Ever since the low-carb, high-fat Atkins diet exploded onto the American scene, carbohydrates have been labeled bad. Unfortunately, this is only half true and has led to a lot of confusion among the public.
In fact, while some carbohydrates are bad, others are good and should be the centerpiece of a healthy diet. But how can you tell the good from the bad carbs?
Before making this distinction, it is important to understand that all carbohydrates, good and bad, are made up of various types of sugar and this can be confusing. The key is how the sugar is packaged and presented to the body.
What is the difference between good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates?
The first distinction is that good carbohydrates contain natural sugars like those found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Bad carbohydrates, on the other hand, are sugars “added” to processed foods and soft drinks and discharged into coffee or tea.
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A second distinction is that good carbohydrates are “complex,” which means sugars are part of a more complex configuration that includes fiber that cannot be broken down in the human digestive system. This slows down the process and is good because the sugars in the good carbohydrates enter the bloodstream slowly, in a “time-release” fashion. This is important because a slow release of sugar dampens the insulin response. (As blood sugar enters cells and levels in the bloodstream decrease, insulin also decreases.)
Conversely, bad carbohydrates are “simple” sugars that quickly enter the bloodstream. When this happens, the body misinterprets what is happening, thinking that a huge amount of sugar is on its way. In turn, a large insulin response occurs to manage the sugar and escort it into the cells. A high insulin response signals the body to store body fat, especially in the abdominal area as visceral (deep) body fat around the liver and other organs. Excess visceral fat contributes to insulin resistance, pre-diabetes and ultimately the onset of type 2 diabetes.
A third distinction is that good carbohydrates provide many useful nutrients (vitamins, minerals and proteins) and because they are filling up, you are eating less. Bad carbohydrates are sugars that represent “empty” calories, which means they provide energy but not nutrients, and excess energy is stored as body fat. Also, bad carbs don’t satisfy hunger, but instead inspire you to eat more, consuming more calories and adding even more body fat.
Although excess body fat is a major cause of the destruction of health, it is important to point out that sugar, in and of itself, is a problem. Recent research indicates that people of normal weight who consume a lot of excess “added” sugars may double their risk of dying from heart disease.
How can I read food labels to choose the good carbohydrates?
Food labels in the past weren’t always helpful when trying to make good dietary decisions. Was it because food producers wanted to keep consumers in the dark, especially those who specialize in unhealthy foods high in fat and sugar? It sure looks like that.
Take the fact that in the past, labels didn’t reveal the size of a serving. Therefore, if the label tells you that the product contains 100 calories (kcal) per serving, but does not tell you how many servings there were in the package, you might be surprised to learn that there are four servings in the package, for a total of 400. calories. This is especially misleading for highly concentrated foods with a high calorie content in just a few bites.
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Thankfully, after decades of effort by health advocates looking to make useful changes, we now have food labels that make more sense. This was especially useful for carbohydrates on labels. Now, the labels tell us how much “added” sugar per serving is in the product. This is important because you can use this valuable information to reduce your bad carb intake.
However, keep in mind that “added” sugar is reported in grams and you need to know what that means. Keep the number four in mind. To interpret and put this into perspective, you need to know that there are 4 calories per gram of sugar and 4 grams of sugar in a level teaspoon.
What are the health guidelines for added sugar?
For women, the daily maximum should not exceed 6 teaspoons (6 teaspoons x 4 grams of sugar per teaspoon x 4 calories per gram of sugar = 96 calories). For men, the daily maximum should be no more than 9 teaspoons of added sugar (144 calories).
So how are we doing? The average American consumes a whopping 22 teaspoons of sugar per day (352 calories), and most of it comes from sodas. For example, just a 12-ounce can of cola contains 9.75 teaspoons of “added” sugar (39 grams). Can you imagine the incredibly high sugar intake of people walking around carrying quart soft drinks, sipping them all day?
Unfortunately, soft drinks aren’t the only culprit. “Added” sugar is everywhere, including candy, pastries, ice cream, fruit juices and canned fruit, fast food, cereal and granola bars. “Added” sugar is also found in many unsuspecting places, such as barbecue sauce, ketchup, spaghetti sauce, sports drinks, granola, flavored coffees, high protein bars, premade soups, canned baked beans, premade smoothies, etc. .
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All carbohydrates do not deserve the bad reputation unfairly imposed on them in recent years. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are good complex carbohydrates, high in fiber and healthy nutrients. Conversely, some carbohydrates certainly deserve a bad reputation and at the top of the list are simple carbohydrates, “added” sugar-rich foods that provide nothing but calories.
Reach out to Bryant Stamford, Professor of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology at Hanover College, at [email protected]