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Carbs: The Good, the Bad and the Yummy

Posted July 19, 2018 by Rose Ann Chiurazzi, Registered Dietitian, Summa Health

Carbs Blog

Atkins, paleo, low-carb, no carb, how do you choose? If weight loss is a priority for you, or if you are just looking to eat healthier, there is an abundance of diets, meal plans and fads out there.

But what exactly are carbohydrates (carbs) and why are some of them so “bad” for us? Below is a breakdown of the types of carbohydrates, what they do to our bodies, which ones we can eat and those to avoid.

What are carbs?

A carbohydrate is a macronutrient. Protein, fat and carbohydrate make up the trio of macronutrients that fuel our bodies. This trio is required in relatively large amounts for human growth and development. Carb’s important role is to provide the majority of energy to fuel our body. However, it’s the type and amount of carbs you are consuming that can cause weight gain.

Carbohydrates can be divided into three categories:

  • Sugars are short-chain carbohydrates found in most foods, natural and processed. Glucose, sucrose and fructose are a few examples of sugar carbs.
  • Starches are long-chains of glucose molecules that will eventually break down into glucose in your digestive system.
  • Fiber is actually not digestible by humans. Instead, it passes through the stomach, small intestine and colon almost completely intact. Fiber can be broken down into two categories: soluble, which dissolves in water and insoluble, which does not. Both are important and can help maintain bowel health, lower cholesterol, control blood sugar levels and maintain a healthy weight.

Why do I keep hearing that they are so bad then?

All of the carbohydrate that we consume is turned into glucose so that we can absorb it and use it as energy. When we eat more carbs than we need, our body stores some of the extra glucose in the liver for future use, and then stores the rest as fat.

Carbohydrates can be divided again into two basic groups: simple carbs and complex carbs.

Simple carbohydrates are sugars made of just one or two sugar molecules. They are digested very quickly and provide the most energy. While some of these occur naturally in milk and fruit, most are added to foods and are not part of a healthy diet. Raw sugar, brown sugar, corn and high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate and glucose are all obvious simple carbs. Simple carbs are turned into glucose most easily.

Most complex carbs fall under the starches category. They can be found in grains, beans, sweet potatoes and sprout breads.  This category also includes refined complex carbohydrates. Refined complex carbs have undergone processing that removes much of the fiber, vitamins and minerals, which makes them no different than a simple carb. This is where most breads, flour, pastas and rice fit in, including those labeled as whole wheat, whole grain, and brown rice. Unfortunately, the majority of the food in our grocery stores is highly processed, so even those labeled as “whole grain” act like a simple carb in our bodies.

When we introduce a large number of refined and/or simple carbohydrates to our diet, this can cause some serious health effects. These types of carbohydrates are almost always lacking in essential nutrients, making them likely to cause:  

  • Obesity: While glucose is very important in regards to maintaining a healthy weight and blood sugar levels, too much can lead to weight gain. When the body is consuming carbohydrates, especially refined and simple, it will quickly burn the glucose in the carbohydrates for energy. If there is more glucose than what we need for immediate energy, some will be stored in the liver for later needs, but the excess will be turned into fat and stored in our liver and fat cells. It is helpful when fewer carbs are eaten as the body will then turn to some of the fat stored in the liver for fuel and also will not store the excess carbs as additional fat throughout the body.
  • Type 2 diabetes: Our bodies require insulin to process glucose, Insulin is a hormone made in the pancreas.  When the pancreas stops producing insulin, or if the cells cannot respond to insulin, this results in diabetes. In most cases, oral medications or insulin injections must be taken to manage the blood glucose. If too many carbs are eaten by someone with diabetes, the insulin is not able to control the level of blood sugar. Uncontrolled blood sugar levels over time can damage your eyes, kidneys, nerves and even heart. A doctor managing diabetes or a dietitian will prescribe the number of grams of carbohydrates that a patient with diabetes should eat to try to control the blood sugar levels and prevent long term complications.  
  • Insulin Resistance: In people who are obese, the body will sometimes stop responding to insulin. This results in the pancreas producing more insulin. Excess insulin then leads to weight gain. Insulin resistance can be treated with a medication calls metformin in combination with a diet that is high in protein and low in carbohydrates.

Countless studies have shown that a low-carb diet can be very effective for weight loss and managing chronic diseases that care caused by excess weight, such as Type 2 diabetes and some forms of heart disease. However, a low-carb diet without the right tools can actually be harmful. If the goal is weight loss, you need to eat a higher amount of protein, and you need to eat a small amount of healthy carbohydrates to make sure you get the key nutrients found in fruits and other high-fiber goodies. Any diet instructing you to eliminate all carbs from your diet is not a well-balanced diet for the long term. There are good carbs that can and should be eaten when trying to lose weight.

Good carbs:

  • Veggies
  • Fruits such as berries and apples
  • Nuts and seeds are a great way to snack healthy and avoid reaching for refined carbs.
  • Tubers or potatoes, sweet potatoes, artichokes, etc. (avoid white potatoes)
  • True whole grains, like quinoa and oats

Carbs that should be avoided when trying to lose weight:

  • Starchy vegetables such as corn and lima beans
  • Fruits that are high in sugar (bananas, watermelon, mangos, halo and cutie oranges)
  • White potatoes
  • White and brown rice (wild rice is ok)

Bad carbs:

  • Sugary drinks are very unhealthy (diet drinks are also a bad choice because of the artificial sweeteners)
  • Fruit juices also have similar health effects as sugar-sweetened drinks because they are processed and almost all of the fruit is removed. The fruit contains the fiber and is the healthy part. Always check the amount of actual fruit versus sugar content.
  • Baked desserts are usually made with refined flour and sugars.
  • Candies and other sweet treats tend to be very high in sugar too. If you are a chocoholic, opt for dark, quality chocolate.
  • Processed potato and other vegetables; French fries and chips of all kinds.

The Summa Health Weight Management Institute has been helping people lose weight since 2004. The Institute offers both surgical and non-surgical options for weight loss, including appointments with dietitians, obesity medicine physicians, psychologist, and surgeons. Depending upon the degree of your obesity and the level of knowledge you have regarding the options for addressing it, we can help you decide which of our weight loss options best fits your needs.


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