Is There Really Such A Thing As Good And Bad Carbs?

You've likely come across conflicting claims regarding nutritional information in the quest to optimize your health. From intermittent fasting to planning six small meals a day, trying to determine which is truly the best advice can quickly become exhausting.

Carbohydrates are a hot topic in diet and lifestyle circles, and every few decades, they seem to cycle in and out of fashion. While it's clear that devotees of keto and low-carb lifestyles exist, much of the population consumes a good amount of carbs. According to a survey conducted by The International Food Information Council, only 5% of respondents reported following a keto diet in 2021. And even on keto plans, dieters can consume up to 50 grams of carbohydrates per day (via Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health). Still, debates regularly occur within wellness communities regarding whether carbohydrates are considered "good" or "bad."

When it comes to food, we tend to assign value based on its nutritional value and physiological effects on our bodies. In a controversial move, The Food and Drug Administration recently announced the arrival of new food labeling designed to denote foods as "healthy" or "unhealthy," similar to the "traffic light" model of U.K. nutritional labels (via The Washington Post). But what actually makes a food "healthy" — or a carbohydrate "good" or "bad"?

How the qualities of carbohydrates are evaluated

Let's be real: whether you cut them out or consume them, hardly anyone can deny that carbohydrates are delicious. However, there are some distinctions regarding the effects of different carbs on your body — for instance, their glycemic index. The glycemic index measures certain foods' impact on your blood sugar levels (via the Mayo Clinic).

A food's glycemic value, known as its glycemic load, indicates the expected shift in your blood sugar from eating that food. A tall pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks, for example, has a glycemic load of 21, meaning it would significantly raise blood sugar levels from their starting point. However, if you were to consume a cup of cooked pumpkin, you'd find its glycemic load at just three (via Nutrition Data).

While this system isn't foolproof, it can help you identify foods that are simple or complex carbohydrates. "Eating foods with a lower glycemic index means they will cause a slower and lower rise in your blood sugar," Dr. Alexander Williams tells the Cleveland Clinic. Simple, high-glycemic carbohydrates quickly spike blood sugar, whereas complex, low-glycemic carbs require more effort for your body to break down. It would be fair to say that many "good" carbs are considered complex and fall into the low glycemic category, while those thought to be "bad" are simple carbs or high glycemic.

Choosing good carbohydrates to include in your diet

Even though you might think apple cider donuts certainly taste like good carbs, they wouldn't exactly fit the definition in this context. When looking for good sources of carbohydrates, you'll want to choose foods that are high in fiber while being low in sugar, and any antioxidant content is always a plus. "Generally speaking, healthier carbs come from whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables," dietitian Maggie Moon tells Women's Health. Foods like these deliver maximum nutrients with minimal effects on blood sugar, which is ideal for keeping your body functioning at its best.

What are some less desirable carbohydrates, and what can you expect if you make them your primary source of carbs? Unfortunately, most bad carbs are the ones we typically associate with being tasty: refined white starches and sugars, which are present in everything from fried foods, like chicken nuggets, to their sweet and sour dipping sauces. "Ideally, refined carbs should be consumed sparingly: up to two to three servings per week for the average person is OK," nutritionist Lauren Minchen tells Real Simple.

While that may sound unrealistic for those who laugh in the face of suggested serving sizes, it's sound advice. By consuming excess quantities of simple carbohydrates, you could increase your risk of developing metabolic illnesses like diabetes or heart disease (via The BMJ). Practice moderation, and be cautious not to demonize any particular foods. By paying attention to how you feel after meals, you may discover a preference for complex carbohydrates.