good carbs, bad carbs: how to make the right choices — 714-27

Shannon Clark, SATI STAFF

When it comes to carbs, most people are in the mindset they must ‘avoid’. They believe that all carbs are to be taken out of their diet plan if weight loss is to be seen.

Blame the media for this. Each day we are constantly bombarded by messages that low carb diets are the optimal way to go.

But are they really?

Let’s take a closer look at this carbohydrate controversy so that you can learn the facts and discover how to choose which carbs deserve a place in your diet plan.

The low carb bandwagon

Right now, everyone seems to be going on the low carb bandwagon. People everywhere believe that carbs are what are causing us to gain weight and as such, must be avoided. As such, they are turning to plans like the Atkin’s approach or the Ketogenic diet. Some turn to the Paleo diet, which isn’t incredibly low carb, but is lower carb in nature than what most people are currently eating as part of their everyday diet.

When we look at the stats, according to the Calorie Control Council, in the year 2010, 54% of adults were on some type of a diet. Compare this to 1986 when just 37% of adults were dieting or 1996, where just 24% of people were utilizing these approaches (1).

What’s more is that one of the top methods they are using to promote weight loss is by cutting back on foods high in sugar. This accounted for 86% of the people while using a reduced fat diet didn’t even make the list. The facts are clear: people are avoiding carbs.

And while there’s no question that cutting back on sugar is a wise move for weight loss and health, must you cut back on all carbs?

The role of carbohydrates in the human diet

Before we dive into talking about which carbs are considered ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’, it’s important that you understand why carbs are a must in the human diet plan. Until you understand this, it’s not going to make really good sense why avoiding those very low carb diets is a wise move.

So what can carbs offer you? Why should you be including them in your menu? Let’s take a closer look at what benefits you can derive from keeping carbohydrates in your diet plan.

1. Optimized leptin levels

The first and possibly the most important reason why you should be getting carbohydrates in your diet plan is because carbohydrates, more than both protein and dietary fats, influence your leptin levels to the highest degree. What’s leptin?

Leptin is a hormone that is produced by your body fat cells. When you’re currently carrying around sufficient levels of body fat and your calorie intake coming in is at a good level, leptin levels are elevated. Your body is essentially ‘fat and happy’ so to speak and leptin makes it this way.

When you begin to diet however, things go astray. Now your body fat is decreasing and your available incoming energy is also taking a plunge. The body does not like this. While you may only see this as your diet plan and think it’s a good thing (you’re getting leaner!), your body does not view it in the same way. Instead, your body thinks that you are essentially starving. As such, it’s going to try and do something to put a stop to that. That something is altering leptin levels in the body.

As your calorie intake goes down and your body fat storage begins to drop, leptin levels also decline. This sets off a number of unwanted symptoms. These include: increased hunger, low energy levels, feeling like you want to sleep all the time, a slower resting metabolic rate, carbohydrate cravings, and periods of extreme moodiness.

Basically, leptin is making it nearly impossible to stick with your diet plan. As it turns out, research shows that carbohydrates have the greatest impact on circulating levels of leptin, so when they drop low, that’s when you really see these problems taking place (2).

If you go on a very low carb diet, you’ll see a faster decline in your resting metabolic rate and therefore, you’ll also hit that weight loss plateau sooner as well. By keeping more carbohydrates in your fat loss diet plan, you can see greater progress before having to deal with these negative side effects. Most people also tend to report less hunger and greater adherence to their diet when consuming carbohydrates as part of their plan thanks to the maintenance of leptin they experience.

2. Improved control over appetite

The next benefit that carbohydrates bring to the diet is improved appetite control. Research published in the British Journal of Nutrition noted that low GI foods tend to promote slower gastric emptying, digestion, as well as absorption and have a lower peak insulin and glucose response (3). This illustrates that if you choose the right carbohydrates, your hunger level should go down on your diet plan, thus making it easier to sustain the reduced calorie intake you need for optimal fat loss progression to take place.

Another study published in the Appetite journal noted that when subjects consumed a meal that contained 41 grams of fiber, they showed a lower food intake compared to if subjects ate an equal volume of glucose (4). From this finding we can see very much that the influence on appetite is going to largely depend on the type of carbohydrate you are consuming, hence why it’s important to know which carbohydrates are good and which are bad.

