Verified by: Dr. Mike Moreno
When you hear carb you probably automatically think bread, pasta, pastries, etc. A carb is short for carbohydrate and they get a pretty bad reputation. Not all carbs are the same though, there are simple and complex carbs. Simple carbs are quickly broken down into glucose during digestion to provide instant energy for your cells. They are naturally occurring in foods such as fruit and milk. The main sources of simple carbs in the modern diet are from processed foods and refined sugar like sweetened beverages, table sugar, and syrups, we will be referring to these as processed carbs.
Another form of this macronutrient is a complex carb, which are sugar molecules that are attached in a long chain. This more complex structure results in slower digestion time and more energy is needed to break down the chain into the singular glucose molecules. Complex carbs are most commonly found in beans, whole grains, and vegetables. Simple and complex carbs are similar in that the end result of digestion is to unlock the smaller glucose molecules to be used in the body for energy or to be stored for later use.
Benefits of Reducing Processed Carbs
Those interested in weight loss or just want to maintain a healthy weight, simple refined processed carbs can make this a challenge. Over consumption of simple refined or over processed carbs has been linked to heart disease and Type-2 diabetes. Refined carbs are in many of the processed foods found in every grocery store, gas station, fast food restaurants, etc. The modern day environment is filled with these carbs. Knowing the best type of carbs and being able to consume them in moderate portions can help with that weight loss goals and with maintaining your weight when paired with an overall healthy and active lifestyle. Some benefits of consuming simple carbs in moderation and increasing complex carbs include improved digestion health, stabilized energy levels, increased vitamin/minerals, and increased satiety at meals.
Digestion and your gut health, also referred to as your gut microbiome, can impact your everyday life. When your stomach feels good and you're not having issues in the bathroom, you have the bandwidth to focus on all the other factors in your life. Happy gut, happy life! Carbs are so important for maintaining a healthy digestion tract for many reasons, but we are going to highlight the power of fiber for gut health. This long chain complex carbohydrate is the star of your gut health, it impacts how & when nutrients are absorbed in the bloodstream, it protects your colon (large intestine), and keeps your bathroom trips regular. Fiber is a complex carbohydrate, like we talked about earlier.
There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble, the easiest way to remember this is: soluble fiber bulks you up and insoluble fiber pushes it through. Soluble fiber attracts water and increases stool volume, and insoluble fiber doesn’t get digested, so it irritates (in a safe manner) the lining of the intestine to result in contractions of the large intestines to keep everything moving. Simple processed carbs have been stripped of outer layers of their grain or are just the sugar molecules, therefore they lack fiber, and you miss out on these gut health benefits found in the whole unprocessed form. Having a healthy digestive tract has been linked with reduced risk of colon cancer and heart disease, and may impact mental health.
Stabilized Energy Levels
Simple carbs have a quick spike in blood sugar which can give you that quick boost of energy because they are easily digested and the glucose passes quickly into your blood. When you are in need of easily accessible energy such as before a workout or during a long distance race, these are great options. However when simple sugars are consumed regularly and result in chronic elevated blood sugar, it can lead to a decrease in insulin sensitivity. Insulin is the key that opens the door to allow sugar to pass from the blood into cells. When it is no longer sensitive to glucose it is called insulin resistant. Which allows blood sugar to stay elevated for even longer which can lead to prediabetes and diabetes.
However complex carbs, due to their bigger shape and increased levels of breakdown during digestion to get access to the glucose, there is more of a curve instead of a spike to blood glucose levels. This slower release of glucose results in more of a leveled release of energy. Instead of that huge boost of energy from the simple carb that results in a crash, complex carbs provide a stabilized release of energy to help regulate hunger and satiety levels.
Have you ever felt that afternoon 4pm crash, which normally results in reaching for another cup of coffee, energy drink, or vending machine snack, it might be time to consider the carbs in your lunch and what form they are in? Was your sandwich on white bread or whole wheat bread? Did your lunch contain enough protein and fat? The nutritional composition of your lunch could help stabilize your energy levels to help make it through the last hour of work or have the motivation to do the post-work exercise class!
