3 things to know about good vs. bad carbs and the benefit of a low-carb diet

Ever since the Atkins low-carb, high-fat diet exploded on the American scene, carbohydrates have been labeled as bad. Unfortunately, this is only half true and has led to lots of confusion among the public.

Indeed, while some carbs are bad, others are good and should be the core of a healthy diet. But, how can you tell the good carbs from the bad?

Before making that distinction, it’s important to understand that all carbs, good and bad, are comprised of various types of sugar, and that can be confusing. The key is how the sugar is packaged and presented to the body.

What is the difference between good carbs and bad carbs? The first distinction is good carbs contain naturally occurring sugars like those found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Bad carbs, on the other hand, are the sugars “added” to processed foods and soft drinks, and dumped into your coffee or tea.

A second distinction is good carbs are “complex,” meaning the sugars are part of a more complex configuration that includes fiber which cannot be broken down in the human digestive system. This slows the process and that’s good because the sugars in good carbs enter the bloodstream slowly, in a “time-release” fashion. This is important because a slow release of sugar dampens the insulin response. (When blood sugar enters the cells, and levels in the bloodstream decrease, insulin decreases, too.)

In contrast, bad carbs are “simple” sugars that enter the bloodstream quickly. When this happens, the body misinterprets what is happening, thinking that a huge amount of sugar is coming. In turn, a big insulin response occurs to handle 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 to the onset of Type 2 diabetes.

A third distinction is good carbs provide plenty of helpful nutrients (vitamins, minerals and protein), and because they are filling, you eat less. Bad carbs are sugars that represent “hollow” calories, meaning they provide energy but no nutrients, and excess energy is stored as body fat. In addition, 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 primary root cause for health destruction, it’s important to point out that sugar, in and of itself, is a problem. Recent research indicates that people of normal weight who consume lots of excess “added” sugar may double their risk of dying from heart disease.

How can I read food labels to pick good carbs? Food labels in the past were not always helpful when trying to make good dietary decisions. Was that because food producers wanted to keep consumers in the dark, especially those that specialize in health-destroying foods that are high in fat and sugar? Sure seems that way.

Take the fact that in the past, labels didn’t reveal the size of a serving. Therefore, if the label told you the product contained 100 calories (kcals) per serving, but didn’t tell you how many servings were in the package, you might be surprised to learn there are four servings in the package, for a total of 400 calories. This is especially misleading for highly concentrated foods with a high caloric content in just a few bites.

Thankfully, after decades of effort from health advocates seeking to make helpful changes, we now have food labels that make more sense. This has been particularly helpful for carbohydrates on labels. Now, labels tell us how much “added” sugar per serving is in the product. This is important because you can use this valuable information to cut way back on your bad carb intake.

However, be aware that “added” sugar is reported in grams, and you need to know what this means. Keep in mind the number four. To interpret and put this in perspective, you need to know there are 4 calories per gram of sugar, and 4 grams of sugar in one level teaspoon.

What are healthy guidelines for added sugar? Dietitian’s Pick Well shelf tags can be a great starting point for shoppers looking to consume more nutrient-dense foods and limit intake of saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and added sugar. For women, the daily max should be no more than 6 teaspoons (6 teaspoons x 4 grams of sugar per teaspoon x 4 calories per gram of sugar = 96 calories). For men, the daily max 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 the majority of that comes from soft drinks. For example, just one 12-ounce can of coke contains 9.75 teaspoons of “added” sugar (39 grams). Can you imagine the amazingly high sugar intake of folks who walk around carrying quart-size soft drinks, sipping them all day long?

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Unfortunately, soft drinks are not the only culprit. “Added” sugar is everywhere, including candy, pastries, ice cream, fruit juices and canned fruit, fast foods, cereals and cereal bars. “Added” sugar is also found in many unsuspecting places, like barbeque sauce, ketchup, spaghetti sauce, sports drinks, granola, flavored coffees, high-protein bars, premade soups, canned baked beans, premade smoothies, etc.

All carbs do not deserve the bad reputation unfairly imposed on them in recent years. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are good carbs that are complex, loaded with fiber and healthy nutrients. Conversely, some carbs certainly deserve a bad reputation, and topping the list are simple carbs, foods high in “added” sugar that provide nothing but calories.