Good Carbs vs. Bad Carbs: What You Need to Know

By Shelby Hill

Who doesn’t love a crunchy piece of bread or a big bowl full of pasta? Chances are, it’s easier to find a carb meme on the Internet, than it is to find helpful information about which carbs you should incorporate into your diet. So we went on a mission to demystify the carb count questions asked by Purple Carrot subscribers.

What’s what? Identifying Good vs. Not-So-Good Carbs

Not all carbs are created equal.

Complex carbohydrates are the good guys. These are found in whole foods (defined as: foods that are not processed or have no added ingredients) that are high in fiber says Pam Bonney, MS, RD, CDN, and co-founder of Tried and True Nutrition, Inc.. Complex carbs include beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and veggies.

The not-so-good-for-you carbs tend to be highly processed and have added sugar or other ingredients. Think food made with white flour, white rice, mashed potatoes without skin, and most desserts: cake, ice cream, candy, and cookies, says Bonney.

Our rule of thumb: Carbs that comes straight from Mother Nature checks the good-carb box.

Often we see starchier vegetables like sweet potatoes and cauliflower increase the carb count in Purple Carrot meals, but these carbohydrates come from whole, plant-based foods and are loaded with vitamins and minerals needed for a healthy, well-balanced lifestyle. So eat up!

Why Eating Unprocessed Carbs is Best

It’s not just the processing that separates these two carb groups; there are two outcomes of the process that impact the nutritional value of the carbohydrate and make the unprocessed ones the better choice.

For starters, a lot of vitamins and minerals have been stripped from processed foods. While those nutrients can be added back in via fortification, these added nutrients aren’t as natural, notes Bonney.

The other main difference is that complex carbs contain more fiber, which allows the food to be digested slower.

“The slower food is digested, the better,” says Bonney. “So, we want to eat lots of high-fiber carbs and whole foods at each meal to help control our blood glucose levels. As our blood glucose levels increase, so too does our insulin response, and that means more glucose will be stored as fat instead of being used for energy at the cellular level.”

It’s important to maintain steady glucose levels in the bloodstream, as this is what helps us maintain our weight and feeds our energy levels. You know the phrase “sugar rush”? It’s describing a spike in glucose levels that leads to a surge of energy. For example, by eating complex carbs at lunch you can maintain even glucose levels throughout the day so you don’t have that afternoon crash.

“High-fiber foods also help to lower cholesterol [and] promote a healthy bowel system,” says Bonney. And finally, “foods high in fiber, along with some healthy fats, also help keep us fuller longer, and this helps keep us from feeling too hungry in between meals. In contrast to this, white flour and many highly processed foods are digested much more quickly, can spike blood glucose levels, and leave us feeling hungry again within an hour.”

What About Low-Carb Diets?

With all this talk about good vs. bad carbs, would it just be easier to cut out all carbs?

Not so fast. “Whole foods that are complex carbohydrates high in fiber are important” to a balanced diet, says Bonney.

Ryan D. Andrews, MS, MA, RD, says that many diets rich in complex carbohydrates have been shown to have health benefits, and when asked about low-carb or no-carb diets, he strongly suggests rethinking that course of action.

“I can say with confidence that the majority of chronic illnesses we see in America that are nutrition related are not due to eating too many (unprocessed carbs like) lentils, oats, grapes, and boiled potatoes,” says Andrews, who is a writer at Precision Nutrition and author of A Guide to Plant-Based Eating.

Andrews also notes the environmental ramifications of no- or low-carb diets, especially if whole populations chose to adopt them: “… many carb-dense food groups like legumes, whole grains, tubers, and roots are extremely environmentally friendly to produce and can feed a lot of people efficiently. Replacing [these foods] with more meat, seafood, dairy, and tree nuts can have steep environmental trade-offs in certain situations.”

So What Should I Eat?

“If I went to the grocery store right now in America and looked at what was in most carts, more than half of the contents would be highly processed: chips, baked goods, desserts, and/or sugary beverages. Statistics indicate this is what Americans are buying and eating. So, I would encourage people to keep an eye on these foods and make sure they aren’t taking up the majority of real estate in your diet,” says Andrews.

Instead, Bonney and Andrews agree that whole foods like legumes (lentils, black beans, split peas, tofu), whole grains (barley, oats, brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa), tubers (potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, beets), nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables should be the bulk of your carb intake.

But as with all things in life, everything in moderation. You can still have your cake, or cookies or brownies or pie, but consider complex carbs to be your main source of carbohydrates with the processed carbs as a treat every once in awhile.

If you’re new to some of these carbs, try one of these delicious recipes to kick-start your new carbohydrate diet:

vegan plant-based diet