Carbs: Friend or Foe? The Information You Need to Know

Posted by Luisa de Luca on

Carbs: What You Really Need to Know
Grains, legumes, bread, carbs

Carbohydrates have gotten a bad name. First we were told to eat them, and now the message seems to be more and more that we shouldn’t have any. What’s the deal with that? From no carb, low carb to carb loading. What’s really the way to go when you decide how many carbohydrates you need.

Here’s the thing, our body actually needs them so avoiding them completely shouldn’t really be an option unless your doctor has recommended otherwise. But, let me be completely honest. Not all carbs are bad. In fact, some are excellent for you. So the real key here is knowing which ones you should include in your diet and which should be excluded.

What are carbohydrates?

There are three types of carbohydrates that we find in our food: simple carbohydrates, complex starchy carbohydrates, and complex fibrous carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates provide the body with glucose (sugar), which is converted to energy used to support both bodily functions and physical activity. However, it’s the quality of the carbohydrate (not necessarily the quantity) that is important to really decide what your body needs.

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates have a simple molecular structure and are made up of 1-2 sugar molecules. The form of carbohydrate is glucose. Simple sugars that are found in foods include sucrose (table sugar), fructose (found in fruit), and lactose (found in milk).

However, not all simple carbs are bad. Natural simple carbs in fruit and milk are perfectly healthy. Low-fat or non-fat dairy such as yogurt, milk and cottage cheese are healthy food choices and rich sources of calcium. And while fruit is healthy and packed with minerals and vitamins, it is probably best to eat it them in moderation, as complex carbs such as vegetables are a superior food source if weight loss is your goal. This is especially true if you are carbohydrate sensitive and need to watch your daily intake.

Complex Starchy Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates are also made up of sugars, but the sugar molecules are strung together to form longer, more complex chains. Complex carbs then include whole grains, peas and beans, which are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber.

The problem with complex starch carbs is that often they are refined and then stripped of their health benefits including removal of the high fiber parts from the grain. The result is that the carb loses its complex structure and everything that initially made it a healthy choice. In the end, you’re left with a once complex carb that is now nothing more than a simple carb.

White rice, white flour, white bread, sugary cereals, and pasta, noodles and almost everything made from white flour are all examples of refined carbohydrates. Treat these like you would white sugar and avoid or limit the intake of them.

Choosing unrefined complex carbs is an important strategy when working towards weight loss as they will contain the entire (WHOLE) grain and be higher in fiber. This means you’ll stay full longer.

Complex Fibrous Carbohydrates


Our fibrous carbs are often times found in our green vegetables and are great sources of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. They are full of fiber which means that the food passes through your gut and is not absorbed; this makes them great colon cleansers and are essential for keeping our digestive process running and healthy. The great news about complex fibrous carbs is that they are often low in calories and very difficult to overeat.

Foods from Each Carbohydrate Category

The rule of thumb for determining which carbs to include and which carbs to exclude is fairly easy. If it is brown or green it’s good, if it’s white it’s bad. Of course, there will be exceptions, like cottage cheese (dairy products) for example, it’s a basic principal that you can use as your guide to get you on the right path. But, here’s some examples of carbs from each category:

Simple Carbs

Complex Starchy Carbs

Complex Fibrous Carbs


Whole Barley



Brown Rice

Eggplant, Zucchini

Grapefruit Whole Grains

Green Beans






Cauliflower, Broccoli


Beans, Lentils



How to Add Healthy Carbs to Your Diet

Regardless of where you fall on your carb intake, it’s inevitable that you will add some to your diet. So here’s some tips you can use to ensure you’re getting the most out of the carbs for your body.

Start the Day with Whole Grains: Hot cereal, steel cut or old-fashioned oatmeal are a great way to start your day off. Just be sure to avoid high sugar cold cereals and instant oatmeal. Choose a cereal that has at least 4 grams of fiber and less than 8 grams of sugar per serving.

Pass Up the Bread Aisle: Whole wheat bread is often made with finely ground flour, and bread products are often high in sodium. Go for an alternative instead like a whole grain in salad form including brown rice or quinoa.

Replace Potatoes with Beans: choose beans for an excellent source of slowly digested carbohydrates. Beans and other legumes such as chickpeas also provide a healthy dose of protein. On the flip side, potatoes (like white Russet) have been found to promote weight gain so they’re best to stay away from when working to lose weight.

Fruit, Not Juice: An orange has two times as much fiber and half as much sugar as a 12-ounce glass of orange juice.

While carbs can be unhealthy if they're loaded into your diet all willy-nilly, they're actually really important to include. The key is understanding what kind of carbohydrates your body needs, where to find them, and how much to consume. 

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