By: Jared Levenson, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor
When it comes to carbohydrates, some people say they are “bad”.
In this article, we’ll explore the question, “are carbs bad for you?” from two different perspectives – nutrition and morality.
First, there’s nutrition. Are carbs unhealthy from a nutrient perspective? Do carbs make you gain weight?
Some say that carbs are bad for you physically speaking, while others claim that some carbs are necessary for a healthy diet.
Secondly, there’s morality. Rates of eating disorders are rising, and many people feel ashamed that they can’t emotionally stop eating carbs. Eating mindlessly is very common, and can happen for a number of reasons.
So, what’s the truth – are carbs bad?
In this article, we’ll explore the nature of carbohydrates both nutritionally and morally to clear up the confusion.
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are one of the three main macronutrients necessary for optimal health (along with fats and proteins).
They are found in a variety of foods, including bread, cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and milk products.
There are two types of carbohydrates – simple carbs and complex carbs.
- Simple carbs are made up of single sugar molecules or pairs of sugars (such as sucrose or fructose).
- Complex carbs are made up of long chains of sugars (such as starches and fiber).
Both simple and complex carbs are broken down into glucose (sugar) in the body and used for energy.
However, the way in which they are broken down and used by the body is different.
What are Simple Carbs?
Simple carbs are broken down quickly and can cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels. They are also known as “fast-acting” or “high glycemic” carbs, while complex carbs are known as “slow-acting” or “low glycemic” carbs.Simple carbs are more refined, processed foods without much dietary fiber, such as white rice and white bread.
What are Complex Carbs?
Contrary to simple carbs, complex carbs are broken down more slowly and result in a gradual rise in blood sugar levels. Complex carbs are typically considered “slow-acting” or “low glycemic” carbs for this reason.
Examples of complex carbs include whole wheat bread, brown rice, and starchy vegetables like potatoes.
The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly a food raises blood sugar levels.
High glycemic foods have a GI greater than 70, while low glycemic foods have a GI of 55 or less. Foods with a high GI are rapidly digested and absorbed, resulting in a quick spike in blood sugar levels. Foods with a low GI are digested and absorbed more slowly, resulting in only a small rise in blood sugar levels.
There are many different factors that affect the GI of a food, including the type of carbohydrate, the amount of fat and protein in the meal, and how processed the food is.
For example, white bread has a higher GI than whole wheat bread because it is more processed (white flour has had the bran and germ removed).
So, when we’re talking about the healthfulness of carbohydrates, it’s important to consider the type of carbohydrate, as well as the other nutrients present in that food.
Are Carbohydrates Bad – In Terms of Nutrition?
Now that we know a little bit more about carbohydrates, let’s answer the question: are carbs bad for you?
The short answer is no – carbs are not bad for you.
But not all carbs are equal, either – it’s important to distinguish between refined vs. unrefined carbs.
Are Refined Carbs Bad? Simple types of carbs are more refined and therefore contain fewer nutrients. They cause faster spikes in blood sugar levels than other complex carbohydrates.
Refined or processed carbs, such as white bread, refined grains, and pastries are generally considered to be less healthy than unrefined or unprocessed carbs, such as whole grains and vegetables.
This is because refined carbs are often high in sugar and calories, and low in fiber and other nutrients.
They can also cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels, which can lead to hunger, cravings, and energy crashes.
Are Unrefined Carbs Bad?
On the other hand, unrefined carbs are generally high in fiber and other nutrients. Since they are broken down more slowly by the body, they result in a more gradual rise in blood sugar levels.
This means that you are likely to feel fuller for longer after eating unrefined carbs and to experience more steady energy. Learn more about identifying if you’re hungry or full in this article on Emotional eating vs. Physical Hunger.
Generally speaking, these complex carbohydrates are considered to be the “healthy carbohydrates” with greater health benefits. They also typically are found in whole foods rather than processed foods.
Summing it up – Types of Carbs – Summary
From a nutritional perspective, carbs are either simple or complex.
Generally speaking, complex carbs are considered to be more nutritious than simple carbs.
This is because they contain more fiber and other nutrients, and are broken down more slowly by the body.
