Are carbohydrates good or bad for you? It depends. Despite what proponents of some popular low-carb diets would have you believe, carbohydrates (in the right form) are a very important component of your diet.

Carbohydrates are a key source of energy and they help regulate your blood sugar levels. And they are our only source of dietary fiber – meat fiber doesn’t count. Essentially, eating the right kind of carbohydrates are important for good health.

But not all carbs are created equal. There are “good” carbs and “bad” carbs. Carbohydrates, one of the three macronutrients needed by the body (the other two are protein and fats), can be classified into one of three groups:

  • Starches – long chains of glucose the body breaks down. Glucose provides energy for cells, like gasoline does for a car.
  • Sugars – also called simple carbohydrates, are made up of one sugar molecule (called monosaccharides and include glucose, fructose, and galactose) or two sugar molecules linked together (called disaccharides and include lactose, sucrose, and maltose). Unlike starches, simple carbohydrates are, or are pretty close to, the form of sugar your body uses for energy – glucose. So eating something high in sugar explains why you get that quick energy spike.
  • Fiber – This one is different than the other two because it’s not digestible. However, fiber does feed the bacteria in your digestive tract, which produce fatty acids that can be used for energy production and keeping your intestines healthy. Fiber also has numerous other benefits as you will see.

We need all three forms for a healthy balanced diet. But remember, not all sources of carbohydrates are equal. What is the difference between a side of French fries or a side of seasoned black beans? Both contain carbohydrates, so what makes them so different? 

The fries – besides high amounts of fat and sodium – are high on the glycemic index. That means they raise the level of glucose in your blood faster. The beans, on the other hand, are lower on the glycemic index and higher in fiber. Because of the fiber, it takes longer for your body to digest the beans and they raise your blood sugar more slowly than do the French fries. 

What makes a good carbohydrate “good”?

One key characteristic of a good carbohydrate is that it is “complex.” A complex carbohydrate is still made up of glucose, but as the name implies, the glucose molecules are strung together in long and complex chains. Because of these longer complex chains, the body requires more time to digest and convert these complex carbs into energy. In turn, that supplies a slower and steadier supply of energy.

That’s why if you swap white toast for whole wheat toast for breakfast, you will feel fuller longer and have more energy to make it to lunch. 

Good complex carbs are also filled with fiber. Fiber also slows the absorption of carbohydrates in the body, thus helping to avoid blood sugar spikes. 

NOTE: Getting back to the French fries/black beans comparison, one serving of fries has four grams of fiber compared to a 1-cup serving of black beans that has 15 grams of fiber.

Here are some other traits of a good food source of carbohydrates:

  • It’s nutrient-dense but low in calories – meaning the food is filling enough to satisfy hunger but won’t overload you on calories. Examples include most veggies, oatmeal, beans, lentils, berries, chia seeds, and watermelon. Some, like chia seeds, increase the feeling of fullness by absorbing water in your GI tract. Others, like berries, contain pectin that increase the feeling of fullness.
  • It’s high in minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. For example, unsweetened fruits are good carbohydrates that are also packed with fiber and nutrients. Berries are some of the highest antioxidant foods on the planet.
  • It has a lower glycemic index – look for foods with a glycemic index of 55 or lower.  
  • It doesn’t contain refined sugar or overly processed ingredients. A good example is white versus whole-grain bread. White bread contains processed flour stripped of nutrients and contains added sugars; whereas, a slice of whole grain bread typically has more natural nutrients and more fiber.

Are simple carbohydrates good or bad?

Unlike complex carbohydrates, simple carbohydrates are made up of just one or two sugars and are more quickly absorbed by the body. There are many foods that are natural sources of simple carbohydrates – it’s when they are added or the sweetest ones are eaten in excess there can be problems.

Fruits and vegetables naturally contain fructose and sucrose (one molecule of fructose linked to one molecule of glucose), while the naturally occurring sugar in milk is lactose (made up of one molecule of glucose and one molecule of galactose). These natural sources of simple carbs also provide vitamins and minerals, and can be high in fiber that helps prevent blood sugar spikes.

The reason simple carbohydrates get a bad rap is that they are also added, often in large amounts, to processed and refined products like soda, sweetened pastries, desserts, and breakfast cereals. When reading a label, look for anything with “-ose” on the end. That typically is reserved for added sugars like fructose, maltose, sucrose, etc.

Other words that are sweeteners that don’t have the word sugar in the name include corn syrup, HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup), molasses, honey, agave, and malt. The good news is that, starting in 2020, the new FDA food labeling requirements include the addition of “Added Sugars” to the Nutrition Facts label. This will enable you to determine what sugar in the food is natural and what sugar has been added.

Overall, avoid sources of carbohydrates that are also:

  • High in calories – which usually means the addition of extra sugar and fat
  • Refined – white bread, white rice, etc. – which means they are stripped of fiber and nutrients
  • High in added sodium

A diet that is high in simple carbs can be detrimental to your health. It can cause various health issues, such as an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity – not to mention tooth decay and other dental problems.

Eat this carb, not that 

When choosing certain foods, try to replace processed and simple carbohydrates with these complex ones.

Instead of:

Replace with:

Potatoes  

Cauliflower – a great substitute in mashed “potatoes” or “potato” salad

Processed cereals

Oatmeal or whole grain cereals 

White flour

Whole grain flour or chickpea flour 

Regular pasta

Whole wheat, quinoa, legume, or veggie pasta 

White bread

Whole-wheat bread or gluten-free whole grain bread

White rice

Brown rice or riced cauliflower

 A vicious cycle: carbohydrate cravings 

Cutting out simple carbs and highly processed foods from a diet can be hard at first. One reason is that the body is used to the sugar spike these carbohydrates provide. And when the inevitable sugar crash comes a few hours later, the body interprets it as hunger, which causes you to crave even more high-carb, quick-energy foods.

Replacing refined and simple carbohydrates with complex ones can help break this cycle. But if you are looking for extra support, consider adding chromium picolinate to your daily routine. Chromium is an essential mineral for our bodies. Unfortunately, chromium is often lacking in our modern diet, because refined flours and sugars are stripped of nutrients like chromium.

Thorne uses chromium that is bound to picolinic acid, which facilitates chromium’s absorption, so you get the chromium's full benefit.* And its benefits? Well, research suggests that chromium in the form of picolinate supports blood sugar metabolism and insulin sensitivity.* In addition, decreases in carbohydrate cravings have also been noted.*

That, along with a healthy diet of complex carbs, can help break the carbohydrate craving cycle brought on by our modern diets. And don’t forget the protein. Eating plenty of protein, especially fish like salmon with a high amount of good omega-3 fats, not only provides important nutrients, but helps provide a sense of fullness.