The Truth About Carbohydrates

Good Carbs Bad Carbs

Carbohydrates have become a hotly debated topic when it comes to good nutrition. The high-protein, low-carb diet fads have produced desirable results for many people who have been unable to shed unwanted pounds in the past. However, this temporary result has fooled many people into believing that severely restricting carbs is the answer to weight loss. While initially it may work, many people can’t keep up with the severe carb restriction. Once they reintroduce carbs into their diet, they gain the weight back, and add on more pounds than ever before.

Americans are struggling with carbs. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is overloaded with non-nutritive carbohydrates, such as refined sugar, white flour, and heavily processed foods that have been stripped of their nutrition.

As a result, the calorie consumption of many Americans has gone up dramatically, while the nutrient value has gone down. The unused calories that are not burned up by the body are stored as fat. As a result, many people feel hungry, have more cravings, and eat more—while losing ground in maintaining adequate nutrition. This sets the stage for chronic problems with obesity, diabetes, hormone imbalances, and significant nutrient deficiencies that lead to chronic conditions.

A strict, high-protein diet is only a “quick fix.” While it may offset the problems surrounding a non-nutritive, high-carb diet, this solution will not last. Carbs are the primary source of “quickly available fuel” for the body, and the body naturally yearns for these when blood sugar levels are low. When carbs are severely restricted from the diet, the body doesn’t have enough energy to sustain itself, and it starts using its fat stores. That’s how most people initially lose weight, but they gain it back when they reintroduce carbs.

Restricting carbs is not the answer. It’s actually unhealthy in the long run to severely restrict carbohydrates from your diet. Optimal nutrition and an ideal body weight require a healthy balance of good fats, good proteins, and good carbohydrates.

A healthy balance is best. Each person’s protein, fat, and carbohydrate requirements are unique based on his or her individual biochemistry. In general, the Zone Diet provides healthy recommendations by adhering to the 40-30-30 rule:

  • 40% of calories should come from carbohydrates.
  • 30% of calories should come from protein. (Read more about good protein and bad protein.)
  • 30% of calories should come from fats.1 (Read more about good fats and bad fats.)
  • Acceptable ranges for children are similar to those for adults, except that infants and younger children need a slightly higher proportion of fat (30% to 40%).2 During childhood, the brain is the fastest-growing organ and it’s made up of 60% fat. A severe, low-fat diet may have long-term negative health implications.
A word of caution to vegetarians: Many vegetarians unknowingly eat too many carbs and suffer from severe vitamin and mineral deficiencies due to the lack of complete proteins in their diet. Without proper medical guidance, many vegetarians put themselves at risk for osteoporosis (calcium deficiency), anemia (iron deficiency), hair loss (zinc deficiency), fatigue, and poor wound healing. Also, vegetarians can suffer from vitamin B-12 deficiency, because plant sources don’t provide bioavailable B-12. Vegetarians should consider taking a high-quality vitamin B-complex supplement.

Good Carbs

The truth is not all carbs are bad! Just like fat and protein, the human body cannot survive without carbohydrates. The key to good health is choosing high-quality, nutrient-dense, low-glycemic carbs, while avoiding the non-nutritive, empty carbs that are all too commonly found in today’s modern American diet.5

Many carbs ARE good for you. “Good” carbs are low-glycemic foods that gradually increase your blood sugar levels over time, posing much less of a burden on the pancreas to produce insulin. Unlike bad carbs, they are whole foods packed with nutrients that the body needs to function. Good carbs are best when eaten in their natural, raw state, and they are considered “living foods.”

Good carbs contain less calories, so you can eat more! Good carbs are less calorie-dense than bad carbs. For example, you can eat a whole apple in exchange for just one bite of a cinnamon roll. Once you start eating good carbs, you can actually eat more food, which surprises many people trying to lose weight.

Bad Carbs

Many carbs are not good for you. “Bad” carbs are defined as non-nutritive, high-glycemic foods that spike your blood sugar too rapidly. These include heavily processed foods that contain refined sugar, refined white flour, additives, chemicals, and preservatives.

Bad carbs lead to blood sugar problems. Glucose (blood sugar) is converted into energy with the help of insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas. If the body is repeatedly bombarded by high-glycemic foods, the delicate balance between glucose and insulin begins to break down. If this situation is left unchecked for a long period of time, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes can develop, and the pancreas can shut down altogether. Once the pancreas stops producing insulin or produces too little, oral medications and/or injections are needed to provide the necessary insulin that the body requires to convert glucose into energy.

Bad carbs will cause you to gain weight. When the body receives too much energy (empty calories) all at once from high-glycemic carbs, the energy has to go somewhere. As a result, excess energy is stored as fat, so you’ll start to see the pounds accumulate around your middle, thighs, buttocks, and other areas of the body. These excess fat stores put you at increased risk for heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, stroke, and many other chronic conditions.

Bad carbs cause nutrient deficiencies.
If your diet is mainly composed of non-nutritive, high-glycemic carbs, you become prone to nutrient deficiencies that lead to chronic conditions. Foods that contain refined sugar, processed flour, chemicals, preservatives, and additives are mostly void of nutrients. Even though you’re eating large quantities (2000 calories or more per day is the average), your body still craves more food to try to get the nutrients it requires to function.

Dietary Recommendations

  • Choose organic low-glycemic carbs:
    • Raw, green, leafy vegetables
    • Sweet potatoes
    • Whole fruits with peel
    • Sprouted Nuts and seeds
  • Choose whole grains (never refined):
    • Barley
    • Brown rice
    • Buckwheat
    • Bulgur (cracked wheat)
    • Millet
    • Oatmeal
    • Sprouted-grain breads
    • Wild rice6
  • Choose healthy saturated fats such as virgin coconut oil, known to help control blood sugar levels.
  • Incorporate healthy fiber like organic flax meal, to help promote digestive regularity, and help control blood sugar levels.
  • Drink purified water instead of fruit juice, carbonated soda, and/or sugary drinks.

Foods to AVOID include:

  • High-glycemic carbs like white potatoes, white bread, baked goods, and processed snacks
  • All foods that contained refined sugar in any form
  • All foods that contain white flour
  • Instant grains. Instant rice, wheat, and oatmeal are actually not any better for you than refined sugar. They are processed grains that spike blood sugar levels rapidly.
  • Fruit juices. They do not contain the fiber that normally slows down the digestive process, which leads to spiked blood sugar levels. Also, drinking is an easy way to add unwanted calories to your diet very quickly, because it’s easy to drink very large quantities in a short amount of time.7
  • Caffeine. Caffeine inhibits healthy blood sugar control.

Additional Reading

Cited Sources:

1) Sears, Barry. Enter the Zone. 1st Edition (copyright 1995)

2) “Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids,” Institute of Medicine of the National Academies 
        Accessed July 2005

3) “The Health Risks of New-Wave Vegetarianism,” by Laura Brydges Szabo, MA, RD 
        Accessed July 2005

4) “Vitamin B12,” Vegetarian Society 
        Accessed July 2005

5) “Carbohydrates,” Harvard School of Public Health 
        Accessed July 2005

6) “Whole Grains: High in Nutrition, Low in Fat,” Mayo Clinic 
        Accessed July 2005

7) “Fruit Juice: How Much is Too Much?” 
        Accessed July 2005