If carbs confuse you, you are not alone.
Carbohydrates confuse most of the people I work with and honestly they confused me for a very long time. Most of us aren’t quite sure if they are good, bad, or what makes a carb a carb.
But here is the things, carbs are an important part of what you eat, and understanding a few things can help you pick the right ones for you.
When anything is confusing I like to go back to science or physiology and break it down in a simple way so people can make the best choice for their body and their goals. Because we are all different.
Carbohydrates include fruits, veggies, grains, breads, cookies, muffins, milks, legumes, sugars, and more.
All carbs break down into glucose (glucose is the simplest sugar, which our body uses as fuel). But they all do this at a different rate. Some are slow and provide balanced energy for hours while some are fast and spike blood sugar and give us quick energy and a crash later. In order to know which is which, we will dig into what makes a carb a carb.
Carbs begin chemical digestion in the mouth but primarily break down and are primarily absorbed in the intestines. There, glucose travels into the bloodstream where it is then called blood sugar. It can now travel to where it is needed to be used for energy or stored for fat or in the liver for later. Insulin is needed to help glucose get into cells, but we will leave that for another time.
All Carbohydrates are made of 3 things- sugars, starches, and fibers. There are other important things in carbs that include minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients (plant nutrients like antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, phytoestrogens, etc) that make them important. The ratios of each depends on the food itself and dictates its impact on the body.
Fiber and Starch are COMPLEX CARBS, they don’t have as extreme of an impact on our blood glucose levels. They have many branches of sugars bound together and they are slower to break down. This helps balance energy throughout the day.
Sugar is a SIMPLE CARB and causes more extreme ups/downs in our blood glucose levels.
- Sugar is a simple carb. The body does not have to work hard at breaking down sugar into glucose so it moves into the blood fast when consumed on its own or in high amounts. It is then called blood sugar, or blood glucose.
- Sugar is found naturally in fruits, veggies, grains, and dairy but also juice, candy, cookies and even many packaged ‘health foods’.
- What matters most is how much sugar there is and how fast it moves into the bloodstream. Fiber makes a big difference with how fast sugar moves into the bloodstream, as it helps slow it down. This is a key concept to remember for the long haul (important 99% of the time but maybe causing problems if you are running or sking a fast longer race and needing sugar NOW).
- Fiber is a complex carb and is not absorbed in the gut. There are several kinds of different fibers but the ones we talk about most are soluble (dissolve in water) and insoluble (do not dissolve in water). All fiber slows down glucose from being absorbed into the blood too quickly. This is a good thing to help balance our blood sugar and energy (and mood, hormones, etc). Fiber also feeds the microbiome (which helps make short chain fatty acids we use all over our body for energy, repair, and more), insoluble fiber helps us to feel full, and helps to keep us pooping well (which is key for health).
- Fiber is key for health but sometimes adding more fiber is hard for people with digestive imbalances. This could be due to 1. a shortage of digestive enzymes and problems breaking them down or 2. from bacteria being in the wrong places in the gut and fermenting these fibers. Adding fiber slowly is important for these people while efforts are made to rebalance the gut. Sometimes when the body responds to certain foods negatively it is more telling about the condition of the body, not the food. This is where the concept heal before ideal comes into play.
- Starch is also a complex carb. I find this to be the most misunderstood. There are 3 different kinds of starches that have different impact on blood glucose. There are rapidly digestible starches, slowly digestible starches, and resistant starch. These all impact how fast the carb breaks down in your body and how it impacts blood sugar and your metabolism.
- Rapidly digestible starch– These are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream and can spike blood sugar. These are in foods like potato chips, potato products, breakfast cereal, most processed breads, boiled white rice, cereal, etc.
- Slowly digestible starch– These break down and are absorbed slowly into the bloodstream. Slowly digestible starch is found in foods such as quinoa, brown rice, steel cut oats, lentils, legumes, nuts, seeds.
- Resistant starch– These act more like Fiber as they are not absorbed but instead move through the gut and feed the microbiome. Foods that contain resistant starches include beans, peas and lentils and some whole grains.
There are definitely health promoting choices (colorful fruits/veggies/bean/seeds) and health harming choices (white sugar, white flour, processed carbs) there is a lot of room in the middle depending on your unique body and goals.
One time that simple carbs or carbs with rapidly digestible starches are beneficial is if you are exercising at an anaerobic level (high heart rate) for a long enough time and need fuel. At this level your body only burns sugar for fuel, as opposed to fat which it can burn at an aerobic level for days if you are well adapted.
That is a topic for another time but some higher sugar whole foods that I avoid unless I am having a treat or fueling an adventure include- bananas, grapes, mango, papaya, pineapple, watermelon, white rice, white potatoes, crackers, refined grains, processed foods, potato chips, noodle products, bread products, etc.
Clearly, not all carbs are the same. Carbs have components that are important for all humans though. Focusing on a wide variety of brightly colored and unrefined carbs is best for sustainable energy and overall health.
Even if someone is eating keto or paleo, eating a large portion of complex and low sugar/starch carbs is essential for the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber.
A few of my favorite carbs to include everyday are leafy greens, onions, garlic, mushrooms, peppers, sweet potatoes, apples, blueberries, blackberries, millet, beets, maple syrup, carrots, squashes, dry mango, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kiwi, quinoa, tomatoes and my favorite tartary buckwheat honey cake.
Here is a list of slowly digestible starch and high fiber carbs (aka vegetables) that do not cause a blood sugar spike (I like to fill at least half of my plate with these every meal) artichoke, arugula, asparagus, bean sprouts, beet greens, bell peppers, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, chives, collard greens, dandelion greens, eggplant, endive, fennel, garlic, ginger, green beans, jalapenos, kale, lettuces, mushrooms, mustard greens, onions, parsley, radicchio, radishes, shallots, snap peas, spaghetti squash, spinach, summer squash, swiss chard, tomatoes, turnip greens, watercress, zucchini.
But as always, my mantra for every meal and snack is FAT, FIBER, PROTEIN. So be sure to fill your plate with all the important components and make any adjustments that are right for YOU
What are your favorite carbs? How do they work for your body? Are you still confused? Please write in any questions you have and I would be happy to chat more!
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Janel Ferrin Anderson FNLP NC
Hello. I am Janel, owner of Mountain Rebalance. I am a board certified holistic nutritionist, a certified functional medicine nutritionist, I have my doctorate in natural medicine, am a family herbalist and I started out as an Ayurvedic yoga therapist. I obsess over why. Why symptoms and disease manifest and how food and lifestyle impact how we function. I help people understand their own body and explore the root cause of their symptoms or disease. Learn more about me here
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