What’s the Difference Between Good and Bad Carbohydrates?

slice of whole wheat good carbs

Carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet, but there’s a big difference between good and bad carbohydrates. Your body needs carbohydrates to make glucose. Glucose is the main source of energy for your body. But there’s a catch: there’s a big difference between good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates. Here’s what you need to know to make good food choices for optimal health.

There are three main types of carbohydrates: sugars, starches, and fiber. Many foods contain a mix of these three types of carbohydrates. So what makes them good or bad? The answer is that it depends on whether they are “simple” or “complex” carbohydrates.

Simple carbs

Simple carbohydrates are composed of easy-to-digest, basic sugars. Some of these sugars are naturally occurring, such as those in fruits and in milk. But refined or processed sugars are often added to candies, baked goods, and soda. These sugars have many different names: corn sweetener, corn syrup, fructose, glucose, maltose, malt syrup, sucrose, and honey, among others.

Simple carbohydrates aren’t necessarily all bad carbs — it depends on the food you’re getting them from. For instance, fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of essential vitamins and minerals necessary for good health, and they naturally contain simple carbohydrates composed of basic sugars.

But fruits and vegetables are drastically different from other foods in the “simple” carbohydrate category, like cookies and cakes with added refined sugars. The fiber in fruits and vegetables changes the way the body processes their sugars and slows down their digestion, making them a bit more like complex carbohydrates.

Watch out for these simple carbs: soda, candy, cookies, lemonade and iced tea. Keep them for when you need a treat.

Complex carbs

Complex carbohydrates are found in whole grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables. They contain longer chains of sugar molecules. Your body takes more time to break them down and use them. This provides you with a more consistent amount of energy.

The body takes longer to break down complex carbs. That means get lower amounts of sugars released at a more consistent rate. These keep you going throughout the day. Foods with complex carbohydrates also have more vitamins, fiber, and minerals than foods containing more simple carbohydrates. But make sure to choose the whole grains over processed ones. Go for whole-wheat flour, quinoa, brown rice, barley, corn, and oats. Skip processed grains like white rice and breads, pasta, and white flour.

Add these complex carbs to your diet: whole wheat breads, pastas, brown rice, barley, quinoa, potatoes, corn, and legumes.

Take away: When trying to figure out if a source of carbohydrates is good or bad, remember this: the higher in sugar it is, and the lower in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, the worse the food is for you.

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