Good Carbs vs. Bad Carbs: What Should We *Actually* Be Eating?

Carbs are like the Taylor Swift of the food world: They’re polarizing. Some people avoid them at all costs, while others don’t dare imagine a life without them. So what’s the deal? Are they OK in moderation? What about “good carbs” and “bad carbs”? Let’s dig in. 

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good carbs vs bad carbs
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First Of All, What Are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates, or carbs, are molecules that have carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. In nutrition, carbs refers to one of the three macronutrients. There are three broad groups of carbs:

  • Monosaccharides: The most basic form of carbohydrate, including glucose and fructose.
  • Disaccharides: Two monosaccharide molecules bonded together, including lactose and sucrose.
  • Polysaccharides: Chains of more than two monosaccharide molecules bonded together, including fiber and starch.

The main purpose of carbohydrates in the diet is to provide energy. Most carbs are broken down or transformed into glucose, which can be used as energy. Carbs can also be turned into fat (stored energy) for later use. Fiber is an exception to the rule: It doesn’t provide energy directly, but rather feeds the friendly bacteria in the digestive system. These bacteria can use the fiber to produce fatty acids that some of our cells can use as energy.

What’s The Difference Between “good” And “bad” Carbs?

Instead of viewing certain carbs as good or bad (which can be counterproductive when it comes to maintaining a healthy relationship with food), let’s break carbohydrates down into simple and complex:

  • Simple carbohydrates: Monosaccharides and disaccharides make up the different types of sugars and are known as simple carbohydrates (or "bad" carbs). They provide a rapid source of energy. Examples of simple carbs include white bread and pasta, sugary drinks like soda and fruit juices, and pastries.
  • Complex carbohydrates: Polysaccharides like fiber and starch are known as complex carbohydrates (or "good" carbs). They contain longer chains of molecules that take longer for the body to break down and digest. Examples of complex carbs include vegetables, fruits, legumes, potatoes and whole grains.

Are All Carbs Bad?

While it’s technically true that the body can function without carbs, that doesn’t mean certain carbs can’t be beneficial when consumed responsibly. Many carb-containing foods are super-healthy and nutritious, like fruits and vegetables, which have tons of beneficial compounds and health benefits. (Duh.)

According to a study in The Lancet Public Health, a diet with moderate carbohydrate consumption lowers the risk of death more than both low- and high-carb diets. From the research, it was estimated that people who ate a moderate amount of carbs at age 50 had a life expectancy of around 83 years. That's compared to 82 for high-carb eaters and 79 for low-carb eaters. But what's “moderate”? A caloric intake of 50 to 55 percent carbohydrates was linked to the lowest risk of mortality. Why? Per the study, it might be that people on the high end of the scale are eating too many refined carbs (instead of whole grains and unrefined carbs), and those on the low end tend to swap carbs for dairy products and meat (instead of plant-derived proteins and fats).

good carbs vs bad carbs brussels
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How To Eat More Fiber

As we’ve established, fiber is a carb that’s actually really good for you. According to The Atlantic, the average American eats 16 grams of fiber a day—significantly less than the 25 to 30 grams suggested by the FDA. Per a chart from a 2005 study from the University of Minnesota, fiber leads to greater satiety, less insulin secretion and more short-chain fatty acids. Basically, all these things mean less body weight. According to the article, fiber has also been shown “to reduce breast cancer risk by reducing estrogen levels in the blood and to promote healthy aging.” Pretty crucial stuff.

So how can we eat more of it? Turns out, it’s pretty delicious. Some of the best sources of fiber are unprocessed fruits and vegetables and whole grains. It’s found in everything from apples and kiwis to corn tortillas and certain breakfast cereals. For reference, there are 25 grams of fiber in six apples. (Here’s a pretty comprehensive list of high-fiber foods from the Mayo Clinic.)

good carbs vs bad carbs sugar
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How To Eat Less Sugar

If we should all be eating more fiber, we should probably all be eating way less sugar. Here are seven ways to cut back on the sweet stuff.

1. Take Baby Steps 

Going cold turkey is great in theory but almost impossible in reality. According to Jim LaValle, R.Ph., C.C.N., a clinical pharmacist, author and board-certified clinical nutritionist, taking a slower approach could be the key to long-term success. “If you normally take two teaspoons of sugar in your coffee, cut down to one for a week, then one-half the next week,” he said. “Eventually, you’ll get to the point where you won’t need sugar at all.”

2. Watch Out for Hidden Sugars

Just because you aren’t stuffing your face with cookies and candy and syrupy Starbucks drinks doesn’t mean you aren’t consuming sugar. “Cough syrups, chewing gum, tomato sauce, baked beans, soups, salad dressings and lunch meats often contain hidden sugar,” LaValle says. Some of the biggest culprits, he says, are fresh fruit smoothies, sports drinks and bars. Read those ingredient lists, friends. Unfortunately, the sweet stuff goes by a lot more names than just sugar. Familiarize yourself with this list of common aliases to ensure you’re not eating more sugar than you realize.

3. Find Ways to De-Stress

This one’s a little unexpected, but per LaValle, stress can make you crave sugar, since eating sweets can help increase production of serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter. From starting your day with meditation and practicing gratitude to making more of an effort to spend time with friends and getting outside more often, here are some easy ways to de-stress your life.

4. Be Wary of Low-Fat Products

Sneaky sugars strike again. Low-fat products seem like they would be healthy, but oftentimes they’re worse for you than their full-fat alternatives. That’s because these foods replace fat with sugar for the sake of taste. Instead of falling into this sugar trap, enjoy full-fat foods in moderation. They’ll likely contain less sugar and taste a hell of a lot better. And again, if you’re not sure how much sugar you’re consuming, a quick scan of the ingredient list will raise any red flags.

5. Eat More Healthy Fats

In addition to steering clear of low-fat products, we’ll take it one step further to say that you should actually eat more fat. Healthy fats found in nuts, avocados and whole eggs work to stabilize blood sugar and keep you fuller longer (meaning you’re less likely to reach for a quick sugar fix when your energy dips).

6. Try Not to Drink Your Sugar

Yes, Mocha Frappuccinos are delicious, but they, like many coffee drinks, are loaded with sugar. It might take a little getting used to, but try to train yourself to drink coffee black—or with a little whole or unsweetened almond milk, if you must. Just stay away from sugar, artificial sweeteners and packaged creamers. In our experience, it’s possible to learn to love the pure coffee taste. Worst case scenario, you can pivot from coffee to caffeinated tea if you just can’t get into the taste.

7. Grocery Shop Smarter

A little strategy when grocery shopping pays off for your health and your wallet. By spending the majority of your time in the store on its perimeter, where most of the whole foods are, you aren’t subjecting yourself to walking down aisles of cookies and chips and other stuff you probably shouldn’t be eating. Out of sight, out of mind. And besides, you’ll feel way more satisfied after snacking on a handful of gorgeous cherries than you would after shoveling a bunch of Oreos into your mouth.

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...