Carbohydrate Confusion! Good Carbs vs. Bad Carbs

By Shane YoungJune 13, 2016

Carbohydrates (or carbs) are essential macronutrients that the fitness and wellness world seem to argue about constantly! I bet you’d be pretty hard-pressed to find a nutrition plan that doesn’t limit or eliminate carbs in some capacity or another.

Along with protein and fat, carbohydrates are one of the three main classifications of foods called macronutrients. They’re comprised mostly of sugars and starches the body breaks down into glucose to feed our cells and serve as the main source of energy for the body.

And, carbs aren’t just found in bagels and pizza; they also comprise typical health foods such as fruits and vegetables!

The biggest reason carbohydrates are frowned upon is that they cause a spike in blood sugar and insulin levels, which can lead to increased fat storage and weight gain. While this is certainly true, the operative word in the sentence is can depending on when, what type, and how often you consume foods high in carbs. There are good carbs and bad carbs which means not all carbs are inherently bad! The science behind the categorization into good and bad carbs is glycemic index or glycemic load.

Carbs are important because they provide energy for muscle function and act as the primary fuel for the brain. Eliminating carbs produces sluggishness along with long-term negative health effects. I would say this is true for grain based carbs.

Carbs such as fruits and vegetables (yes, kale is a carbohydrate!!) are rich in fiber so they help control appetite, slow digestion, and improve overall cardiovascular health. Processed carbs, on the other hand, such as breads, pastas, and baked goods, provide little nutritional value and are converted quickly to sugar and easily stored as fat.

Good carbs vs. bad carbs

As I mentioned, good carbs are typically those that are high in fiber and less processed; these foods are called low glycemic or complex carbohydrates. The glucose from these types of carbohydrates is released slowly which provides the body with sustained energy and there is less of an insulin spike associated with consuming complex carbs.

Bad carbs are typically more processed (white breads, pretzels, candy) and are referred to as high glycemic or simple carbohydrates. The glucose from these carbohydrates is quickly released, which results in an insulin spike and the quick removal and shuttling of glucose from the bloodstream into the cell.

So, what types of carbs should I consume?

Aim to get the majority of your carbohydrates from local, seasonal, organic fruits and vegetables. These foods are rich in essential vitamins, fiber, and other healthy nutrients. Fruits and vegetables contain powerful antioxidants that protect the body from the cell-damaging effects of free-radicals. Healthy examples include: apples, avocados, beets, bell peppers, blackberries, blueberries, broccoli, Brussels, sprouts, cantaloupe, carrots, celery, cherries, cucumber, eggplant, field greens, grapefruit, green apple, honeydew, kiwifruit, mangoes, mushrooms, oranges, papaya, peaches, pineapple, plums, pomegranates, raspberries, red grapes, romaine lettuce, spinach, squash, strawberries, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelon, and yams.

These non-processed, fiber-rich, colorful carbs are essential to a healthy lifestyle. Fiber, found mostly in carbohydrates, is essential to overall health improving your body’s digestive function, regulating blood sugar levels, and promoting long-term cardiovascular health.

When is the best time to consume foods high in carbohydrates?

For an active person, a combination of high and low glycemic index carbohydrates are important to ensure a proper amount of energy for optimum performance. The trick is to figure out timing.

Before a training session, it is optimal to consume lower glycemic index carbohydrates in your meals throughout the day. Low glycemic foods will prevent any premature lowering of blood glucose levels before training, which can lead to fatigue. I don’t know about you, but I need to be 100% for every workout, so I can’t afford to experience low blood sugar in the middle of my workout causing early fatigue. Some healthy examples include: vegetable soup and Kale salad with fresh peaches.

During training and prolonged exercise (exercise lasting an hour or more), it is advantageous to have a high glycemic index food on hand to maintain blood glucose levels such as a green apple or a banana.

After a training session is the optimal time to have higher glycemic index foods. As I say, “earn your carbs, After activity, there is about a two-hour window of optimal recovery where your cells are most receptive to nutrition to replenish the glycogen stores that you have depleted. The replacement of these stores is crucial for the next workout. Some healthy options include a fruit-based protein shake (don’t forget your good fats though!) or lean meat paired with a sweet potato or other root vegetable.


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