Why Carbs Aren’t ‘Bad’


I hear it all the time, “carbs are bad”. Or, “I know I should quit carbs because they’re bad”. Or, “I don’t eat carbs because they’re bad.” Or, “are carbs really bad?” Well, it depends; depends on you: your goals, your genes, your activities, and your preferences, to name a few. And it depends on what you actually mean when you say carbs. Because I’m guessing you don’t mean lettuce or strawberries, which are carbs. Yup. So what is a “carb” and are they “bad”? You’ve probably already guessed the blanket answer is no. But let’s explore.

What is a Carb?

A “carb” is a carbohydrate. A carbohydrate is a sugar. The word carbohydrate refers to its chemical structure of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Where does sugar come in? Well, carbohydrates are divided into three increasingly complex types of saccharides (mono, oligo, and poly). The word saccharide comes from the Latin saccharum, or sugar.

Ok so carbs are sugar. The different types of carbohydrates (saccharides) are digested and absorbed differently by our bodies. Complex carbs, such as vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, are digested more slowly, and come packed with nutrients, fiber and water. They keep us fuller longer and our blood sugar levels fairly stable.

Simple carbs not so much. In food form, these are items like soda, candy, pastries…those highly processed, refined foods. These tend to come with sodium, flavorings, and sometimes trans fats. Instead of filling us up, they leave us craving more and cause fluctuations in our blood sugar levels.

Ok so carbs are sugar; some sugars are complex and some are the sugar of Halloween dreams; so not all carbs are created equal; so not all carbs are bad…? Yup! You followed that right.

Why semantics matter is because, well because accuracy helps you filter out the confusing noise. It’s important to know the difference between what you’re saying and what you mean, and what you’re doing and what you’re intending.

To Quit or Not to Quit Carbs…

Not to quit. The question isn’t, “should I quit carbs?”. Nor is it, “are carbs bad?”. The question is which carbs should I limit and by how much, and–for some–when in the day should I dial them back.

So, which carbs? Well, no two bodies are the same, so this is when you get to explore. Keep in mind that everyone does need glucose to survive. Not just thrive, but survive. Whoa, what? What’s this glucose word?

Glucose is a monosaccharide, meaning it’s one of the simplest sugars (carbs). It’s also the end-product of carbohydrate breakdown in our bodies and our body’s main energy source. We can get glucose from several sources but carbs are the fastest and most bodies’ preferred source.

We could lose the forest for the trees here, by diving into that…let’s redirect. Back to whether pasta is evil. It’s not. But that doesn’t mean you can eat gobs of it every day.

Here’s how to consider this whole carb thing in relation to you:

  • Look at your eating and drinking habits. Be honest with yourself: what do you consume, when, why, and how much?
  • What are your goals (appearance and performance)?
  • What are you willing to change and not change?

If you’re trying to lose body fat and you’re drinking regular soda and/or sugared coffees and/or a lot of alcohol, quitting a whole grain carb or brown rice may not be the place to start. Cutting out one or two of those beverages a day, might be more advantageous.

That said, maybe you absolutely refuse to part with your glass of wine at dinner. Just account for what you’re doing. Work that glass of wine into your nutrition plan (alcohol has 7 calories per gram and can be counted as a carb, fat, or a combination thereof).

The types of workouts you do can also affect whether you would achieve your goals better on a lower carb diet or a higher or normal carb diet. It all just depends.

The best thing you can do is start tracking what and how much you consume. Track it consistently for at least a month and see if you notice a trend. If you can, add how you’re feeling. From there you can adjust one or maybe two things at a time. Stick with that for several weeks, tracking again. And go from there. Give yourself permission to explore. And if you need help, ask a professional for individual guidance.

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