One of the most common pieces of dietary misinformation is that carbohydrates are bad for you. So are carbs bad for you or not?
There’s a lot to unpack around that because it has led millions of people into the wrong idea about what to eat – and why.
Today we’re busting this myth so that you understand a few key diet facts that should help you make better choices and feel less guilt:
- What are carbohydrates?
- What are they for?
- When are they bad for you – and when are they healthy?
- How do you pick carbohydrates for better health and quality of life?
So let’s get started…
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are a huge family of different chemicals found in food that can be used by the body as energy. They’re specifically built around the 3 elements in the name: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (that’s why it’s a hydrate – that’s the oxygen).
Carbohydrates – or carbohydrates – is an umbrella term for this family and includes things like sugars and starches. There’s a lot of variety in this group, which might be your first clue as to why carbohydrates are not bad for you all by themselves.
What are carbohydrates for?
Carbs are short term energy for your body.
They’re turned into glycogen which is either stored in the muscles for immediate use or in the liver to be transported around the body when it’s needed.
Carbs are healthy when they’re used for this function in proportion to the amount of short-term energy your body needs. When you eat appropriate carbohydrates for the activity you’re doing, there’s a balance of input and output that your body really likes – it drives mental and physical performance, helps you recover from exercise, and enables things like muscle, tendon strengthening and weight loss.
Your body has a range of systems for detecting carbs – in the mouth, in the gut, and in the bloodstream – that affect both your health and how you feel. They can improve short-term energy levels and help you wake up, but they also help you fight off fatigue during exercise or push your body into the processes of building muscle.
These are all processes of energy abundance. Carbs are the signal in the body that say, “I have energy, let’s start doing things and building new tissues at a faster rate”.
The 3 Types of Carbs You Need To Know: Fibre, Sugar And..?
The 3 most important types of carbs are the big, high-level, simple categories: sugar, starch, fibre.
These all have their own little sub-groups that don’t matter right now. What matters is that they’re ordered roughly by how quickly they’re going to be absorbed by the body and turned into energy.
- Sugars break down rapidly as they’re usually ready to go straight into glycogen and be stored or used.
- Starches are bigger molecules, chains of sugars together in a row that are complex. They are slower to breakdown in the body and provide slow-release energy.
- Fibre is not digestible – it passes through your digestive system and plays an important role in regulating metabolism, digestion, and even cleaning up your gut by binding to liquids.
Why Do These 3 Categories Matter?
Because the carbohydrates you’re eating should reflect the needs of the day! There’s this myth of bad carbs and good carbs, so let’s break it down for you. A bowl of sugar probably isn’t a healthy breakfast, while a bowl of porridge would be – they’re completely different carb sources because of the distribution of sugar, starch, and fibre (aside from the nutrients found in wholegrains like oats being important for health!).
High-sugar foods like fruit juice are only useful when you’re in need of carbs quickly – such as during a marathon or you’re carb-depleted and light-headed. Meanwhile, porridge oats are rich in starch and fibre, offering a slow-release carb source that can fuel you for longer, supports regular metabolism, and will fuel both physical and mental activity for hours to come.
This is the rule of thumb for sugars and starches: sugars closer to workouts, starches further away. Fibre slows everything down, which makes it perfect first thing in the morning and later into the evenings to control metabolism and slow down the release of energy from other foods.
When are carbohydrates bad for you – and when are they healthy?
However, carbs are unhealthy when you’re eating them without attaching them to your daily physical activity output levels. For example, when you’re overeating calories and carbs you’re not using for energy, you start to downregulate your insulin levels and develop type-2 diabetes.
These kinds of changes aren’t because carbohydrates are bad – but because of bad habits around carbs.
Remember: balance is king.
What matters is that you set up your overall food intake – and specifically carb intake – to reflect what your body needs.
That’s the kind of food-as-fuel healthy habit that changes what your body looks like, how it performs during exercise, and even how you feel on a daily basis. The parity between input and output is the important thing to remember – which is why marathon runners can eat 10,000 calories a day of pasta and sugars without getting diabetes but we probably shouldn’t.
It’s in this balanced diet – balanced against your needs – that health happens. Keep it simple and make sure that short-term energy sources are used for short-term energy – and that you’re getting the right types of carbs for your needs and schedule.
The balance of sugar, starch ,and fibre in your diet is the place to start for carbohydrates and health. Preferentially choose slower-releasing starches and only use sugars around intense physical exercise to drive energy stores up, replace lost glycogen, and pick you up when you’re feeling tired.
The rest of the time, carb sources that are slow-digesting are likely to overlap with both fibre and nutrient intake. Things like wholegrains, beans, peas, pulses, potatoes, and sweet potatoes are some of the best sources for maintaining regular energy levels without needlessly spiking sugar levels.
The closer a carb source overlaps with whole foods, fibre, protein, and other nutrients the more it will do for your health. As always, a variety of plant wholefoods is one of the easiest ways to improve your carb intake and make sure it’s working for you rather than against you.
So, are carbohydrates bad for you? Our View
Carbs aren’t bad for you – but they can become bad for you if you either don’t understand them or have carb-habits that don’t support your needs. The imbalance of needs and eating is where problems arise and they’re incredibly common in our food culture – where most people don’t understand what they’re eating or what it does to them.
Understanding what carbs are, how they work, and how to structure them in your diet might be all it takes to get them on your side as you pursue better health. Education is the first step so you can figure out what you’re eating and change it however you’d like.
Take a day to track the carbohydrates in your food and – especially – the sugars. Better carbs and a better life happen one choice at a time and, sometimes, all it takes is understanding what’s tripping you up and how you can improve it!
Medically reviewed by Sian Baker, Dip ION mBANT mCNHC
Written by Beth Giddings (BSc)