Aside from the debate on whether or not carbs are good for you, I often hear people saying things like, “I don’t eat apples because they’re too high in carbs,” and, “I try to limit my carb intake”.
But I’m just not certain these types of people really know what they’re talking about. It’s okay, it took me several years to fully understand how good and bad carbs affect our bodies. And I’m still learning how to incorporate more good ones into my diet.
With that said, I want to combat all the confusion surrounding this issue (because there’s a lot) and spend some time clearing things up.
Are Carbs Really the Enemy?
In my post, ‘Think Carbs are Making You Fat?’, we explored the fact that carbohydrates are considered a macronutrient – nutrients our bodies need in large quantities – and are essential for our bodies to function properly.
Despite what low carbohydrate diets preach, carbs are not the enemy. More importantly, carbs should be included in your healthy diet. The key to unlocking the carb mystery is to eat the right carbohydrates and avoid the harmful ones.
Today’s post will explain the differences between simple and complex carbs. Once you totally understand this distinction, you’ll have a better idea of which ones to eat.
Benefits of Eating Carbohydrates
Before we dive in, I think it’s important to reiterate the benefits of eating carbs and understand what makes them so important in our diets.
Brierley Wright, M.S., R.D. of Eating Well, points out that carbohydrates can:
- Help boost your mood
- Prevent weight gain
- Help you trim your waistline
- Keep your memory sharp
- Help burn fat
Finally…five reasons to eat more pasta. Wouldn’t that be nice?
As much as I love my pasta and breads, it’s important to note that in order for us to reap those healthy benefits, we have to choose the right carbs instead of the bad ones.
So how can you tell which carbs are right for you?
It’s actually easier than you think.
All carbohydrates fall into two main categories, then they are separated even further into two sub categories. Hang in there with me, it sounds more complicated than it actually is.
The two main categories are simple and complex carbohydrates.
You then distinguish between foods with high glycemic index (GI) scores and low GI scores within the simple and complex carbs categories.
I know I said this would be easy, but then I threw in a science term like glycemic index. So let’s discuss that term a little more.
What is the Glycemic Index?
The glycemic index is simply a measure of how much a carbohydrate containing food affects our blood glucose (sugar) levels. High GI scores mean that the food raises your blood sugar levels and low GI scores mean that your blood sugar does not spike as much.
Every food is given a number on the GI scale.
According to the American Diabetes Association, here’s how common foods are broken down according to GI numbers on the scale:
- Low GI Foods (55 or lower): stone ground whole wheat or pumpernickel bread, oatmeal, muesli, sweet potato, lima beans, peas, legumes, lentils, most fruit, non-starchy veggies.
- Medium GI Foods (56-69): whole wheat, rye or pita bread, brown, wild, and basmati rice, couscous.
- High GI Foods (70 or more): white bread, bagels, corn flakes, instant oatmeal, white rice, rice pasta, pretzels, rice cakes, popcorn, melons, pineapples.
Can you guess what food categories you should stick to?
If you guessed one and two, the low and medium GI groups, you’d be right.
Although certain foods in the high GI category shouldn’t be avoided—like pineapples and melons— they definitely should be consumed in moderation. For the most part, you should try to regularly avoid high GI foods and only eat them occasionally, if at all.
In one study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 12 overweight or obese men between the ages of 18-35 were given high and low GI meals. According to the study, these meals were controlled for calories, macronutrients, and palatability.
Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRIs, were conducted to measure brain activity in the participants roughly 4 hours after they ate.
The results: those who consumed the high GI meals showed a decrease in plasma glucose (essentially blood glucose) and an increase in hunger. What was even more fascinating was that the brain scans found an increase in activity related to our reward and craving centers in the brain.
This means that when we consume foods that rank high on the glycemic index, we’re essentially perpetuating a possible food addiction that causes us to crave unhealthy foods even more.
Now that we understand how the glycemic index works, it’s time to learn more about the foods that give carbohydrates a bad name: simple carbs.
What are Simple Carbs?
As opposed to complex carbs, simple carbs are generally comprised of sugars such as glucose or fructose, and their genetic makeup consists of one sugar (monosaccharides) or two (disaccharides) at most. This, combined with how fast they are digested, is what gives them their name.
According to MedlinePlus, a division of the US National Library of Medicine: “Simple carbohydrates are broken down quickly by the body to be used as energy. Simple carbohydrates are found naturally in foods such as fruits, milk and milk products. They are also found in processed and refined sugars such as candy, table sugar, syrups and soft drinks”.
Here’s how it works: once a simple carb hits your digestive tract, it’s quickly broken down into a usable form of energy. However, this process is so fast that it causes your blood sugar levels to rise fast. When this happens, your pancreas has to work extra hard to produce insulin to combat the flood of excess sugar in your system.
But that’s what’s happening on the inside. On the surface, you’re going to feel a rapid burst of energy (known as a sugar high) followed by an eventual crash (sugar crash) that will leave you feeling wiped out and tired.
We definitely want to avoid this cycle, so let’s figure out what foods are considered simple carbs.