Given the fact that dietary fat is also so calorie dense containing twice as many calories per gram compared to both proteins and carbohydrates (5), that makes fat quite easy to overeat on. If you aren’t regulating your intake, you could very easily overconsume calories with dietary fat before registering that hunger is no longer present. This makes it harder to sustain a reduced calorie intake in some cases on a lower carb, higher fat diet plan.

3. Enhanced regularity

As much as you may not want to think about the topic of pooping, it’s one that should not go overlooked. Maintaining optimized regularity – that is, having a regular bowel movement every day is important for all around good health. This is what is going to help ensure that you are eliminating the build-up of waste in the body, which is key to preventing toxicity. Additionally, it’s also what will help keep you feeling well, avoiding feelings such as bloating and fatigue.

Research indicates that chronically low dietary fiber intakes, as is often seen when carbohydrates are reduced back in the diet plan, is going to increase the risk factor of constipation, in both adults as well as children (6). While it’s unlikely that anyone is going to have a child following a very low carbohydrate diet, if children are not eating the good carbohydrates that provide a sufficient level of fiber, this problem can occur.

Another study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology noted that the main factors that put women at risk for constipation including overall dietary fiber intake as well as exercise habits. Those who did not exercise or take in enough dietary fiber were most likely to be experiencing issues with regularity (7).

4. Improved mood

When you go on a restricted carb diet, what happens to your mood? If you’ve ever been on a low carb diet before, you know very well that you start to feel less enthused. You may notice your motivation and zest for life decreases and worse, you may start to become irritable, anxious, and rather moody.

As it turns out, there’s more to this than simply the fact you’re in a sour mood because you’re restricting your carbohydrates. Turns out, carbohydrates can impact your mood state.

The primary reason for this change in mood is due to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is released in the brain when carbohydrates are consumed, according to research published in the Science journal (8). Serotonin is responsible for making us feel relaxed, calm, and anxiety free, so when levels begin to drop due to the lack of carbohydrates found in your meal plan, changes to your mood become evident. The good news is that these changes are reversible through simply consuming more carbohydrates again.

5. Energy for instance exercise

Another critical reason that you must consume carbohydrates in your diet plan is to assist with the performance of intense exercise training. Research has clearly illustrated that adding exercise to a calorie reduced plan is important for not only experiencing weight loss in the first place, but for keeping weight off over the long term (9). Those who don’t exercise as part of their plan are more likely to regain body weight lost on any diet approach.

In order to perform intense exercise training however, which is the form of exercise that will offer the most benefits for fat loss, it’s vital that carbohydrates are present. Sprint training, resistance training, or any other form of intense exercise requires that glucose be present in order for the muscle tissues to contract properly at these levels. Fat simply cannot be broken down quick enough and utilized as a fuel source to meet the needs of these exercising individuals.

Those who go on very carb restricted diets will fail to perform the exercise needed to keep weight loss off and generate more lean muscle mass tissue. In order for lean muscle mass to be built, an anabolic state must be achieved and this is done through the release of insulin in the body – which will not be released in the absence of carbohydrates. Sustaining and building muscle mass is key for fat loss because it’s this muscle that proves to keep your metabolism up and makes weight re-gain less likely.

6. Intake of antioxidants

The next reason carbs are important? They are home to a number of key antioxidants. Fresh fruits and vegetables in particular are antioxidant powerhouses and these antioxidants play an important role in combating disease and lowering inflammation (10, 11).

While you can get some antioxidants from lower carb foods such as certain protein sources along with nuts, seeds, and some oils, the prevalence of these is much lower than what’s found in the good carbohydrate choices you could be consuming.

7. Improved vitamin and mineral status

Finally, to go with the concept of improved antioxidant intake, you also have your vitamin and mineral intake as well. The smart carbs that you can consume in your diet are a rich source of B vitamins, potassium, vitamin K, vitamin A, iron, vitamin C, phosphorous, zinc, biotin, pantothenic acid, folate, as well as manganese (12). If you cut these foods out of your diet, you could be completely missing out on these critical nutrients.

So as you can hopefully see, carbohydrates are not the enemy here with your diet plan. They offer powerful benefits if you choose the right ones. So which carbs are good and which carbs are bad? Let’s take a look at this next.

