“What’s the difference between good carbs and bad carbs?”

—Briana, Northridge, California

Carbohydrates, or carbs, are a class of macronutrients (nutrients that we need a lot of) that serve as the body’s primary fuel source. These four steps will help you identify healthier sources of carbs:

1. Be aware of the carb-sugar issue

Carbohydrates in their simplest form are sugar molecules. You might have already guessed that sugars get the “bad” label. There are several reasons for this, including these:

  • Sugar is often extracted from its food source and added as a sweetener to drinks, desserts, and candies. This adds calories (energy) without adding essential nutrients, resulting in high-calorie/low-nutrient foods.
  • Sugar enters the bloodstream pretty quickly, raising blood sugar levels. This can cause a spike in insulin, the chemical your body releases to move sugar out of the blood and into the cells. The result can be low blood sugar, leaving you tired, hungry, and moody.

2. Eat complex carbohydrates for health and energy

These are naturally found in whole grains and legumes. These carbs take longer for the body to break down and transfer into the bloodstream, resulting in a more even supply of fuel. Energy levels are more balanced with complex carbs.

3. Eat refined carbohydrates in moderation

Beware of refined carbohydrates. These were originally whole grains, but the hull and fiber has been removed to make flour for breads, cereals, pasta, tortillas, cakes, etc. In this process, nutrients and fiber are lost, and the carbs act more like a simple sugar.

4. Be carb-savvy when reading food labels

  • Look for breads and cereals that:
    • List whole wheat or another whole grain as the first ingredient, and/or
    • Contain two or more grams of fiber per serving
  • Watch out for added sugars in the ingredients list. Words like corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, maltose, and disaccharide mean that sugar has been added. The higher on the ingredients list these words appear, the more added sugar the food contains.

In May 2016, the FDA announced a new requirement that food labels include the amount of added sugars in grams. Over the next two years, labels will increasingly start to show this, providing consumers with better information about whether the sugar content of the food is natural (such as in fruits) or added. This will help us maintain a healthy eating style.

Bottom line on carbs

You don’t have to forego eating white bread, pasta, rice, or desserts to stay healthy. However, replacing refined carbs and sugars with whole grains, legumes, and other complex carbs can be a great benefit to your overall well-being and energy levels.

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