Are Carbohydrates Good for You?

Is it me, or do those cookies look slightly evil?

“Are carbs good for you?” I get that question a lot.  If I wasn’t a dietitian, I’d be curious, too, given all the buzz about carbohydrates.  Here’s what you should consider about carbohydrates and health.

Carbohydrates Keep You Going 

Carbohydrates, found in an array of foods, are your body’s preferred energy source. Carbohydrates are digested and converted into glucose, which fuels every cell. The brain and red blood cells rely heavily on carbohydrate, and when levels of glucose drop in your bloodstream, your mental and physical energy goes south, too.

Feeling “hangry” is a real thing. 

Carbohydrates are found in foods such as milk, yogurt, fruit, vegetables, legumes (beans), bread, cereals, pasta, rice, and other grains, cookies, cakes, and other sweets.  With the exception of fiber, which is technically a carbohydrate but mostly indigestible, all types of carbs turn into glucose, and all carbs supply four calories per gram.

A recent survey found that Americans blame carbohydrates for weight gain, which is probably why low-carb diets are so attractive.  However, a consistently low carbohydrate intake forces the body to turn to protein and fat for energy, which isn’t ideal. Protein is meant to provide the raw materials to build and maintain lean tissue, including muscle, and to make enzymes, hormones, and cells to support life. When protein is redirected for energy, it cannot fully do its job.

A low-carb diet may shorten your life


Cut carbs, and you cut calories, which may be the reason for weight loss.

As your low-carb intake wears on, the body begins to burn more fat. Fat breakdown produces compounds called ketones. Blood levels of ketones are consistently elevated on a very low-carb diet.  Experts aren’t sure about the effects of such elevated ketones on health, but they do know that excessive ketones can be life-threatening in people with diabetes.

Very low-carb eating plans, such as the ketogenic diet, often lead to fat loss, but it’s unclear exactly why. While it’s true that people who cut carbohydrate intake to bare-bones levels shed pounds, it’s usually because they had been eating excessive amounts of foods with refined carbs and added sugar, such as cookies, cake, and candy. Simply cutting calories could be the reason for the weight loss.

Maple syrup and honey may be “natural,” but they are sources of added sugar.

Carbohydrates are classified as “simple,” and “complex.”

When you eat simple carbohydrates, such as maple syrup, honey, table sugar, and white bread, pasta, and rice, the body quickly digests them and converts them into glucose, producing immediate energy, which must be used right away or stored as body fat. Insulin helps the glucose to enter cells and return blood glucose levels to normal. Problem is, a steady diet of simple carbohydrates increases your risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer by promoting a condition known as insulin resistance.

The starch and other complex carbohydrates found in foods such as whole grains, vegetables, and legumes (beans), take longer for the body to digest, making for a slower and steadier energy release into the bloodstream. As a result, your body makes  less insulin to metabolize glucose, which is better for your health.

Study: Eating a more plant-based diet is linked to lower Body Mass Index

Choose Quality Carbohydrates

When it comes to choosing carbs, quality counts. It’s a good idea to consider the company that carbohydrates keep rather than taking them off your menu.

Foods rich in added sugars, such as regular soft drinks, granola bars, and candy, typically offer little besides calories. That doesn’t mean you must avoid them altogether, however. Find out what your added sugar limit is here.

Choose high-carb, nutrient-rich foods to support your health.

Fruits and vegetables, and plain milk and yogurt, contain naturally-occurring simple sugars. They are not on the list of sweeter foods experts advise us to limit, however.

Foods with naturally-occurring sugar, as well as starchy foods such as grains, potatoes, and rice, are desirable because they supply vitamins, minerals, water, fiber, and phytonutrients, beneficial plant compounds that protect your cells. Fortified grains supply additional nutrients, such as iron and folic acid, which are often in short supply in women of childbearing age.

The downside of going gluten-free

Bread made with fortified grains provides vitamins and minerals.

Carbohydrates are Good for Your Gut

Fiber, found only in plant foods, including whole wheat pasta, brown rice, and beans, protects against diabetes, heart disease, and colon cancer. Your gut cannot digest fiber, but the bacteria that live there can.

Bacteria in the colon ferment, or feed on, the fiber in food, producing short chain fatty acids (SCFA). SCFA protect the lining of your gut and defend it against colon cancer, help to control blood glucose, reduce inflammation, and strengthen your immune system.

Fiber helps to keep you fuller longer, which is beneficial when trying to control your weight. It also plays a role in lowering blood cholesterol levels, keeping blood glucose concentrations in a normal range, and preventing constipation.

Fruit is full of water, and can help you meet your daily fluid needs.

How Much Carbohydrate and Fiber Should You Eat?

Carbohydrate and fiber intakes are based on calorie requirements.

Experts recommend consuming 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories as carbohydrate. That amounts to:

  • 248 to 358 grams on a 2,200-calorie eating plan
  • 225 and 325 grams on a 2,000-calorie eating plan
  • 202 to 293 grams on an 1,800-calorie eating plan

Just for reference, popular low-carb diets suggest far less carbohydrate than nutrition experts.  For example, the ketogenic way of eating recommends no more than 50 grams daily, about the amount found in a three-ounce egg bagel.

Check this list for the carbohydrate content of foods. 

Suggested fiber intakes are easier to figure:

• For every 1,000 calories consumed, eat at least 14 grams of fiber from food.

• For example, on a 2,000-calorie eating plan, include a minimum of 28 grams of food fiber daily.

Beans supply a type of fiber that beneficial gut bacteria love!

How to Get the Fiber You Need

It’s easier to include adequate fiber when you eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables and at least three servings a day of whole grains. For packaged foods, such as bread and cereal, check “Dietary Fiber” on the Nutrition Facts panel of food labels for fiber content.

Here are some common fiber sources, listed in grams:

Navy beans, 1⁄2 cup, cooked: 10

Lentils, 1⁄2 cup, cooked: 8

Black beans, 1⁄2 cup, cooked: 8

Garbanzo beans, 1⁄2 cup, cooked: 8

Whole wheat bread, 2 ounces: 6

White beans, 1⁄2 cup, cooked: 6

Pear, 1 medium: 6

Avocado, 1⁄2 cu:p 5

Soybeans, 1⁄2 cup, cooked or roasted: 5

Peas, 1⁄2 cup, cooked: 4

Chia seeds, 1 tablespoon: 4

Apple, medium, with skin:  4

Raspberries, 1⁄2 cup: 4

Potato, medium, with skin, baked: 4

Sweet potato, medium, flesh only, baked: 4

Almonds, 1 ounce: 4

Broccoli, 1⁄2 cup, cooked: 3

Orange, 1 medium: 3

Banana, 1 medium: 3

Quinoa, 1⁄2 cup, cooked: 3

Good Carbs, Bad Carbs: The Bottom Line

Like any calorie-containing component of food, including protein, fat, and alcohol, too much carbohydrate in your diet may end up as stored body fat because of the excess calories it provides. Likewise, eating drastically less than the recommended amount of carbohydrate is not a good idea, either, because it has several negative consequences that may affect your health in the longterm.

Including more plant, and plain dairy foods, as part of balanced eating plan is your best bet for getting enough “good” carbs. Even the so-called “bad” carbohydrates, such as added sugars, white bread, and pasta, can still be a part of a balanced eating plan, even with diabetes. (Check with your dietitian about your daily carbohydrate budget.)

Vegetables supply several nutrients, including fiber and phytonutrients – protective plant compounds.



  1. Pingback: How to Make Better Pasta Salad | Better Is the New Perfect

  2. Pingback: 3 Tips for Better Snacks | Better Is the New Perfect

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: