to limit our sugar intake as part of a healthy diet, but what you may not know is that sugar is actually known as sucrose, meaning a molecule that contains both one glucose and one fructose. Sugars are easily absorbed by our body since they are considered free sugars, which you should recall go right into our bloodstream and spike our blood sugar. (1)
Now that we know that the sugar molecules mentioned above are not strictly the same as sugar, it is important to note that all the cells in our body almost entirely utilize the “sugar molecule” glucose as their source of energy. When we consume fats and proteins, they will be broken down or converted into glucose, and utilized as an energy source. What I am getting at is that sure, while carbs in their simplest form are sugars, they are not your classic definition of it, and our bodies actually prefer to use these “sugar molecules” as their energy source whenever possible.
So What Makes a Carb a Bad Carb?
Free sugars and refined carbs are the two kinds of sugars that need to be avoided as much as possible.
You may recall from earlier how free sugars, the simplest carb, are quickly absorbed into the body. When they are consumed in high doses, the entire amount enters the bloodstream extremely quickly and causes massive blood sugar spikes with no other significant health benefits – making them empty calories. This is a problem because consistent blood sugar spikes lead to metabolic conditions like Diabetes Type 2. (2) Free sugars are typically found in added sweeteners, candy, cookies, and soda. They can be seen on a nutrition package as added sugars.
Refined carbs, also known as processed carbs, are ones that have been stripped down to just long chains of free sugars. Similar to starches, these are also absorbed very quickly and offer no other benefits. Often, these carbs are grains that used to have fiber, vitamins, and minerals that would have boosted your health and limited blood sugar spikes, but the processing system has stripped them of those beneficial properties. Think white bread or potato chips, which are collectively known as whole foods.
- 42% of the average American’s diet is from refined carbs. (3)
Carbs you Should Consume Regularly
Those found in whole foods. What is a whole food? It is defined as a food that has been processed or refined as little as possible, and thus is free from additives and other artificial substances. (4) Whole foods contain ALL of the nutrients that food has to offer – this includes fiber, vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols.
When the foods we eat are not altered, the fiber within them helps to prevent sugar spikes by slowing digestion – making it harder to absorb carbs into the body.
Foods That are Healthy Carb Sources (click each for our recommended types)
Whole grains, fruits, and legumes offer amazing health benefits when consumed in moderation, including reduced disease risk, improved immune function, and boosted mental health. All three categories have also been shown to aid in weight loss due to their high fiber.
There is no evidence that suggests avoiding a major macronutrient like carbs is better for your health. On the other hand, there are several studies that suggest a well-rounded diet containing 45% – 65% carbohydrate intake through whole grains, vegetables, and fruit will promote a healthy lifestyle. (5) Therefore, the next time you go food shopping, make sure to check labels for added sugars and food processing, and you should be overall in a good place!
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