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This poor macronutrient has gotten a lot of grief recently thanks to popular diets like low-carbohydrate, ketogenic and paleo. Not only that, but the demonisation of carbohydrates now also has us asking what are good carbs and what are bad carbs? The truth is carbohydrates are tricky. The problem with all of this is that the advice spreading online may not apply to you. For example, the low carbohydrate diet can have many benefits for people but it’s not the answer to everything. You have to ask the right questions and make the right adaptations for your needs. Here’s just some things to consider:
- What do you mean by low carbohydrate (for some that can be 50g per day, for others 200g)? And remember ‘low’ does not imply less calories!
- What kind of carbohydrates exactly (What are good carbs because they’re not all made equal but more on that later)?
- How many carbs do I actually need (the amount will vary depending on body type, activity levels and biochemical makeup)?
This post aims to breakdown the information about this misunderstood macronutrient and provide some practical advice. So what are good carbs?
What are carbohydrates?
Before we ask what are good carbs, it’s logical to first look at carbs in general. When we eat food, we consume a certain ratio of macronutrients (i.e. protein, fat and carbohydrates) as well as a variety micronutrients. Carbohydrates are one such macronutrient. Think of ‘macros’ as the building blocks our body needs to function. Carbohydrates give you energy but they also provide fibre, materials to synthesise hormones and neurotransmitters as well as food for our gut flora.
Carbohydrates can be broken down into the following:
- Sugar – The individual unit of sugars that give our body energy: glucose, fructose, galactose and sucrose.
- Starches – Longer combinations of sugar molecules that our body breaks down
- Fibre – Carbs our body can’t digest such as cellulose, lignin, and pectin, that are resistant to the action of digestive enzymes.
It’s important to also consider simple and complex carbohydrates when considering what are good carbs and bad carbs. Think of simple carbohydrates as basically sugar, stripped of nutrient density. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are the opposite; nutrient dense and whole.
Whatever the carbohydrate, it will eventually be broken down into glucose, either in the gut itself or after a brief visit to the liver. Hopefully you’re starting to where the confusion stems from; it’s not enough to talk about just carbohydrates because not all sources are created equal. So as a macronutrient, carbohydrates are not inherently bad for us but they do have the ability to wreak havoc especially if you consume the wrong sources. Let’s move into considering what are good carbs and what are bad carbs.
What are good carbs?
The best way to understand what are good carbs and bad carbs is to look at the different sources:
- Vegetables are the superior source of carbohydrates that should be the staple in any diet. Not only do they contain important sources of antioxidants and phytonutrients, they also do not impact blood sugar. Furthermore, vegetables have far fewer calories, they are easier to digest, and they are a great source of fibre.
- Fruits are a natural and fibre rich source of energy. The big point to note is that fruit and vegetables are not the same thing. Because fruit tastes better, it’s very common for people to lean on fruit as a source of plant based nutrition. While this isn’t ‘unhealthy’, it is better to try to balance your vegetable and fruit intake in favour of vegetables. Finally, be careful with dried fruit: they are extremely caloric, very high in natural sugars and very easy to overeat. However, dried fruit is also nutrient dense all meaning you don’t need to consume much.
- Grains – Oats, barley, rye, spelt, millet, buckwheat. Grains can be a rich source of fibre and nutrition. To minimise the negative effects of lectin, phytates and gluten, choose ancient grains like spelt and buckwheat and always use the sprouting method before cooking (more here). All of our nuts and grains are either sprouted or activated before production to increase the nutrient bioavailability.
- Legumes – beans and lentils. Legumes are high in fibre and so provide plenty of food for our gut flora. They are a good prebiotic but sometimes it can make you feel a bit ‘gassy’. Legumes also contain anti-nutrients known as lectins and phytic acid (also found in grains and nuts) which can be irritating to the digestive system. There are ways to control for all of the above. You can choose to simply not eat these foods, especially if you get very bad gas. Otherwise, you can just eat a smaller dose or choose the right cooking method. Not only that, but when it comes to nuts, grains and legumes it is important to buy good quality sources and use the sprouting/soaking method before cooking to reduce the anti-nutrient effect.
- And the rest – processed junk: cakes, cookies, pizza, pasta, chocolate and packaged goods.
What makes a carb ‘bad’ or ‘not so good’?
