Carbs: Good, Bad and Healthy: What You Need to Know Before You Shop

December 12, 2014

Like many nutrients in the news, carbohydrates are either good one day or bad another. Find out the basics as well as some of the facts behind the research about carbs.

The Basics: Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients that are contained in most foods. Carbs are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, which are arranged into small units called sugars, or monosaccharides. The sugar units are then linked into simple and more complex molecules, mono and polysaccharides respectively, which determines their classification and how they are used in the body. Carbohydrates range from simple sugars, to more complex sugars like lactose, starch, fiber, and resistant starch.

What foods contain carbs? Many foods contain carbs, from simple to more complex: glucose, table sugar, honey, fruit juice, ripe fruit, French fries, milk, corn, cookies, pasta, potatoes, squash, whole wheat, quinoa, barley, beans. All foods excluding pure animal products like fish, poultry or meat and fats and oils generally contain some carbohydrates.

While many say a low carb diet is the reason for their slim physique, various studies demonstrate the contrary. For example, a study from the University of South Carolina found that most people who maintain optimum body weight do not consume a diet low in carbohydrates. Researchers used a survey of 4,451 Canadians and found that those consuming 290 to 310 grams of carbohydrates per day (47 to 64%) were least likely to be overweight or obese compared to those in the lowest intake category.

Limit carbs and loose weight? Proponents of low carb diets hypothesize that consuming fewer carbohydrates allows the body to break down fat, instead of sugar, to provide energy. Data has shown that low carb diets are effective at inducing weight loss in the short term. However, other studies showed that high and low carbohydrate diets were equally effective in achieving and maintaining weight loss for up to two years. Clearly you need to pay attention to your body to find the right balance for you.

Fiber Rich. Carbohydrates are rich in fiber and the recommended intake is 38 grams per day for men and 25 grams per day for women, most people are going to need a variety of fiber rich foods to meet this goal. Fiber has been liked to a variety of health benefits and it has been well documented that diets low in whole grain, fiber, fruit and vegetables, and high in calories, are associated with an increased risk of overweight or obesity and poor overall health. These findings point to some of the limitations to eliminating complex carbs, and the implied benefits of having a balance in your diet.

Carbs are needed for a good night sleep. We sleep when our bodies make a neurotransmitter, called melatonin. Melatonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan has a hard time competing with other amino acids and crossing the blood brain barrier where it is needed to do its work. When we eat carbs, all of the other amino acids, besides tryptophan, are used or delivered to cells. This action allows tryptophan to easily cross the blood brain barrier to help make melatonin. Here’s the secret - diets that are too low in high quality protein, provide too little tryptophan. Diets that are too low in carbs, keep tryptophan from getting into your brain. Seems like it’s all about balance!