When you hear the term carbohydrates or carbs, what comes to mind? Is it the endless amount of potatoes and bread that everyone says causes weight gain? Is the weight gain that you fear? Here is your guide to what carbs are, how many calories carbs contain, and what is a ‘good’ carb.
I remember reading magazine articles when I was younger that would talk about bad carbs and good carbs and typically you never heard of a “good carb.” Instead, they were voo doo, bad, terrible for you, or would make you pack on those extra pounds. Still to this day you see magazine articles talking about cutting carbs to shred pounds or avoiding fruit on certain diets because all forms of sugar are bad for you.
So lets talk about what carbohydrates actually are. They are a carbon based molecule – made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. There are simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates.
The three smallest forms of carbohydrate are glucose, fructose, and galactose. These are called monosaccharides. These three simple sugars then combine together to form disaccharides. If you haven’t taken a basic chemistry course, di- means two. So disaccharides are two monosaccharides that chemically joined together. For example, table sugar (sucrose) is a disaccharide made up of glucose and fructose.
This continues on to oligosaccharides, which are three to ten monosaccharides chemically joined together. Once a strand has more than 10 monosaccharides linked together, they are called polysaccharides or complex carbohydrates. Foods that have complex carbohydrates include: potatoes, beans, grains, and corn. But remember that all carbohydrates get broken down into monosaccharides once it is digested in your body. In fact, all sugars are converted into glucose at some point in time!
Now that you know what makes up carbohydrates, you can learn about good carbs and bad carbs. In an ideal diet, there is no such thing as good carbs and bad carbs. In fact, there should be no foods that you should avoid because they are labeled “bad.” The exception to this rule is for food that you are allergic to. Never consume food that you are allergic to.
However, there is a difference between refined carbohydrates and whole grains. Whole grains have had no part of the wheat removed like the bran and the germ so these grains have more vitamins and minerals compared to refined grains like white bread and white pasta. When companies refine grains, they remove the parts of the wheat that contain the vitamins and minerals and leave only the endosperm, which doesn’t contain many nutritional benefits.
That being said, some better carbohydrates are whole wheat breads, brown rice, whole wheat pasta compared to white bread, white rice, and white pasta. If you want to consume more vitamins and minerals from potatoes, choosing sweet potatoes over white potatoes will give you more bang for your buck. The whole grain carbohydrates also contain fiber, which helps your microbiota (the bacteria in your gut that you need) function normally! But listen, you do not need to avoid all of the white carbohydrates because they are ‘bad’ for you.
Another good carbohydrate for you is fruit (and some vegetables). They have so many vitamins and minerals that contribute to your immune system that you shouldn’t avoid fruit. It doesn’t matter what diet out there that tells you that fruit is bad for you – that is simply not true.
The overall point here is that there aren’t bad and good carbs. You shouldn’t be avoiding certain food groups because they are labeled as bad and good. Sure, the whole grains will give you more vitamins and minerals, but typically (in the United States) we enrich our grains to contain certain minerals so that the population doesn’t develop deficiencies of these important vitamins and minerals.
LET’S TALK CALORIES
ALL, and I do mean ALL digestible carbohydrates have 4 kcal/gram. The digestive carbohydrates are fruit, breads, beans, rice, pasta, crackers, cakes, etc. have 4 kcal/gram. What typically turns our good and nutritious carbohydrates bad is when we add fat to them.
Let’s picture a plain, medium-sized baked potato – it’s somewhere around 150 calories but when we start adding butter and cheese and bacon – all sources of saturated fat, which is terrible for you – you are packing on another 150 – 200 calories, easily. This is where are good carbohydrates get their bad name. It’s the added fat that is turning your nutritious food into a calorie extravaganza.
We can also take our potato and slice it up and form the infamous french fries that we love to get at fast food restaurants. If you take that same medium-sized baked potato that is 150 calories and fry it in pure oil, which has 100 calories per 2 tablespoons, you’ve once again added more calories from FAT.
FIBER – THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY
We’ve talked about complex carbohydrates, and one form of complex carbohydrates is fiber. This is another vital part of our good carbs that are whole grains. Our body cannot digest fiber so it does not provide calories. There are two types of fiber – soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber are not fibrous and form gels when combined with water. You can find soluble fiber in oats (oatmeal), fruit, and dried beans. These are crucial for diabetics because it slows down the rate that glucose is absorbed into your body. This prevents someone that has a typically high blood glucose level, which is typical of diabetics, from having a sudden spike and drop in their glucose levels.
Insoluble fiber do not combine with water, but instead help prevent constipation by increasing stool bulk. You can find insoluble fiber in oat and wheat bran. This is also part of the peeling of fruit and vegetables. For the longest time when I was doing weight loss counseling, I would recommend that my patients not peel away all the white on oranges because of the insoluble fiber located on the orange peel. The same goes for cucumbers, zucchini, squash, apples. You name the fruit or vegetable and I can tell you that it has both insoluble and soluble fiber. The soluble fiber is in the pulp for fruits.
As far as the ugly goes for fiber, here it is. Excessive gas. Yes, I said it and unfortunately it is something that you have to watch for. When you increase your fiber intake, the consequence of that is gas. You can prevent that from happening by drinking plenty of water when increasing your fiber intake. Also, you never want to jump up from no fiber to tons of fiber. This will also give you the ugly gas side effect.