‘Good’ Carbs Vs. ‘Bad’ Carbs: Why You Should Know The Difference
Yes, there’s a good kind.
“I can’t have any — I gave up carbs,” your friend says at lunch when you push your plate of fries her way. “More for me,” you say, shoving more deliciousness into your mouth. But then you start to think about it: good carbs vs. bad carbs — and how it’s likely you have a too-deep devotion to the latter. Your internal monologue starts spinning: Do I eat too many carbs? I mean, I do eat fries a lot … But are “bad carbs” that bad?
“Often, individuals label carbohydrates as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ — however, the truth is, there is no such thing,” dietitian and nutrition coach Naria Le Mire tells TZR. “All carbohydrates can fit into a healthy lifestyle. However, people should learn how different types of carbohydrates can lead to elevated blood glucose levels, impair gut health, and more.”
Dr. Daryl Gioffre, certified nutritionist, author of Get Off Your Sugar and Get Off Your Acid, and founder of Alkamind, adds to this notion, explaining there are definitely carbs that can work for and against you and those that work against you. “Not all carbs are created equal — there are carbs that heal and carbs that kill,” he tells TZR in an email. “Simple carbs, otherwise known as refined carbs, are the ‘bad’ ones, as they’re digested quickly and cause spikes in your inflammation, blood sugar, and insulin levels. This inevitably leaves us with a ‘sugar crash’ and, subsequently, more food cravings.”
He says refined carbs (i.e., white pasta, rice, bread, and so on) are the ones you want to avoid, as they’re heavily processed and stripped of most healthy nutrients and fiber. “Refined carbs are empty carbs, devoid of the essential nutrients we need daily to stay healthy,” he says. “Many studies show that eating more fiber-rich, slow-burning carbs are linked to improved metabolic health, and lower risk of chronic inflammatory diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.”
Le Mire adds that eating too many carbs from highly processed foods — such as chips, donuts, or high quantities of starchy foods (like French fries) — can negatively affect an individual’s health goals. “In addition to spiking your blood glucose levels, it can result in excessive calorie intake throughout the day due to low satiety, causing increased hunger,” she says. “It can also negatively impact the diversity in someone’s gut microbiome.”
Meanwhile, complex carbs are the “good” ones — they contain high amounts of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. “Fiber is important because it slows down the emptying of the stomach, which keeps you feeling fuller longer,” Gioffre explains. “These complex carbs won’t spike your blood sugar or insulin either.” In fact, they help balance your blood sugar by slowing down the absorption of glucose into your bloodstream because of all the fiber they contain.
“Fiber also feeds the friendly flora in your gut and scrubs your intestines, thus supporting a healthy digestive tract,” he adds. “Fiber-rich, slow-burning carbs — like quinoa, wild rice, sweet and purple potatoes, lentils, root vegetables, spaghetti, winter, and butternut squash — are all your allies when it comes to crushing cravings and burning fat.”
How Many ‘Good’ Carbs To Consume Per Day
So does this mean fries are off the table (so to speak)? “The goal is to eliminate what I call ‘C.R.A.P. (Completely Refined And Processed) carbs from your diet and focus on replacing them with more fiber-rich, slow-burning carbs,” says Gioffre. “Keep it simple and aim to consume one-half cup of these carbs per meal, but not exceed one full cup per day.”
Cindy Kasindorf, Certified Holistic Health Counselor and founder of Remedy Organics, adds that your carb intake also depends on your lifestyle and how active you are daily. “On average, you can consume 45% to 65% of your daily calories from high quality complex carbs,” she tells TZR in an email. “However, you can certainly consume less if you’re trying out a low-carb diet. I recommend exploring with your body, being aware of how you feel when eating different types of carbs, and keeping track of how certain carbs make your gut feel.” For example, you can ask yourself: Are you feeling more sluggish, or energized, when eating complex vs. simple carbs?
Le Mire adds that carb quantities consumed will be based on someone’s macronutrient needs and health status — and your healthcare provider can help you assess this. Like Kasindorf, Le Mire says 45% to 65% of all calories (ideally) consist of carbohydrates, according to The Dietary Guidelines for Americans. “So let's say an individual needs 1,600 calories a day,” she says. “The math would look like this if we decided to have 45% of total calories from carbohydrates: 1600 X .45 = 720 calories a day. This number can then be divided throughout the day.”
How To Decrease Your Intake Of ‘Bad’ Carbs And Up Your ‘Good’ Carbs
Laying off bad carbs can be difficult — you now know 101 ways to make pasta and do love a good French fry. So what’s a bad-carb-lover to do? “Research shows that refined carbs, like sugar, are more addictive than cocaine, as they spike up your dopamine levels in your brain eight times more,” explains Gioffre. “Refined carbs are a drug, and they’ve become America’s drug of choice. To get off your sugar, you want to go with an add, don’t take away approach. Start adding more foods into your diet that will lower inflammation, regulate healthy blood sugar levels, and will ultimately strengthen you from the inside-out.” And, as you add, Gioffre says that, over time, the good will outweigh the bad.
Kasindorf agrees that many people are addicted to simple (bad) carbs when their body is actually craving nutrient-dense foods. “I recommend eating a wholesome diet, making sure to include lots of plant-based foods,” she says. She suggests keeping unhealthy sugary carbs, such as candy and cake, out of sight and out of your home, and occasionally treating yourself outside of your home.
“The less you have it, the less you will crave it,” she explains. “Over time, your taste buds will change and you will crave it less — and may even find an aversion to overly sweet and processed carbs. When eating complex carbs, you will feel better and more energized, not bloated, and you will not crave junky carbs as much.”
All Carbs In Moderation
“All carbohydrates can fit into a healthy lifestyle,” says Le Mire. “They can be found in various foods, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains — and these also provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals. So they don’t just contain carbohydrates, they have more!” She says this is important to remember since a diet high in fiber can help manage blood glucose levels and improve satiety. “Plus, fiber is a prebiotic, which is wonderful for the gut microbiome!”
However, she says if you still feel you consume a high amount of carbs, like sweets or fries, you may benefit from increasing your fiber prior to consuming the “bad” carbs. “I encourage my clients who snack on highly processed carbohydrates to begin the snacking session with a high fiber and protein snack, and follow with at least 15 to 25 ounces of water,” she says. “The protein and fiber will help with satiety and can reduce the amount of snacking you do — and even prevent it! An easy go-to is Metamucil fiber cookies or their powder mix.”
Overall, though, she says it's important to consume more of the minimally processed carbohydrates — such as fruits, vegetables (non-starchy), and whole grains — and limit the starchy vegetables and highly processed products,” she says. “Making healthier choices takes practice and time,” she says. “The first step is to start — and seek guidance, when needed, from the appropriate healthcare professional, especially if you have a chronic health condition.”