Examples of Simple Carbohydrates
After reading those reasons, you may think that most simple carbohydrates should be avoided at all costs, and that’s true. However, there are a select few that should be consumed in moderation.
Talk about confusing…
Good Simple Carbs
Not all simple carbs are bad. In fact, the following foods are healthy simple carbohydrates that should be consumed in moderation (i.e. roughly two servings per day).
Notice anything here? If you said that these foods are naturally occurring sources of carbs, you’d be right. I bet you can already guess what trait bad simple carbs share…
Bad Simple Carbs
Unlike fresh fruit and healthy dairy, most other simple carbs should be avoided because they are overly processed and commercially sweetened.
To help you identify these guys, here’s a list of bad simple carbs:
- White flour pasta
- Packaged cereal
- Candy, candy bars
- Soft drinks
- White flour bread
- Ice cream
- Table sugar
As you can see from that list, simple carbohydrates are often filled with added sugars. When foods are processed to that extreme, they are stripped of their vitamins and minerals and void of any nutritional value.
Many times, manufacturers have to add back the vitamins and minerals that were lost during processing just to keep the food more appealing to consumers. Oftentimes this process is hiding in words like ‘enriched’ on nutrition labels.
Some manufacturers have even taken this a step too far. Researchers discovered that “nearly half of American kids age eight and younger consume potentially harmful amounts of vitamin A, zinc and niacin because of excessive food fortification, outdated nutritional labeling rules and misleading marketing tactics used by food manufacturers”, according to a report released by the Environmental Working Group.
Instead of consuming simple carbohydrates that have been stripped of their nutritional value and then fortified with excess vitamins, opt for complex carbs instead.
What are Complex Carbs?
Unlike simple carbs, complex carbs are digested slower and are much healthier for you. The reason for this is that complex carbs are made from whole, unprocessed sources. Therefore, they don’t lose their nutritional value during the cooking process and they don’t need fake nutrients pumped in either.
On top of that, because they’re nutrient-packed, you won’t experience the same blood sugar spikes that you’d have with simple carbohydrates. This means you’ll have sustained energy throughout the day.
According to One Green Planet, you’ll also notice the following health benefits as a result of eating complex carbs:
- Improved digestion
- Improved metabolism
- Improved sleep
- Improved brain and nervous system functioning
- Feeling full for longer
With those benefits, it’s easy to see why carbs are actually your friend, which means I really can eat more pasta…as long as it’s the right kind, of course.
Speaking of which, below is a list of some of the most popular complex carbohydrates that will give you that sustained energy I was talking about earlier:
- Oatmeal (steel cut, rolled oats)
- Brown rice
- Whole wheat pasta
- Whole wheat bread
- Whole wheat tortillas
- Whole wheat pita bread
- Rye bread
- High fiber cereal
- Wild rice
In addition to those grains, these food sources are also complex carbs:
- Sweet peas
- Soy beans
How to Tell the Difference Between Complex & Simple Carbs
I’ve only given you a list of a fraction of the carbs out there, and it’s a lot to take in.
Instead of memorizing everything on this list, there’s also another way to determine if you’re eating a simple or a complex carb.
Although, it’s not exactly scientific and should just be used as a general rule of thumb, it is a great way to figure out what works for your body and your nutritional needs.
When you’re eating anything, notice how it makes you feel afterwards. I’m talking about immediately, like 30 minutes after, or even several hours later. This is one of the practices of mindful eating.
If you immediately have a burst of energy that’s short lived and causes you to get that ‘I could really use a nap right about now’ feeling, you probably just ate a simple carbohydrate.
On the other hand, if you finish your meal and don’t notice an energy spike, then you’re probably dealing with complex carbs.
Once you know how a specific food makes you feel, you can either keep it in your repertoire or kick it to the curb.
Plus, according to an article published by the University of Minnesota, the practice of mindful eating allows many people to eat less while still feeling full, thanks to the fact that it helps your body digest food better and gives your body enough time to signal to your brain that you’re full.
So whether you’re eating carbs or not, practicing mindful eating is beneficial for you and your waistline.
How to Eat More Complex Carbohydrates
We’ve figured out that carbs are not the enemy and that complex carbs are also our friend, so it’s time to learn how to incorporate them into your daily meals.
The best tips I’ve found regarding this matter come from the Harvard School of Public Health.
- Starting your day with whole grains like steel cut oats
- Enjoying whole grains as part of your lunch and for snacks
- Looking beyond the bread aisle, reaching for quinoa or brown rice instead
- Choosing whole fruit juice instead of traditional, sugar filled options
- Swapping potatoes for beans
As with anything, the idea is to slowly add more complex carbohydrates into your diet as you transition out the bad ones. If you try to go cold turkey and eliminate them altogether, you may end up feeling lethargic and just plain out of it. However, once you make the transition and fully phase out the harmful carbs, you’ll notice a difference in your health almost instantly.
Tell us what you think. Are you guilty of eating harmful simple carbohydrates or have you transitioned to a mostly-complex carb kind of lifestyle?