When you eat carbohydrates of any kind, your body breaks them down into sugars which then enter your bloodstream. The elevated blood sugars (insulin spike) signal your liver to produce a hormone called insulin. This directs sugars to be shuttled out of the bloodstream to your muscle and glycogen stores. In healthy people, eating good sources of carbohydrates in the right amount for your body means two things:
- Your standard carb-induced insulin spike will return to baseline two or three hours after eating the carbs and
- Your body will get the energy/nutrition it needs. On the other hand, if you’re insulin resistant, your cells stop responding to insulin signals. This means your body will probably produce higher amounts of insulin for the same amount of carbs and the insulin spike from eating carbs will last longer (this is how type 2 diabetes develops over time). Not only that, eating too many carbs and from the wrong sources compounds the problem. This forces your body to convert the excess to fat in an effort to get it out of the bloodstream.
Bad carbs are highly processed foods that you wouldn’t find in nature. These foods tend to have these three things in common:
- Empty calories: the not so good sources of carbohydrates have one massive disadvantage that centres on the word ‘processed’. These foods have no nutrient value and are usually full of chemicals and preservatives that your body struggles to deal with. This essentially means you only get the calories and massive insulin spike and that just stresses your system.
- Too much: processed sources of carbohydrates tend to also be very high in total carb content, far higher than what you might find in nature. Because these foods don’t resemble sources of food found in nature, they confuse our primal bodies, flood our system with far too much sugar and create stress. The combined effects of doing this all the time may contribute to poor health, weight gain and also exacerbate cravings.
- Too processed: We touched on this in the first point on empty calories but making food both addictively delicious and shelf stable requires a bit of chemical support in the form of additives, preservatives, sweeteners and stabilizers. To sum up, if you don’t know what E321 means, how can you expect your body to know?
How many carbohydrates do I need?
You are unique so the amount of carbohydrates you need will vary depending on a number of factors. Try to first think what are good carbs when preparing a meal or grocery shopping. The most simple advice is…well simple:
- Vegetables always come first: the micronutrient profile of vegetables is superior to any other source of carbohydrates and should make up the foundation of any diet. Choose a variety of colours and include in as many meals as possible.
- Quality: No matter the type of carbohydrate, choose the highest quality you can get. Try to source organic or local products whenever possible. With grains, seek out whole sources of ancient grains and with legumes opt for dried organic varieties.
- Amount: Without having to calculate anything, the simplest way to control the carbohydrate amount is to think about eating real food. Processed carbohydrates (pasta, bread, cakes, cookies) are stripped of nutrition, full of additives/preservatives and contain far higher amounts of carbohydrate per serving. All together not very beneficial to our bodies. On the other hand, when you eat food in it’s natural state, the opposite effect is true; the carbohydrate comes with a host of nutrients to help your body digest the food. Fibre slows down the energy release and the absence of chemicals means digestion is kept optimal.
Beyond this some other questions you might consider:
- Your shape: Overweight individuals tend to be insulin resistant, meaning the carbs they eat are not processed correctly and are more likely to be stored as fat. In this case, a lower carbohydrate approach might be more suitable.
- Your activity levels: Our bodies use three different energy systems when you exercise: anaerobic A-Lactic (ATP-CP), anaerobic lactic (Glycolytic) and the aerobic. Individuals who are for the most part sedentary or only do steady state lower intensity exercise (aerobic) need not worry about having high amounts of carbohydrates in their diet. In fact, their fat stores can provide all the energy they need. On the other hand, if you train at very high intensity (ATP-CP or Glycolytic) – HIIT/CrossFit/sprinting/football/hockey – then you need to consider incorporating more carbs into your diet, specifically around training.
- Your biochemical individuality – this last point incorporates some of the other aspects of your health such as gut flora balance, intolerances, thyroid, stress, adrenals and so on. In these cases, carbohydrates can both do a lot of good and equally a lot of bad. The three points above are a good baseline but consider working with a qualified nutrition practitioner. This will help to figure out what your needs are and how to support your body, not add more stress.
iRaw and Carbohydrates
At the heart of iRaw is the core belief that food should be as nature intended. The secret behind the products lies in their simplicity. According to Bjornsdottir ‘Our ethos is simple; life should be full of colour, flavour and tantalising sensations without ever compromising the very pure nature of raw ingredients.
The carbohydrates we use are in the form of ancient grains, fruits and superfoods; as close to what you find in nature as possible. Enjoy the plant-powered energy!