Carbohydrates aren't bad, but some may be healthier than others. See why carbs are important for your health and which ones to choose.

Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap lately, especially when it comes to weight gain, and partly because they are lumped into one big-bad category. And for most of those individuals trying to lose weight… “Carbs are the devil”.  But that’s not the case if you know what carbohydrates are and how they help us live.

Before they fell on tough times, carbs had a pretty decent run. Remember the halcyon days of carbo-loading, when carbs were considered safe and healthy, the very center of an optimal diet? Back then, carbs were seen as “clean fuel” – the antidote to our dark desires for dastardly fats and heavy, heart-clogging meats. Carbs connoted energy for people on the go.

Then protein power came along, and carbs’ glory days came to a hasty end. Suddenly carbs were seen as a poison upon our plate, and “low-carb” became a sexy marketing label, fused in our minds with the ripped, lean-and-hungry look that high-protein, low-carb diets promised to deliver.

A lot of folks did a total about-face with their eating at this point, and started scouring nutrition labels with an eye to eliminating every last carb they could. For some people, that meant supplementing steak lunches with protein bars while all but swearing off everything from rice and oatmeal to fruits and veggies. This dramatic reversal made a lot of seasoned nutritional types shake their heads in dismay – but not in surprise.

Due to their numerous health benefits, carbohydrates have a rightful place in your diet. In fact, your body needs carbohydrates to function well. Think of carbohydrates as fuel for an engine.  And based on the type and amount of Carbohydrates you consume will determine the size and power of your engine.  It is important to understand that your body must be properly fueled to function at high levels.

But some carbohydrates might be better for you than others.

Understanding carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient found in many foods and beverages. Most carbohydrates occur naturally in plant-based foods, such as grains. Food manufacturers also add carbohydrates to processed foods in the form of starch or added sugar.

Common sources of naturally occurring carbohydrates include:

  • Fruits

  • Vegetables

  • Milk

  • Nuts

  • Grains

  • Seeds

  • Legumes

Types of carbohydrates
There are three main types of carbohydrates:

  1. Sugar is the simplest form of carbohydrate and occurs naturally in some foods, including fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products. Types of sugar include fruit sugar (fructose), table sugar (sucrose) and milk sugar (lactose).

  2. Starch is a complex carbohydrate, meaning it is made of many sugar units bonded together. Starch occurs naturally in vegetables, grains, and cooked dry beans and peas.

  3. Fiber also is a complex carbohydrate. It occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and cooked dry beans and peas.

So…Let’s start with three basic rules when it comes to Understanding Carbohydrates:

Rule 1: Your need for carbohydrates is dictated by your need for energy. Carbs are your body’s primary source of fuel – one of just three (the other two being protein and fat) available to you. Except in starvation situations, carbs are your brain’s only fuel source. Carbs are essential to both physical energy and mental clarity, so blindly slashing away at your carb intake in an effort to stay slim and healthy is counterproductive.

Yes, eating too many carbs will overload your system with potential energy it can’t use and thus make you fat. And some carbs (particularly refined grains and sugars) can make your blood sugar levels abruptly spike up and then fall, which leaves you feeling hungry and is bad for you in a variety of ways. But eating too few carbs presents its own problems. As a rule, cheating your body out of carbs will leave you feeling sluggish, dull-witted, weak and uninterested in exercise. It will also cheat you out of a whole raft of important nutrients, enzymes and phytochemicals. Which brings us to...

Rule 2: When selecting carb-rich foods, nutrition counts. The portion of your food intake you allocate for carbs is responsible for carrying the vast majority of your nutrients and phytochemicals, so you’d be crazy to squander your daily carb account on empty calories. As a rule, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts deliver a far more powerful nutritional punch than refined grains, starches and sugars. They also contain more healthy water and fiber and a lower caloric density. As a result, eating whole, unrefined foods helps you satisfy your hunger and keep it at bay longer. So eating a wide variety of nutrient-rich carbs is one of the best things you can do for your health.

Rule 3: Once inside your body, all the carbohydrates in your food break down into glucose (sugar). That sugar is either 1) used immediately for energy, 2) stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles for easy access, or 3) turned into fat for longer-term storage.

Various carbohydrate-rich foods contain different concentrations of glucose, however, and they release it into the bloodstream at different rates. This can make a difference in how well and how often your body gets into burning stored fat for energy. Getting big hits of glucose and insulin in your system reduces your body’s opportunities to burn fat for fuel, and increases its opportunities to store it.

Faster-digesting carbs – such as sugars, some starches and grains that have been processed to remove their germ and bran – tend to catalyze greater blood-glucose and insulin responses. Thus, not only are they less nutritious, they also have a greater chance than slower-digesting carbs of resulting in extra padding on your body.

The role of insulin in all this is important and worth addressing. Insulin is the hormone your pancreas sends out in order to escort the sugar molecules where they need to go – and the more sugar that hits your bloodstream at any given time, the more insulin is required. If you begin performing some kind of strenuous exercise shortly after you eat a big helping of fast-digesting carbs, your insulin will have good success in getting your body to use most of the available glucose for energy. If you are sedentary, it doesn’t work so well.

Choose your carbohydrates wisely

Carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet, and provide many important nutrients. Still, not all carbs are created equal.

Here's how to make healthy carbohydrates work in a balanced diet:

Emphasize fiber-rich fruits and vegetables.

  • Aim for whole fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables without added sugar. Other options are fruit juices and dried fruits, which are concentrated sources of natural sugar and therefore have more calories. Whole fruits and vegetables also add fiber, water and bulk, which help you feel fuller on fewer calories.

Choose whole grains.

  • Whole grains are better sources than refined grains of fiber and other important nutrients, such as B vitamins. Refined grains go through a process that strips out parts of the grain — along with some of the nutrients and fiber.

Stick to low-fat dairy products.

  • Milk, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products are good sources of calcium and protein, plus many other vitamins and minerals. Consider the low-fat versions, to help limit calories and saturated fat. And beware of dairy products that have added sugar.

Eat more legumes.

  • Legumes — which include beans, peas and lentils — are among the most versatile and nutritious foods available. They are typically low in fat and high in folate, potassium, iron and magnesium, and they contain beneficial fats and fiber. Legumes are a good source of protein and can be a healthy substitute for meat, which has more saturated fat and cholesterol.

Limit added sugars.

  • Added sugar probably isn't harmful in small amounts. But there's no health advantage to consuming any amount of added sugar. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that less than 10 percent of calories you consume every day come from added sugar.

So choose your carbohydrates wisely. Limit foods with added sugars and refined grains, such as sugary drinks, desserts and candy, which are packed with calories but low in nutrition. Instead, go for fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

The New Glucose Revolution: The Authoritative Guide to the Glycemic Index by Jennie Brand-Miller, Ph.D., et al. (Marlow and Co., 2003)
Good Carbs, Bad Carbs: Eating the Right Carbs for Losing Weight and Optimum Health by Johanna Burani, MS, RD, and Linda Rao (Med. Marlow and Co., 2002)
The South Beach Diet by Arthur Agatston, MD (Rodale, 2003)
Carbohydrates: How to fit them in your diet by Mayo Clinic Staff