Do a quick search for “healthy eating tips” and it won’t take long to find article after article about reducing or cutting out carbohydrates (“carbs,” for those in the know!) in order to reach your health and fitness goals. From the Atkins diet of days past to the more-recent Keto diet, carbs have gotten an undeserved bad rap over the years. Here’s why carbs are not the enemy, and how to use them as part of a healthy diet.
WHAT IS A CARB?
Simply put, carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients; they are made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The three types of carbs are starches (such as potatoes, beans, rice, and even fruits), sugars (like white sugar or corn syrup), and fiber. When you eat or drink carbs, your body converts these molecules into glucose, AKA blood sugar. This glucose serves as a primary source of energy for your muscles, organs, and cells.
HEALTHY VS UNHEALTHY CARBS
A large part of the bad reputation carbs have endured over the years comes from the fact that your body turns them to sugar during digestion. It is true that consuming too many carbs will result in high blood sugar, which puts you at risk for diabetes and weight gain. This is where it’s important to distinguish between healthy (complex) and unhealthy (simple) carbs.
Complex carbs generally come from whole foods such as beans, whole fruits and vegetables, and whole grain products like brown rice and oatmeal. These foods all digest slowly on account of having increased fiber. This means that your blood sugar doesn’t spike as dramatically during digestion, resulting in sustained long-term energy.
Simple carbs generally come from processed foods and added sugars. Cakes, candy bars, sodas, and canned fruit are all good examples of simple carbs. Because these carbs are already processed, your body digests them much faster than complex carbs. This results in a dramatic blood sugar spike, as the sugars from these foods quickly enters your bloodstream, often followed by a dramatic crash when the sugars are processed.
HOW TO USE CARBS AS PART OF A HEALTHY DIET
So, what’s the best way to get the fuel your body needs without putting yourself at risk for blood sugar spikes? First, aim to get your carbs from as many whole foods as possible. By choosing brown rice instead of white rice, whole fruits over fruit juices, and whole beans instead of refried beans, for example, you avoid the simple carbs that can lead to trouble.
Next, avoid added sugars whenever possible. A good guide is to limit added sugars to 30 grams per day. Most nutrition labels now list added sugars under their total sugar, so make sure to pay attention when considering which products to buy.
Finally, make sure to sprinkle carbs throughout your day. Some fad diets propose not eating any carbs at night or only eating carbs at breakfast. Since carbs provide your body with the fuel it needs to get through the day, try instead to have complex carbs with every meal to keep yourself fueled and ready for whatever the day may bring!
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