Confused about carbohydrates? A quick guide to the carb spectrum
by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
For most of us, our relationship with food is a rather intimate one. There are times in our lives when food comforts us, makes us feel loved, or makes us giddy with pleasure. But it’s also possible that some of our favorite foods would not be considered good for us. Understanding why that might be true can help us learn to love healthier foods that fully nourish both our souls and our bodies. This is particularly true of carbohydrates, a vast and important food group that can be difficult for women to negotiate.
A few years ago, the phrase “good carb, bad carb” became popular in nutrition circles, largely due to the publication of a book under this name. These buzz words have had the unfortunate effect of implying that women themselves are good if they choose a “good” carb like fruit, or bad if they choose a “bad” carb like cake. The truth is that most foods have something to offer us, and a piece of cake just might be “good for you” at a certain moment because it provides comfort, familiarity, or pure satisfaction. And enjoying a traditional sweet during the holidays is harmless enough, unless special occasions become an excuse to overindulge.
Carbohydrates cannot be systematically divided into white hats and bad hats. The carbohydrate spectrum is a wide one — containing foods as diverse as green beans and high-fructose corn syrup! The spectrum is so wide because some carbohydrate foods are so much more nutritious than others. Understanding how different carbohydrates break down in the body is not only helpful in preventing insulin resistance and managing your weight, but can also help you optimize the effects of the food you eat and limit sugar cravings.
What is a carbohydrate, anyway?
You may think that all carbohydrates are starchy and sweet, but in fact, there are carbs in many types of food, including grains, fruits, vegetables, and sweets. As the word itself suggests, carbohydrates contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Their basic function is to fuel our bodies’ energy needs. Carbs are fundamental nourishment for humans, and the brain is especially dependent on a steady supply of the glucose (simple sugar) we get from carbohydrates. In fact, brain cells can only use glucose to create the energy needed for brain function.
Instead of the either-or thinking of “good carb-bad carb,” let’s talk about carbs in more graduated terms: “refined” or “complex.” (In biochemistry, they’re classified according to how big their molecules are and how soluble they are — see Table 1.) Descriptions reflecting a spectrum rather than distinct groups are more useful because many foods fall somewhere in the middle range.
As a rule of thumb, the more fiber, micronutrients, and macronutrients your carb choice contains, the better it is for you. More stuff, or “information,” makes it a more complex carb; less stuff means it’s a refined, or simpler, carb. Refined carbs break down easily and are quickly transformed into the simple sugar glucose, so they give us a quick burst in blood sugar, causing sharp insulin spikes. Complex carbs take longer to break down and produce a more moderated insulin surge and gradual decline.