What Makes A Carb "Good"?

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
From potatoes to pizza, most of us can agree that carbs are damn good. Carbohydrates not only taste delicious, but they also have the crucial role of providing your body with energy so that all of your cells can function. There are many diverse types and sources of carbohydrates, but at some point along the way, carbs were largely separated into two categories, "good" and "bad." If you're a carb-lover, you might be wondering: why aren't all carbs created equal?
To answer that question, it's important to understand what happens to a carb when it's digested. Basically, your body breaks down sugar and starch into simple sugars, and then glucose, which your body can utilize as energy. The types of carbs that you really need to know about are "simple" and "complex," and that refers to their chemical structure, and how quickly they're digested and absorbed.
Some examples of "simple" carbs are found in fruits, vegetables, and milk, as well as candy, table sugar, and syrup. These foods are digested fast, which means that glucose is quickly absorbed into the blood stream, according to the American Heart Association. On the other hand, "complex" carbs are digested slowly, therefore slowing the release of glucose. You can get complex carbs from oats, whole grains, vegetables, and legumes. While both complex and simple carbs have a place in someone's diet, it's true that certain foods have more nutrients in them. For example, a whole grain piece of toast with peanut butter would have more fiber and protein than, say, a piece of candy.
The problem is, we tend to look at carbs in black and white terms, which is not great, explains Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CDN, CSCS, a registered dietitian and intuitive eating coach. We know that labeling any food "good" and "bad" elevates or demonizes foods, which can make you feel guilty when you eat a food that you've decided is "not good," she says. "This guilt or shame is often accompanied with thoughts of Next time I'll do better or I won't have this again anytime soon, which can cause rebound eating or overeating, since your body doesn't know when it will see these foods again," she says.
With carbs, it's important to remain neutral, and take a step back and look at the big picture, rather than focus on each individual food, Rumsey says. For instance, we know that whole grains have more fiber than refined ones. "While fiber is an important nutrient, complex carbs or whole grains aren't the only foods that contain fiber," she says. If you want to opt for white rice over brown, you're not doomed at all — you can always get fiber from vegetables or nuts, she explains. In other words, "there's no need to pick whole grains at every meal," she says. "If you have a few day stretch where you are having very little fiber, then maybe it makes sense to choose whole grain bread at lunch."
In truth, this advice is applicable to most nutrients, not just carbs. Many people have a tendency to fret over specific macronutrients when thinking about nutrition, whereas it's often more important to listen to your cravings, and focus on eating a variety of foods. So, bottom line? All carbs can be good carbs.

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