We sat down with Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and blogger Alice Figueroa on all things carbohydrates.Alice helped educate us on one of the most misunderstood organic compounds we regularly consume (and many times avoid)!
Read on to learn more about the ins and outs of carbs.
Do we need carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates have unfairly been labeled as unhealthy in our food culture. You may be surprised to learn that carbohydrates are a pivotal part of a healthy diet.In fact, some of the most nutritious foods you can eat are carbohydrates. Healthy carbohydrates include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes.Our bodies need six types of nutrients to maintain health: carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water.
What do carbohydrates do?
Carbohydrates supply the body with energy and are the primary source of fuel for our cells and nervous system. In addition to providing fuel for our bodies, carbohydrates are needed for effectively metabolizing fat into energy. Carbohydrates also protect protein from being broken down to produce energy. This allows for the protein that we consume to be used for other vital functions like muscle, bone, and skin maintenance and hormonal health. Last but not least, carbohydrates provide fiber and prebiotics. Both fiber and prebiotics are crucial for digestive health. Fiber promotes normal movement of food through our digestive system and the elimination of waste.
What is the difference between good carbs (complex carbs) and bad carbs (simple carbs)?
I don’t believe that any food should be labeled as bad. All food in moderation can have a place at your table.There are two main types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Both are digested and processed by the bodily differently.Simple sugars are digested by the body very quickly and do not contain fiber or prebiotics. Therefore, they are not the healthiest carbohydrate choice. Complex carbohydrates are digested at a slower rate and contain fiber; making them the ideal carbohydrate choice for healthy eating.
What makes complex carbs better?
Complex carbohydrates support your health. Since complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly, they provide a steady source of energy for your body. Unlike simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates do not cause a sudden spike in your blood sugar. As a result, you won’t experience the dreaded “sugar high and sugar crash” when you eat a balanced meal that includes complex carbohydrates.
Complex carbohydrates also have fiber, which is crucial for promoting digestive health. Fiber prevents constipation and diarrhea and allows for efficient movement of food and waste through your digestive system. Soluble fiber is important for heart health since it can help lower bad cholesterol. The prebiotic fiber found in complex carbohydrates provides food for the good bacteria (probiotics) found in our digestive system. The good bacteria in our digestive system supports our immune and digestive health.
How do simple carbs get processed differently in your body. What makes them bad?
Simple carbohydrates are digested and absorbed by the body rapidly. This causes an excess spike in your blood sugar levels. High levels of blood sugar, due to excessive consumption of simple sugars, are associated with metabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.
Is there a go-to list of good vs. bad?
Foods that contain large amounts of simple carbohydrates should be eaten sparingly.These include (to name a few):
- Maple syrup
- Brown sugar
- Corn syrup
- White bread
- Fruit juice
Always check food labels to see if the products you are buying contain hidden simple carbohydrates. Some simple carbohydrates used in packaged foods include fructose, galactose, dextrose, maltose, sucrose, inverted sugar, and xylose.
Foods that are complex carbohydrates should be eaten every day as a part of a healthy diet that includes a balanced intake of protein and fat. Complex carbs are found in the following:
- Leafy vegetables
- Root vegetables
- 100% whole wheat bread
- 100% whole wheat pasta
- Brown and wild rice
Now that you understand how important carbohydrates are in your diet, look to eat more complex carbs, including your snacks. Our fruit bars are an easy way to get complex carbs and two servings of fruit on the go.
About Alice Figueroa
Alice empowers her clients to achieve their highest wellness goals by embracing science-based, holistic approaches. Alice’s philosophy is one of mindful living and happy eating. She creates nutrition programs that meet your unique medical, cultural, and emotional needs, combining scrumptious, health-supportive cooking with body/mind appreciation and positive psychology.
Alice Figueroa, MPH, RDN
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Research Fellow