I love it when people read nutrition labels. But when I overhear people say, “I can’t eat that, it has too many carbs,” I get concerned that – just like calorie intake – carbohydrates have gotten an unfair and inaccurate bad reputation.
This idea that all carbohydrates are unhealthy is simply not true. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains – these are examples of foods rich in carbohydrates, and ones that every physician and dietitian agrees people need to eat as part of a healthy diet.
Rather than asking whether or not a food has ‘too many’ carbohydrates, you should instead consider the type of food you are putting in your mouth. Here is why:
A carbohydrate is quite simply a measure of the amount of sugar, or energy, in a food.
Like most food groups, the carbohydrate category encompasses a variety of subgroups. These subgroups are typically classified based on the number of single sugar units bonded together, as demonstrated in this chart:
Chart courtesy of Present Knowledge in Nutrition, 8th Edition, Chapter 6: Carbohydrates.
The list of subgroups can seem a bit overwhelming at first glance. But this just goes to show the amount of diversity that fits under the ‘carbohydrate’ heading.
Over the years, dietitians have tried numerous ways to classify carbohydrates. One common method includes describing carbohydrates as either a ‘simple’ or ‘complex’ carb.
Looking at the chart above, simple carbohydrates include all the types of foods in the first sugar section, be it the sugars you find in table sugar, a glass of milk, or sweet potatoes. The complex carbs are the polysaccharides, which are found in items like barley, beta-glucan-rich oats, etc.
Carbohydrates are an important source of energy for the body, and we need them to survive. However, when the amount of carbohydrates consumed is greater than what our body needs, the surplus goes to our liver and is changed to fat. This conversion may partially explain why the increased consumption of refined sugars results in high obesity rates. In addition, different types of carbohydrates can also spike blood sugar levels, creating microdamage to blood vessels over time.
Robert Lustig, MD, reported at the Annual Nutrition and Health Conference in May 2011 that the rampant use of high fructose corn syrup in our processed foods has fueled the obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemics. He feels these types of processed, simple carbohydrates are to blame for the public health crisis more than any other food substance.
All of the foods pictured here contain carbohydrates. But because the fruits and vegetables on the right contain not just natural sugars, but also vitamins, minerals and dietary fibers, they are better for you than the nutrient-poor, processed foods on the left.
Dr. Lustig is correct in suggesting people need to reduce their intake of many simple, processed carbohydrates such as soft drinks, white flour, certain kinds of pasta, white rice, and thickening powders found in sauces, puddings and soups. Most dietitians agree that consuming these types of carbohydrates provide little nutritional payback and appear to be associated with increased triglyceride levels and heart disease.
That being said, plenty of carbohydrate-rich foods provide important health benefits, in particular dietary fibers (also known as ‘nonstarch polysaccharides,’ if you look at the chart above).
In contrast to simple carbohydrates, dietary fibers can’t be broken down into sugar molecules to be used for immediate energy. Nevertheless, they are important for proper body functioning.
Attempts to classify dietary fiber hasn’t always been straightforward. Dietary fibers are now known to be more complex and include a wide range of different compounds, which vary substantially in their origin, chemical and physicochemical properties. However, in simple terms, dietary fibers are normally classified in one of two categories: Soluble fiber – which dissolves in water — and insoluble fiber, which does not.
Soluble fibers, like the beta-glucan fibers found in oats, have a number of positive benefits for the human body. Soluble fibers bind to fats in the large intestines and carry them out as waste. The soluble fibers also help lower LDL, or bad cholesterol levels. Furthermore, soluble fibers bind to water, creating a gel-like substance that gives a feeling of fullness and keeps blood sugar levels at an even keel.
Soluble fiber also plays an important role in the digestive system. The good bacteria in the large intestine use the fibers for food. Since these gut microbes in turn mop up toxins in our intestinal tract, they are particularly useful to keep well fed. If the gut bacteria don’t get the right kind of fiber, they instead start making nasty substances, like toxic sulfur binding.
Insoluble fibers, which are found in vegetables like broccoli, tomatoes and carrots, do not interact with intestinal bacteria. However, insoluble fibers play a crucial role in pushing food through the intestinal tract, promoting regularity and helping to prevent constipation.
Oats are a good source of soluble fibers, as are other foods like barley and beans.
As you can see, carbohydrates are not the evil-doers of the nutrition family tree, and one food item can contain several of the types of carbs. For instance, an apple contains both simple carbs in the form of sugar, as well as important dietary fibers.
Dietitians agree that carbohydrates should make up roughly 45 to 65 percent of our energy intake. Keeping this in mind, we are better off discussing what kinds of foods to eat, rather than limiting our total carbohydrate intake across the board.
The next time you head to the grocery store, take a minute to read your nutrition facts. Put your emphasis on the ingredients list rather than the carbohydrate count. After all, you don’t want to miss out on the great benefits of eating whole grains, beans, and fruits and vegetables because you’re busy counting carbs.
To make it easier for people to get good nutrition, Omega3 Innovations has also developed the perfect combination of fresh omega-3 fish oil and gluten-free soluble oat fiber in a variety of delicious and healthy foods. For instance, our Omega Cookie®, delivers the equivalent of 7 capsules of omega-3 fish oil (2000 mg of EPA/DHA), along with 5 grams of fiber from beta-glucan-rich whole oats, and 800 IUs of vitamin D3.
You can learn more about the ingredients that go into each Omega Cookie here.
Bowman, Barbara and Russell, Robert. Present Knowledge in Nutrition. 8th ed., International Life Sciences Institute, 2001.
Hall, McKenzie. Fiber Facts about Cereal. Today’s Dietitian. December 2012. Vol.14 No. 12. P. 30-34.
Mayo Clinic Staff. Healthy Diet: End the Guesswork with these Nutrition Guidelines. Nutrition and Healthy Eating. Mayo Clinic. Feb. 22, 2011.
Palmer, Sharon. The Real Scoop on Sugar. Today’s Dietitian. October 2012. Vol. 14 No. 10 P. 28.
The Nutrition Source: Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.