Increased Vitamins and Minerals
Simple carbs from refined sources are pretty basic in terms of their nutritional profile, they are mostly composed of sugar aka glucose. However, simple carbs naturally found in fruit are commonly paired with water and complex carbs. The additional benefit of the water that is paired with the simple carb helps to hydrate the body and to decrease the concentration of glucose in the blood. The increased water content also helps to increase fullness and satiety levels post meal or snack.
Because the simple carb is paired with complex carb such as fiber, then impact on blood sugar levels is more gradual and less dramatic. For example an apple is 85% water, contains ~4grams of fiber (insoluble and soluble). It has the added water and the gut health benefits of both types of fiber. This helps bust the myth that sugar in fruit is just the same as sugar from a candy bar. All carbs are not created equally.
For those foods with complex carbohydrates that are low in water content, there is the big factor of the all important fiber as discussed above. There are additional benefits of added vitamins and minerals that these whole grains, beans, peas, and other low water complex carbs contain. Including prebiotics in those starchy vegetables, B vitamins in whole grains, magnesium in oats, calcium & zinc in peas, and zinc in beans. Quick summary, you get more bang for your buck when you opt for a whole food form of carbs.
Improve the Quality of Your Carbs
You don’t have to completely eliminate carbs from your diet and life, however being mindful of portions and experimenting with focusing on getting in more complex carbs can have a big impact on your health goals and how you feel. Balance meals with a moderate portion of protein and some source of fat, to help regulate the impact the carbs in the meal will have on your blood sugar. This can look like switching your regular yogurt with fruit to Greek yogurt with fruit plus chopped nuts to increase protein and fat content.
When you are having a meal with simple carbs like pasta or rice, fill your plate with fruits and veggies, the fiber in these foods help increase digestion time to reduce the spike in blood sugar. If you love a grain product look for the “100% whole wheat” or “High Fiber” version, the bran and kenneral is still intact in these forms which provides additional fiber and nutrients. Going low carb can look as customizable based on the types of foods you currently have in your diet. Here are some simple tips below on how to do it.
Healthy Carb Swaps
- Bell pepper: Slice a green or red bell pepper in half to swap for your burger and sandwich bun
- Romaine Lettuce Hearts: use as boat and fill with tuna, chicken, or chickpea salad
- Riced cauliflower: sub ½ of your normal white rice portion with this veggie rice, find it pre-riced in the frozen section of your local grocery store
- Zucchini: make or purchase spiralized zucchini to swap out or pair with pasta noodles
- Oats: throw oats in a blender to create a flour, swap this for your all-purpose flour in a variety of savory and sweet recipes
Want to reduce your carbs and also look forward to a weekly pizza night?
Try making these simple and quick eggplant pizzas to satisfy your pizza cravings with this low carb (but higher fiber verizon.) You probably already have most of these ingredients already in your kitchen, and the whole recipe takes less than 25 minutes.
- Olive oil
- Tomato sauce or Roma tomatoes
- Fresh or shredded mozzarella cheese
- Garlic and seasonings
- Pizza toppings - mushrooms, prosciutto, shallot sliced, etc.
If eliminating carbs or reducing carbs is something you might want to explore, a good place to start by identifying where your daily carbs are coming from. Decreasing those processed and refined carbs, and increasing complex and whole food form of simple carbs can help balance blood sugar, improve your daily energy levels, and help regulate your digestive health. As more people opt for higher quality carbohydrates, the more they will become available in your local grocery store, so next time you're in the produce aisle look for some spiralized zoodles or riced cauliflower! You don’t have to be on a low carb diet to be conscious about your carbs, finding the right balance for you can help you take one step closer to achieving that healthy lifestyle you desire.
Sydney McAvoy See all the author’s articles