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Good versus Bad Carbohydrates—an Interesting Battle

Updated on December 30, 2015

Up until recently, all carbohydrates were thoughtlessly assigned to the category of “bad carbohydrates.” Most weight loss diets asked the practitioner to stay off carbs altogether, which included even the essential amount need for energizing the body. However, like all fads, this one quickly passed when people started realizing that absolute carbohydrate abstention was leading to adverse effects; like “sweet breath”, headaches, constipation, dehydration, lethargy and even memory loss & heart attacks. That’s because carbohydrates are an essential macro-nutrient for the body, the most easily accessible source for glucose. A lot of supposedly high carbohydrate foods also contain large amounts of dietary fiber, which is helpful in the digestive mechanism. Cutting out all carbohydrates from your diet and exclusively surviving on fat and protein, can lead to a potentially dangerous phenomenon called ketosis.

What is Ketosis?

Ketosis
Ketosis

Ketosis is basically the condition where the body uses ketone bodies as a substitute for glucose, which happens when the glucose provided by carbohydrates is too low to provide energy. Ketone bodies include acetone, acetoacetate, and β-hydroxybutyric acid, all with high acidic pH. This is an abnormal condition for the body and would put pressure on the liver and kidneys, leading to numerous complications.

So now dieticians have started dividing carbohydrates into “good” and “bad” categories. So how can you tell the essential “good” carbohydrates from the villainous “bad” carbohydrates? Let’s hope this article would make that clear.

Ketosis
Ketosis

A single carbohydrate molecule will be made up of three elements; carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. The simplest carbohydrate molecule is called a monosaccharide, as it cannot be reduced to a smaller carbohydrate molecule. Glucose, fructose (fruits), galactose etc. are all examples of monosaccharide, also called simple sugars. Disaccharide and Polysaccharide are more complex agglomerates of carbohydrates, like sucrose, lacrosse and maltose. These cannot be absorbed by the body cells in their complex forms and first have to be broken down into glucose.

Six Good Carbs to Eat

Bad Carbohydrates

Bad Carbohydrates
Bad Carbohydrates

Put briefly, the simpler the structure of carbohydrate is in the food you eat, the worst it is for the body. This is because such food gets easily digested and absorbed by the body cells, thus causing sudden spikes in the blood sugar level which leaves the body open to the risk of diabetes and heart ailments. These types of foods rank high on the Glycemic Index, which is basically a chart of how quickly the blood sugar level rises on the consumption of that particular foodstuff. However, there are several natural sources of simple sugars which rank lower on the Glycemic Index (apple ranks 38 for example) which means that these sources are not detrimental to the body. What are harmful, are in fact the processed sugars and refined “white” food grains we so often consume.

Good Carbs Vs. Bad Carbs
Good Carbs Vs. Bad Carbs


Processed sugar includes white sugar and sugar based additives and preservatives like High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), saccharin tablets, stevia powder etc. These are added to almost every food item we consume to induce flavor. Artificial sweeteners, which advertise themselves as “sugar free” are in fact worse than tale sugar (sucrose), because they contain high amount of glucose (stevia has 96%) which is immediately absorbed, leading to major imbalances in blood sugar levels. Food items like cookies, cakes, cereals, pastries, muffins etc. contain both processed sugars and white grains and are thus detrimental to bodily health. Refined food grains are over-processed food ingredients like flour, oil, rice, pasta etc. They’ve usually been stripped of fibers and vitamins and other essential nutrients, so that their consumption does not lead to an increase in nutrient count for the body.

Bad carbohydrates also have a circular effect in creating “carb craving” as shown in a pioneering study by Richard Wurtman, M.D. Wurtmann’s research showed that the building block of serotonin, tryptophan, enters the brain when sweet or starchy substances are eaten. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that dramatically reduces appetite and creates an illusion of satiety and contentment. When the levels of serotonin fall after a few hours of carbohydrate consumption, the body craves more carbohydrate-rich food to regain serotonin levels. “Bad carbs” can thus both kill appetite for healthy food and induce the urge to consume unhealthy fare.

Good Carb Vs. Bad Carb

Good Carbohydrates

Good Carbohydrates
Good Carbohydrates

Good carbohydrates are foodstuffs which rank higher on the glycemic index, which means they contain complex polysaccharides which take longer to be broken down into simple sugars. However, this definition might not always be relevant, as a lot of packaged food, like chocolate bars, have complex carbohydrates and are still detrimental to health. The differentiation is that good carbohydrates come exclusively from natural sources and fall into two types. The first is whole grains, lentils, pulses etc. These include brown rice, whole wheat bread, millets, bran, unprocessed oats and all varieties of “whole foods.” The second is carbohydrate rich fruits and vegetables, like apples, bananas, grapes, pears, beans, peas, potatoes etc. The myth being that is perpetuated about their adverse effects on health is utterly baseless. In reality, the natural sources of good carbohydrates also contain several important vitamins, minerals and especially fiber, which eases the working of the digestive system. This is exactly why people who utterly give up on carbs suffer from constipation and other digestive disorders.

Good Carbohydrates
Good Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are increasingly being sidelines as the main source of calories, as more and more dieticians advise gaining 40-50% of calories from fats, and the rest from proteins and “good carbohydrates.” In some extreme diets, like keto and paleo diets, carbohydrates account for only 5% of calories, the rest being provided by fats and proteins, respectively. This however, interferes with the natural process of the body, which looks for glucose to be gleaned from carbohydrates, before it goes to break up fatty acids (from fats) and amino acids (from proteins) to generate energy. These increase blood acidity and in long term, could ruin good health. It’s a better idea to proportionate your calorie requirements with carbohydrate intake. For example, according to an USDA report, a person requiring 2000 calories a day must consume 2-2.5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily; and also eat 3 cups of lentils per week. All you’ve got to ensure that the carbohydrate comes from a “good” source and not a processed pack of instant pasta.

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