Are All Carbs Created Equal?
This blog is written in conjunction with Wyndham Bonett and Lee Weber, FSU medical students.
Rice, pasta, fruits and vegetables. These foods are all carbohydrates — but not all carbs are created equal.
You’ve probably heard the terms good carbs and bad carbs. Well, some forms of carbohydrates are better for you than others. Here’s what you should know:
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients (fat and protein are the two others). Carbs are either simple or complex. A simple carb is made of one or two monosaccharaides, which are the building blocks of carbohydrates. Sugars are simple carbs, while starches and fibers are complex carbs. These are more easily digested and broken down in the gut than a complex carb, which has three or more monosaccharaides linked together.
Our bodies convert absorbed carbs into glucose to use for energy. When our bodies get their fill of glucose, we store the excess in two ways. One is to pack extra glucose away in our muscles, liver and kidneys. The other is to convert the glucose to fat to save for later.
Understanding the Difference between Starches, Fiber and Sugars
Like fiber, starches are complex carbs, but our bodies can break these complex carbs down and turn them into glucose.
Fiber is a complex carb that our guts are unable to break down as easily as sugar. Fiber is made of long chains of carb molecules that come from plants. It holds things in the gut, such as cholesterol, simple carbs and water. Holding cholesterol in the gut makes fiber heart healthy, helping to fight atherosclerosis, which leads to plaque build-up in the arteries.
Keeping simple carbs from being digested also helps dull a spike in blood sugar. This is why consuming fruit juices isn’t as healthy as real fruit. Juicing removes the pulp, which contains all of the fiber, and this leads to blood glucose spikes. Keeping water in the gut also allows for the smooth passage of stool and can help prevent colon cancer and diverticulosis, a condition that occurs when pouches form in the colon or large intestine. The recommended amount of fiber varies according to age and sex, but the average 2,000 daily calorie diet should include at least 28 grams of fiber per day.
Similar to fiber, sugar alcohols are a form of carbohydrates that are not readily digested. They are small molecules that have an alcohol added to them (completely different from ethanol, the substance that makes you intoxicated). Sugar alcohols often are used in “sugar-free” foods. They do contain calories, but much less than sugar and with less of an effect on insulin levels.
There’s also a distinction between sugar alcohols and “sugar,” which is technically used to describe simple, sweet-tasting carbs. This includes many molecules you may have heard of, including glucose, sucrose, fructose or lactose. Sucrose is table sugar made from sugar cane, fructose is the sugar in fruit, and lactose is the sugar found in milk. Naturally occurring sugars, like the fructose found in fruit, are a healthier form of sugar.
Added sugar is the bigger problem. No more than 10 percent of your daily calories should come from added sugar, according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. Minimizing processed foods, soft drinks and desserts can help you reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet.
To make sure you choose the healthiest carbs, it’s important to understand the glycemic index (GI), which measures how much a carbohydrate-containing food will raise your blood sugar. High GI foods will raise your blood sugar faster and more intensely than low GI foods. A good rule of thumb is that if it’s white, it has a higher GI. Keeping your blood sugar at a steady level is important for everyone, whether or not you’re diabetic or have another chronic health condition. Large spikes in blood glucose over time also can cause diabetes or worsen existing diabetic conditions, so it’s important to be mindful about what you eat. Not doing so can lead to higher fasting blood glucose levels. If you want to stay healthy, focus on consuming mostly low and some medium GI foods, and reducing your consumption of high GI foods:
Low GI Foods:
- Sweet potato
- Most fruits
Medium GI Foods:
- Whole wheat
- Brown, wild, or basmati rice
High GI Foods:
- White bread
- White potatoes
- Short grain white rice
- Pretzels and corn chips
Pair the recipe below with one of the low GI foods on our list for a healthy and hearty breakfast:
Egg & Veggie Muffin Cups
- 12 Eggs (can substitute 2 ¼ cup liquid egg whites or Egg beaters)
- ½ cup Part-skim Mozzarella Cheese
- ½ cup Reduced Fat Cheddar Cheese
- 2 cups baby spinach leaves
- 1 cup Salsa
- Optional: add any chopped veggies you like (peppers, mushrooms, etc)
- Preheat oven to 375°F
- Spray 12 muffin cups with cooking spray
- Whisk eggs in large bowl. Add cheese, veggies, and salsa. Mix well to combine
- Pour mixture into muffin cups. Bake for 30 minutes. Allow to cool before serving.
Extras may be stored in an air-tight container in the fridge for up to 1 week or freeze for up to 1 month.
Nutrition Facts per Muffin: 128 Calories, 8 grams Fat, 3 grams Saturated Fat, 198 mg Cholesterol, 350 mg Sodium, 11 grams Protein, 1 gram Fiber, 3 grams Carbohydrate.
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