Carbohydrates: They're Not All Created Equal

Ahhh...spring! It’s finally here. Up in the Northeast corner of the United States, my home, anything above 45 degrees is considered warm weather. You can drive through the streets and see kids playing outside in T-shirts and people enjoying dinner outside on their porch, despite the little bit of snow left on the ground. It’s the time of year where many moms (from all over the country), holed up inside their homes all winter, start to think about the summer. Thoughts of shorts, tank tops, and bathing suits becomes very real and scary for some.


Losing weight is probably the first thing that comes to mind. You may think about starting a diet to lose a little of that “baby” fat. So, you complete a quick internet search for the most popular diets and find that low carb or carb-free diets are some of the first headlines to pop up. Low carb is a common theme among diets today. Carbs are the new fat. Unfortunately, what you find on the internet does not tell the whole truth.


Low carb is relatively new in the diet world and it has quickly become the favorite. The official definition of a carb (aka carbohydrate) is an organic compound occurring in foods and living tissues and includes sugars, starch, and cellulose. Carbohydrates contain hydrogen and oxygen in the same ratio as water (2:1) and typically can be broken down to release energy in the body.


So that’s the science, but why are they so feared by dieters? Well, take a look at the rates of diabetes and obesity in our country and the link between carbs and diabetes and you can probably figure out the answer. But, what everyone assumes is that all carbohydrates are made alike. This is not true. There are many healthy, nutrient rich carbohydrate sources. There are also many unhealthy, empty-nutrient sources of carbohydrates.


Carbohydrates are the bodies main source of fuel. Your brain and muscles love to use carbohydrates for energy. Without carbohydrates in your diet, your body will not operate as it should. Carbohydrates are involved in many important processes in the body like building muscle and getting you through that intense cardio session at the gym.


On the contrary, the wrong choice of carbohydrates can cause you to feel lethargic, tired, moody, and “hangry” (hungry + angry, for those of you who aren’t familiar with that term). Crappy carbs cause huge swings in your blood sugar which cause an almost immediate sugar high, like a kid on Halloween, followed by a quick crash. I know you have all experienced that crash before. That dreaded three o’clock hour where you are fighting to keep your eyes open at work. It’s the time of day where you may reach for a sugar-laden coffee and a big ‘ole cookie. You get that sugar high again, and right as you get home from work, crash once more. Now you are too tired to cook dinner and order some nice take out food, filled with crappy carbs. It’s a vicious cycle we go through over and over again when you eat the wrong carbs.


To avoid this constant up and down in your blood sugar, you want to make sure you are consuming the right carbohydrates. Healthy carbohydrate sources are packed with nutrients that could include: fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and lean protein. Healthy carbs tend to have more fiber and protein which help stabilize your blood sugar and avoid the ups and downs.


Healthy Carb Sources to include:

  • Fresh, whole fruits
  • Starchy Vegetables (sweet potatoes, squash, peas, corn)
  • Beans (chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans, hummus, etc.)
  • Lentils
  • Legumes
  • Oats
  • Quinoa
  • Farro
  • Freekeh
  • Barley

Unhealthy Carb Sources to eliminate: 

  • Sugar-sweetened beverages (soda, flavored milks/milk alternatives, sweet tea, juices, sports drinks, etc.)
  • Sugary alcohol drinks (think margaritas and pina coladas)
  • Products made with white/refined flour like white bread, rolls, wraps, and pasta
  • Desserts
  • Baked goods (muffins, donuts, pastries, cakes, cookies)
  • Ice Cream
  • Crackers
  • Pretzels
  • Snack foods
  • Granola, meal replacement, cereal, and breakfast bars
  • Cereals
  • Candy and chocolate

To determine if a carbohydrate is good for you or not, consider the nutritional value. Take a look at the nutrition facts label. If you can’t find any nutrients in the product, it is a crappy carb and should be limited in your diet. If a food has carbohydrates but plenty of nutrients, feel free to include it in your diet. These carbs will leave you feeling full and satisfied, not starving and moody. Here is an example of a day’s worth of quality carb sources:

Breakfast: overnight oats made with oats, almond milk, walnuts, and berries

Morning Snack: mixed berries with a handful of almonds

Lunch: salad topped with a mixed bean salad

Afternoon Snack: edamame beans

Dinner: grilled salmon with a sweet potato and asparagus

Samantha McCarthy is a registered dietitian and fitness professional who specializes in helping people lose weight. She has a comprehensive approach to health that includes counseling in healthy eating, exercise, stress management, and behavior change. She lives in southern New Hampshire with her husband and enjoys cooking, spending time outdoors, and staying active.