“Is butter a carb?” is one of the best and most hilarious lines in the popular movie Mean Girls. While meant as a joke to highlight the absurdity of a carbohydrate-free diet, the question is far more realistic than you may imagine. Our culture’s misguided labeling of carbohydrates as “bad” stems just as much from a general misunderstanding of their nutritional value in a balanced diet as literally not knowing the broad scope of foods defined as carbohydrates. It’s time to set the facts straight. Carbohydrates are a necessary part of everyone’s diet.
Just as gasoline provides fuel to keep a car moving, carbohydrates provide much of the fuel that keeps the body moving and functioning at optimal capacity. The brain and nervous system require a constant source of glucose from carbohydrates to function at their highest level, and muscles use and store glucose to fuel the body’s automatic activity and the body’s daily and extracurricular physical activity. As our bodies most-preferred source of energy, carbohydrates are the foundation for any healthy diet and should be 45 to 60 percent of our daily food intake. To reach that percentage in a way that works best for your body, an understanding of the foods defined as carbohydrates and how those foods affect the body is necessary.
The general public defines carbohydrates as foods made of grains, cereals, pasta, and potatoes. However, the scope of carbohydrates is much larger, encompassing vegetables, sugars contained in fruits, syrups, honey, and candy, and lactose found in milk and milk products, as well as the pure crystalline form of our familiar table “sugar.” The key is to remember that not all carbohydrates are created equal. Carbohydrates are classified into two categories: simple carbohydrates (nicknamed “bad”) and complex carbohydrates (nicknamed “good”). So how do you know which is which and whether or not to eat solely complex carbohydrates or simple carbohydrates? The answer is both simple and complex.
Composed of a single easy-to-digest glucose molecule, simple carbohydrates are quick energy sources that are easily absorbed into the bloodstream. Examples of simple carbohydrates include fruit, fruit juice, vegetables, table sugar, honey, soft drinks, and other sweets.
Even in this category, there are some simple carbohydrates that are better than others. In contrast to fruit juice, table sugar, honey, soft drinks, and other sweets, fruits and vegetables supply the body with nutrients and fiber. The fiber in fruits and vegetables changes the way that the body processes their sugars and slows down their digestion, making them a bit more like complex carbohydrates. If you are going to eat simple carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables should be at the top of your list!
When defining the value of simple carbohydrates, remember the Yoffie Life Carbohydrate Rule: the higher the fiber content and the less the sugar content, the better the carbohydrate. The more fiber in a piece of fruit, the higher it is ranked in the simple carbohydrate rating system! Blackberries, raspberries, pears, and apples stand out as the best simple carbohydrate choices. See Yoffie Life’s list of high-fiber fruits for additional choices.
Composed of a large number of glucose molecules, complex carbohydrates take more time for the body to break down and use, which means that you will get lower amounts of sugars released at a more consistent rate—instead of peaks and valleys—to keep you going throughout the day.
The vitamins, minerals, and nutrients in complex carbohydrates make them the ideal provider of the energy your body needs to work efficiently.
- Add “good” carbohydrates to your diet. Choosing complex carbohydrates over simple carbohydrates is a matter of making simple food swaps. Limit your intake of packaged and processed foods, and foods that include processed ingredients, like candy, soda, artificial syrups, table sugar, pastries, and desserts. Instead consider adding quinoa, faro, brown rice, and beans.
- Consider your choices. Within the categories of simple and complex carbohydrates, some foods are better than others. In the simple carbohydrate category, high-fiber fruits and vegetables are optimal, followed by white rice and regular pasta. Both choices are far better than chips and baked goods. In the complex carbohydrates category, whole grains and beans are the top choices, with processed foods using whole grains, like whole-grain bread and pasta, finish second. Make your choices based on the needs of your body.
- Read labels. Understanding if packaged food is made of simple or complex carbohydrates is as easy as reviewing the label. If the first ingredient is whole-wheat flour or whole-oat flour, and if fiber is listed, then it is most likely a complex carbohydrate.