Good Carbs VS Bad Carbs
With the rapid rise in popularity of high fat, low carb, ketogenic diets, carbohydrates have become somewhat demonised within the health and fitness industry. This has come with the suggestions that carbohydrates are the root cause of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases such as type II diabetes and hypertension, as well as the source of the obesity epidemic that currently plagues our nation.
Interestingly, this is all despite the fact that the dietary guidelines recommend we get around about 50% of our daily energy intake from carbohydrates.
While there is a host of interesting research supporting both sides of this rather large argument, there is often one glaring similarity that appears in both.
And more specifically, carbohydrate quality.
While over time it has become apparent that some individuals manage better on higher carbohydrate diets, and others manage better on lower carbohydrate diets, it appears universal that all individuals seem to handle carbohydrates better when they come from what are considered good sources.
Carbohydrates are one of the three key macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates) that we receive from food. While carbohydrates are consumed in different forms (sugar, starches, and fibre), once they have entered the digestive system they are broken down into glucose, where they can then be shuttled around the body to be used for energy.
Fibre is the only exception to this rule, as it cannot actually be broken down within the digestive system. Despite this, it does play an important role in the health management of the bacteria found in our gut, and as such can play an important role in maintaining or improving healthy digestive processes.
Carbohydrates are stored in the liver and muscle tissue. Unfortunately, these stores are not infinite, and during occasions where are our carbohydrate stores are completely full (often during times of excessive carbohydrate consumption…. AKA Christmas dinner?), they can also be converted into fatty acid molecules, where they are then stored to be used for energy at a later time.
Once these carbohydrates have broken down and enter the blood stream, insulin is secreted into the blood. It is insulin that promotes the storage of both fatty acids and glucose into our muscle, adipose, and liver tissues.
Good and Bad Carbohydrates
Now, while those carbohydrates that we consume and digest all end up stored as glucose within our metabolic tissues, this does not mean that all carbs are created equal.
Carbohydrates are found in a number of different foods, and although the line that separates good carbohydrates from bad carbohydrates can become a little blurry at times, there are a few distinct differences between the two.
Good carbohydrates are known to come from whole food sources. These include vegetables, grains, legumes, and fruit. While these foods are traditionally considered high in carbohydrate content, this does not by any means suggest that they are bad.
Those carbohydrates found in whole foods typically consist of mostly complex carbohydrates.
Complex carbohydrates are ultimately starches that are built from extremely long chains of glucose molecules. This is important, as these complex carbohydrates take a longer time to breakdown in the gut, and subsequently, are absorbed into the blood at an extremely slow rate after ingestion .
This slow absorption leads to a very small insulin response. This ultimately means that less glucose is stored within the tissue, and more is available to be used freely for energy.
As you can imagine, this can lead to less fat deposition, and will also reduce the risk of developing type II diabetes and metabolic disease.
In addition to their slowed digestion, good carbohydrates have two other key qualities.
Firstly, they are often typified by a high fibre content. As we know, fibre cannot be digested and absorbed, but rather improves the digestion of other macronutrients, while also maintaining the health of important gut bacteria.
By increasing our fibre consumption, we can improve our digestive processes and our gut health, which has been linked to the effective management of a number of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes .
Secondly, these whole foods often contain an abundance of vitamins and minerals that are known to play important roles that support immune system function, and metabolic processes .
By maintaining a high consumption of these nutrients, we can further improve health, reducing our risk of disease and illness.
These good carbohydrates are inherently different from bad carbohydrates, in that they have undergone practically zero processing (hence the reason they are often considered whole carbohydrates).
Bad carbohydrates are often described as refined carbohydrates, due to the high amount of processing they undergo before they are packaged for consumption.
Refined carbohydrates come in the form of pasta, sugar sweetened beverages (such as fruit juice and soda), breads, pastries, cereals, and pretty much any type of sweet or candy.
Ultimately, if it comes in a package, it is most likely a refined carbohydrate.
The carbohydrates used in these sorts of foods have been broken down during processing into what are known as simple sugars. Simple sugars are small chains of glucose molecules (rather than the long chain carbohydrates found in whole foods).
These simple sugars are broken down and digested at an extremely rapid rate, and as such cause an extremely large insulin response. This insulin response can have a pretty significant impact on the body by causing the rapid storage of both glucose and fatty acids into our active tissues.
This alone can lead to an increase in fat mass over time.
In addition to fat accumulation, this also results in a significant reduction in glucose circulating within the blood stream (where it would normally be used for energy), resulting in a severe lack of energy, and often extreme hunger .
Furthermore, it is quite typical of refined carbohydrates to have minimal fibre content, and a serious lack of nutrients, meaning that while they have a relatively high energy content, they have very poor nutrient density.
This suggests that they are full of empty calories, in which we receive a whole heap of energy, but no real nutritional value.
In fact, the regular consumption of highly refined carbohydrates has shown extremely strong associations with chronic disease and illness, irrespective of their daily energy intake .
This suggest that the way these carbohydrates interact within the body have a number of negative effects to our health, even without weight gain.
While low carb eating has taken the health industry by storm in recent times, it may not be 100% necessary.
Carbohydrates are essential for energy, and as such should not be demonised in their entirety. While it is apparent that eating too many refined carbohydrates can lead to lead to weight gain, disease, and illness, this does not hold true for the unprocessed counterparts.
In fact, considering the nutritional value of whole carbohydrates and their capacity to improve digestive health, their intake is actually likely to have positive effects on general health and weight management.
While it may seem a little complicated at first, differentiating between good and carbohydrates can actually be quite simple.
Basically, if it grows in the ground, it will be fine.
If it looks like it was made in a factory, it’s probably not a good option.