Excellent carbohydrate choices

When it comes to the top of the line carb choices, you want to seek out the ones that are as nutrient dense as possible. These foods will be entirely in their natural state, meaning they have not been altered by man in any way. As soon as a carbohydrate gets put through processing of any kind, that’s when it’ll begin to lose nutrients and become less healthy for the body.

On top of that, when carbohydrates are altered, their structure is changed as well and it becomes easier for the body to break them down more quickly. This is what then causes them to increase blood sugar levels faster, spiking insulin and leading to weight gain and potentially even diabetes (13).

The excellent carbohydrate choices that will not cause this effect include:

  • Fresh fruits: apples, bananas, cherries, pineapples, grapes, berries (all varieties), melons (all varieties), mangoes, papaya’s, etc.
  • Vegetables: all varieties of vegetables are an excellent choice for carbohydrates as they are low in calories, high in fiber, and very rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants
  • Beans, lentils, and legumes: all varieties of these foods are great and are a well-balanced source of nutrition as they contain both complex carbohydrates as well as protein. They are also very rich in fiber and potassium as well, which will help to counteract heart disease.
  • Sweet potatoes/yams: Another great source of complex carbohydrates, sweet potatoes and yams are loaded with fiber and also contain a good dose of vitamin A, vitamin C, and B vitamins.

Fruits and vegetables especially should be high on your focus list as numerous studies have proven that these are associated with a lower risk factor for disease (14, 15).

If you can focus your carbohydrate intake around these sources for the most part, you will be doing your diet well.

Good carbohydrate choices

On the ‘good’ list of carbohydrates you have your grains. Brown rice, quinoa, barley, buckwheat, and oatmeal. These whole grains are still great options as they have not been processed and will not spike blood glucose levels as quickly as processed grains will.

One cup of cooked brown rice contains 44.77 grams of total carbohydrates.

This said, they are not quite as nutrient dense as the above noted options and also do contain gluten, which can be problematic for certain people (16). For this reason, they are listed as ‘good’ carbohydrate choices only. Feel free to add them to your diet, but in moderation.

Bad carbohydrate choices

Finally, the ‘bad’ carbohydrate choices are all those that are processed in some ways or that contain straight sugar. These foods have been stripped of their nutrition so are not going to serve your body well and will lead to weight gain over time. They increase insulin resistance, boost your chances of getting diabetes, and lead to nutritional deficiencies because they are providing nothing more than empty calories (17).

Examples of foods in this category include:

  • Sugary soda’s and drinks: soda, milkshakes, gourmet coffee’s, fruit smoothies (commercially prepared), and fruit juice (which is very high in sugar and lacks dietary fiber)
  • White bread
  • Pastries, cookies, cakes, donuts, croissants, and all other baked foods: these are all made with refined flours and contain a high dose of carbs and calories
  • Frozen novelties: ice creams, frozen chocolate bars, frozen cakes, and any other high sugar frozen goods
  • Chocolate bars/candy: these are often made purely with sugar, sometimes with the addition of unhealthy fats
  • Deep fried carbohydrate rich foods: French fries, onion rings, or any other deep fried food items should be removed from your diet plan
  • Granola bars, sugary cereals, and energy bars: these are often very high in sugar and filled with processed carbohydrates

If you can remove these foods from your diet entirely, that will be a smart move as far as your nutrition is concerned. It’s these foods that lead to weight gain and the rising health problems we see today, so they are the biggest culprits you need to get out of your menu.

The Sati line

Don’t let yourself believe that all carbohydrates are bad choices. There are good carbohydrates out there – carbohydrates that can enhance your health, give you energy, and even prevent disease as well. You just need to know how to choose them.

As a general rule, focus on single ingredient carbohydrates. If a carbohydrate comes in a wrapper and has a list of five or ten ingredients, that is a very good sign that is not a carbohydrate that you want to be putting into your body. It is highly processed and will lead to weight gain if you aren’t careful.

Of course it goes without saying that you also must be sure to balance your carbohydrate intake with your proteins and dietary fats so that you get a well-rounded diet plan. Eating too much of even the healthy types of carbohydrates can lead to weight gain if you aren’t careful, so be sure that you are keeping your intake controlled and to an appropriate level for your body weight and daily activity habits.