Carbs: Why is it so COMPLEX? Can’t it just be SIMPLE?

When you hear the word carb or carbohydrate, what image appears in your mind? Spaghetti with a loaf of italian bread? Maybe fries or a bagel or even a slice of cake? You are definitely not wrong for thinking of these items, but did you know carbohydrates can be found in more than just bread and potatoes? Did you know that NOT ALL CARBS ARE BAD? Would it surprise you to find out that carbs are actually in fruits and vegetables too?

More often than not, this macro (carbohydrate) gets a bad rep and it is the macro most people cut out while trying to lose weight (e.g. Keto diet, Atkins Diet). Unfortunately, many people are not educated on the importance of carbs and why your body actually needs them. Consuming carbohydrates is essential, because carbs are needed by the body to help you think and move. Carbs are our body’s preferred energy source , digest and delivery energy much faster than protein or fat.

Does this mean I am telling you to eat a plate of pasta and garlic bread every night? NO! (Please don’t) It is important to note, not all carbs are created equal. There are two very different types of carbohydrates: simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. All carbs break down into sugar in the body but one type breaks down slowly providing the body with nutrients while the other is quickly converted to sugar with little to no benefit.

Simple carbohydrates (or simple sugars) are broken down very quickly and when found in highly processed foods, carry little to no nutrients to the body. With little digestion time, simple sugars cause the body’s blood sugar level to spike. This is often referred to as a “sugar rush” or “sugar high”, and quickly followed by an increased feeling of fatigue and usually cravings for more carbs! Simple carbs exist in a typical American diet consisting of many processed foods without most of us realizing we are consuming them. I cannot stress this enough: we want to avoid high calorie simple carbs as much as possible and they should NOT be a part of your daily diet. Please note, some fruits contain simple carbs but read more about this later!

So how do I know if I am eating high calorie simple carbs?

If you are consuming packaged foods, read the ingredients because you are more than likely eating these simple sugars. You are looking for words that end in “ose” such as sucrose, glucose, dextrose, maltose, etc. Also remember, the higher up on the ingredient list these words appear, the more sugar the product contains.

Some popular foods that are high in calories and loaded with sugar are soda, baked goods, packaged treats such as granola bars, cereal, pasta, and fruit juice. Does this mean you should never eat birthday cake again? No, but these items every day or even every few days a week can affect your overall health so save these treats for special occasions. Try to find foods with as little processing as possible because they are quickly turned to sugar and stored as fat in the body. Foods made from flour (yes, even whole wheat flour) are the quickest to turn to sugar, because they are so highly processed- so be aware when buying foods with flour as a listed ingredient. You’d be surprised how many products list flour as one of the top five ingredients so be sure to read more than just the nutrition facts- read the actual ingredients.

So if we want to avoid these types of carbs, which carbs are actually good for our bodies?

Complex carbohydrates (fiber and starch) are much more nutritious than high calorie simple carbs. The body takes longer to digest complex carbs which keeps us feeling full for a longer period of time. During digestion, these foods break down slowly bringing vital nutrients along the way. These foods also don’t cause a rapid swing in blood sugar levels due to the amount of fiber present in these foods. These fibers not only aid in digestion but also improve gut health.

Whole foods will ensure you are consuming complex carbs over the alternate simple carbs, so always choose whole foods whenever possible. Whole grains such as quinoa, barley, and oats are all nutritious sources of carbs that will benefit your overall health. Legumes are another great source of carbohydrates: beans, lentils, and peas are often thought of as the protein in many dishes but they are also a great source of carbohydrates. Vegetables are the most important part of any meal, and you should fill your plate with mostly vegetables. So which veggies should we consume? A variety is best but if you are looking for the “lowest” carb or the veggies that break down into less sugar in the body here is a list of vegetables from lowest to highest carbs:

  • Spinach

  • Lettuce

  • Asparagus

  • Celery

  • Cucumbers

  • Tomatoes

  • Eggplant

  • Mushrooms

  • Zucchini

  • Kale

  • Cabbage

  • Cauliflower

  • Broccoli

  • Peppers

  • Brussel Sprouts

  • Carrots

  • Onions

  • Artichokes

  • Potatoes

Now we can’t forget fruit. Unfortunately fruit gets a bad rep from all the low carb diets. Technically the chemical makeup of fruit does fall under the simple carbs category, but this is why I have been sure to tell you to avoid high calorie simple carbs and not just simple carbs completely. Although many people think they should avoid fruit because it is higher in sugar, fruits also provide the body with tons of nutrients.

Whole fruits contain enough fiber to aid the body in breaking down all that sugar so these foods are extremely beneficial for the body. Fruit is also a great way to help curve that sweet tooth. It is my personal secret to success. I ALWAYS have fruit available at home because I am prone to having a sweet tooth. A bowl of berries or watermelon (super hydrating- I can’t get enough!) on a hot summer day, is there anything better? Be sure to only have whole fruits; fruit juices, canned fruits, and other packaged fruit products have lots of added sugar so it is important to avoid these.

Melons and berries are the best choices when being mindful of your sugar/ calorie intake. Apples, oranges, pineapple, and bananas are also loaded with a variety of essential vitamins and minerals so don’t be fearful to include these in your diet as well. Just be aware of your general overall calorie intake when choosing these fruits as a snack or including them in meals because they are higher in sugar/ calories per serving.

The bottomline is:

Just like all food choices, be mindful of where your calories are coming from. Choose whole foods as much as possible and fill most of your plates with colorful vegetables. Carbs are NOT the enemy!!! You have my full permission to enjoy your carbs again, as long as they are whole and not processed. Want to learn more about how to add the right carbs into your diet? Book your nutrition consultation today!

Deanna Virtue

ACE Certified Health Coach


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