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Carbohydrates: it's the quality that counts.

Supporters of low-carbohydrate diets frequently claim that cutting out most or all carbs is key to losing weight or eating a more nutritious diet-but this approach isn't supported by clinical research. "Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for your brain, and an extremely important source of energy for your entire body)' says Tanya Freirich, RD, a clinical dietitian at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell. "In fact, 40 to 60 percent of your total calorie intake should come from carbs."

Carbohydrates are not all created equal, however. Some are good sources of nutrients and fiber, while others are primarily sources of empty calories.

Differences in Carbs

Sugar molecules form the basis of all foods that contain carbohydrates.

Simple carbohydrates are made up of only one or two sugars. These include glucose, sucrose, fructose, galactose, and lactose. "Because of their basic structure, simple carbs are the most easily absorbed by the body' Freirich explains. "These types of carbohydrates are found naturally in foods such as fruits, vegetables, and milk, and are also added to processed foods in the form of refined sugar."

Complex carbohydrates, also called starches, are made of three or more linked sugars. Foods that contain complex carbs include grains (wheat, rice, barley, rye), and some starchy vegetables (corn, peas, winter squash, potatoes, beans).

Beyond Simple vs Complex

It's an oversimplification to designate all simple carbs as "bad" and all complex carbs as "good," particularly since both types can be refined to a more simple and readily digested version that raises blood sugar levels. The more complex and unrefined the carbohydrate, the longer it takes to digest, meaning blood sugar levels won't rise as quickly-but all carbohydrates are eventually broken down through digestion to simple sugars. "Complex, unrefined carbohydrates like whole-wheat bread or brown rice take longer to break down," Freirich explains, "but when a complex carb like brown rice is refined to white rice, it digests faster."

Also keep in mind that not all simple carb foods are "bad"--for example, fruits contain fructose, a simple, easily absorbed natural sugar, as well as fiber. "The fiber in fruit causes the sugar to be absorbed more slowly, thereby reducing rapid spikes in blood sugar after eating," explains Freirich. "But when fruit is refined to fruit juice, the fiber is removed, leaving only the rapidly digested, simple sugar."

Bottom Line

"When it comes to consuming healthy carbs, whether they are simple or complex, choose whole, unrefined sources," Freirich advises. "Also consider portion size, especially if you have diabetes. Even if healthy carbs are consumed, too much at one meal can raise blood sugar. And, for everyone, consuming too many carbs of any type increases weight gain."



Healthy carbs cause a slight rise in blood glucose (green line), while other carbs cause a rapid spike in blood glucose, followed by a rapid fall (red line); these are carbs to avoid.


* Whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, barley, whole wheat)

* Oatmeal

* Whole fruit

* Whole-wheat pasta

* Legumes (dried beans, peas, lentils)


* White bread, pasta, rice

* Baked goods (cereals, bagels, crackers)

* Fruit juice, sodas, sugar-sweetened beverages

* Sweet snack foods (candy, cookies)

* Potatoes

* Corn


Here are some tips for making smart carb choices:

* Choose whole grains. Look for the word "whole" as the first ingredient, as well as at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.

* Eat beans. Beans are packed with fiber and protein, which will help keep you full, and are also rich in other heart-healthy nutrients, such as magnesium and potassium.

* Limit juice. Even 100-percent juice provides only simple carbs, while whole fruits and vegetables contain fiber and other nutrients.

* Limit added sugars. These carbs are nothing but empty calories that cause sugar spikes and weight gain (see below for a list of sugar terms).


Added sugars come in many forms. Check labels for the terms below-if no sugars are listed in the ingredient list, this means that any sugar the product contains is in the food itself, not added to it.

* Agave syrup

* Beet sugar

* Date sugar

* Dehydrated cane juice

* Demerara sugar

* Dextrose

* Brown sugar

* Glucose

* Fructose

* Fruit juice concentrate

* High-fructose corn syrup

* Honey

* Invert sugar

* Lactose

* Malt syrup

* Malted barley extract

* Maltose

* Maple syrup

* Maltodextrin

* Molasses

* Raw sugar

* Sorghum syrup

* Sucrose

* Turbinado sugar
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Publication:Women's Nutrition Connection
Date:Jun 1, 2016
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