This means that you are likely to feel full for longer after eating complex carbs.
So when it comes to choosing carbohydrates, experts generally say it’s best to opt for unrefined or minimally processed options like whole grains, vegetables, and legumes on most occasions.
However, carbs aren’t considered “good” or “bad.” But, there are some that will provide more steady physical and mental energy than others.
Still, guilt is inextricably linked with food, especially carbs, for many people – but why?
Let’s now explore the question “are carbs bad for you” from a humanistic perspective.
Where does the term “Bad” Carbs come from?
There are no “good” or “bad” carbs from a nutritional perspective. Each type of carb serves its own purpose.
For example, more refined carbs like white bread may be better for a quick-digesting energy source before a run, while whole wheat bread may be better to hold you over when you won’t be eating a meal for a few hours.
So where does the guilt from eating carbs come from?
Well, we live in a culture that has very frequently demonized carbs.
Examples include the various low-carb diet crazes and the way that carbs are often portrayed in the media as “bad” foods that cause weight gain.
- One reason for this may be that eating more processed carbs like pastries, donuts, or sweetened coffees is associated with weight gain. This is not the same as eating whole wheat bread or brown rice, which is harder to overeat.
- If you eat too many carbs you may gain weight, but if you eat too much of anything you’ll gain weight. Processed carbs are easy to overeat, which may be where the association with weight gain comes from, but there are many other foods that can cause weight gain.
- Fast-food restaurants make convenient simple carbs and we eat way too much of them.
When eaten in excess, simple carbs are tied to weight gain and obesity. But this is not just the case with carbs – it’s the case when it comes to eating anything in excess. Carbs are not the bad guy.
There is a lot of weight stigma in our society. People who are overweight or obese are often judged, discriminated against, and made to feel like they are less than human.
In other words, weight stigma is what says people are “bad” for being overweight.
This is not only unfair, but it’s also harmful to your mental health and well-being.
Weight stigma can lead to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. It can also make people less likely to exercise and more likely to binge eat.
Even worse, weight stigma drives people to diet, which usually doesn’t work, and increases the risk of self-sabotage and binge eating.
There are so many other measures of health than weight. It’s important to celebrate every non-scale victory you have, such as having better sleep or improved energy.
Are Carbohydrates Bad, Morally speaking?
Somehow carbs have become inextricably referred to as “bad”, but I hope we can now see things a bit more clearly.
First, not all carbs are created equal. The nutritional differences between “complex” and “simple” carbs are very real and significant.
Eating simple, processed carbs in excess is correlated with weight gain and health consequences.
That’s just the facts – it’s science.
But are carbs bad?
Carbs are not bad.
Carbs are just food, and they are neither good nor bad. They are neutral. In fact, all food is neutral.
Likewise, people are not bad for being overweight.
Everyone has their own unique body, genes, and preferences. And while some foods are more nutritious than others, including carbs, they all can fit into a healthy, balanced diet.
While many people judge or fear carbs, in reality, carbs are just carbs.
Do Carbs Have a Purpose?
I’d like to gently suggest a different way of viewing carbs.
I’m simply talking about whether carbs are useful, or not useful. Do carbs provide energy, and do they have a purpose?
Thinking of it in this manner is helpful as it:l:
- avoids the good /bad judgment
- respects the differences between complex and simple carbs
This type of language, to me at least, offers a gentle reframe.
Carbs are more like tools. They have a purpose, a function – but you wouldn’t call a hammer or wrench a good or bad tool.
It all depends on how you’re using it.
The same goes for carbs.
Some are more useful than others, but ultimately it’s up to you to decide how to use them based on your goals.
Here are a few general tips:
- Focus on complex carbs and whole foods, they are more filling and satisfying
- Be mindful of portion sizes, especially when eating simple carbs
- Listen to your body, and eat carbs in a way that makes you feel good
- Focus on how you feel after eating different types of carbs. Which ones give you energy and focus, and which seem to zap your energy?
- Do your own research regarding carbs and other health topics like supplements
I hope this has been helpful in exploring the question: are carbs bad for you?
Please remember, there is no good or bad here – only what works for you.
If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below!