Diet And Nutrition



How Do You Tell the Difference Between Good and Bad Carbohydrates?

Everyone needs to eat carbohydrates, but that doesn't mean you should fuel up with cookies, candy, and potato chips.

By Moira Lawler and Diana Rodriguez

Medically Reviewed by Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDCES

Last Updated: March 3, 2021

Medically Reviewed

cake pastry vs bean legumes illustration

Cake and beans are both sources of carbs, but they are far from equal in quality.Everyday Health

Carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet, but it’s important to know they're not all created equal. How do you tell the difference between “good carbs” and “bad carbs”? The answer is both simple — and complex.

Here’s everything you need to know about making smart carbohydrate choices.

A Carbohydrate Can Be a Simple Carb or a Complex Carb

Carbohydrates, often referred to as just “carbs,” are your body's primary energy source, according to MedlinePlus. The three main types of carbohydrates are sugars, starches, and fiber. They're called “simple” or “complex” on the basis of their chemical makeup and what your body does with them. Because many foods contain one or more types of carbohydrates, it can be tricky to understand what’s healthy for you and what’s not.

Simple carbohydrates are composed of easy-to-digest sugars, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Some of these sugars are naturally occurring, such as those in fruits and in milk, while refined or processed sugars are usually added to foods like candies, baked goods, and soda. These simple carbs are quickly absorbed through the gut and can cause a spike in blood sugar levels, says Alicia Galvin, RD, the resident dietitian for Sovereign Laboratories in Dallas.

On nutrition labels, added sugars can go by several different names, including brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, fructose, glucose, maltose, malt syrup, sucrose, honey, agave nectar, molasses, and fruit juice concentrates, according to Harvard Health Publishing. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now requires all nutrition labels to clearly identify the number of added sugars per serving in the product, directly beneath the total sugar count.

Then there are complex carbohydrates, which are found in whole grains, legumes, and vegetables, and contain longer chains of sugar molecules, according to MedlinePlus. “Complex carbs have an additional component — fiber, which is technically a type of carbohydrate, but it's not digested and absorbed,” Galvin says. “That not only feeds the good gut bacteria, but it also allows for the absorption of the carbohydrate to be slower into the bloodstream, so it won't spike glucose levels and insulin levels like a simple carbohydrate would.”

This in turn provides you with a more consistent amount of energy, says Sandra Meyerowitz, MPH, RD, a nutritionist and owner of Nutrition Works in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Details on Simple Carbohydrates

Foods that contain simple carbohydrates aren’t necessarily bad — it depends on the food. For instance, fruits and dairy products contain some simple carbs, but they are drastically different from other foods that contain simple carbs, like cookies and cakes. Processed sweets tend to contain refined sugar, too, and lack key nutrients your body needs to be healthy, according to the AHA.

“There are health benefits to eating fruit versus eating a piece of white bread,” Galvin says. “Fruit does contain fiber, and also antioxidants and polyphenols and other good nutritional benefits.”

Dairy also contains healthy nutrients, such as calcium, protein, and sometimes probiotics (if live active cultures are present), Galvin says. The protein component is key to helping dairy behave more like a complex carbohydrate. “Protein helps slow the absorption of carbohydrates into the bloodstream and helps keep appetite levels steady so you don't have swings of insulin levels and blood glucose going up and down,” Galvin says.-

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