Carbohydrates are essential for fueling your body with energy. The right types of carbs can regulate your blood sugar, offer a lasting feeling of fullness, and lend to muscle growth, among many other health benefits. But not all carbs are healthy. It’s important to know the difference between carbs that can improve your energy levels, and carbs that can drain your energy, lead to weight gain, and increase your risk of future health problems.
Simple vs complex carbs
Carbs fall into one of two categories: simple or complex. Simple carbs are generally higher in sugar and digest quickly — leading to a brief, rapid spurt of energy known as a sugar rush or sugar high.
Simple carbs will trigger your body’s release of extra insulin to regulate and decrease your blood sugar levels. Low blood sugar levels can lead to a sugar crash, and cause mood swings, fatigue, and increased appetite. As a result, you may eat larger portions or make unhealthy food choices in an effort to once again increase your blood sugar level.
Complex carbs, on the other hand, are higher in fiber and digest more slowly, allowing you to benefit from sustained energy over a longer period of time. Complex carbs can replenish your energy, regulate blood sugar, and lower your body’s absorption rate of fat and cholesterol. Complex carbs also regulate your mood and appetite, and help your body store carbs in muscle tissue instead of fat tissue. If you’re an athlete or exercise regularly, complex carbs can contribute to a speedier recovery and complement your weight-loss efforts.
When choosing carbs, opt for complex carbs, since these foods also offer vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that help drive weight loss and boost your overall health.
Choosing complex carbs
Complex carbs are generally low on the glycemic index, and consist mostly of whole or minimally processed foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans. Complex carbs are ideal pre-workout foods because they lend to sustained energy, improved endurance, and less fatigue.
The following are good complex carbs to add to your healthy nutrition plan:
- Vegetables, especially green vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts
- Fruits including apples, pears, grapes, peaches, plums, oranges, grapefruit
- Sweet potatoes
- Whole grains
- Brown rice
Understanding simple carbs
While simple carbs should generally be consumed in moderation, not all simple carbs are bad for your health. For instance, simple carbs that are high on the glycemic index such as Russet potatoes are packed with vitamins, antioxidants, and other nutrients that boost immunity and overall health. In most cases, the simple carbs most harmful to your health are those that are processed, refined, and high in sugar.
Try limiting the following simple carbs in your diet:
- All forms of sugar
- Potatoes (excluding sweet potatoes)
- Puffed cereal products, including rice cakes
Tips for adding healthy carbs to your diet
- Swap fruit juices and fruit products for whole fruits. Whole fruits contain more fiber and far less sugar than most processed fruit products, including most juice brands.
- Swap white breads for whole-grain breads. Most white breads are high in sugar and sodium, and contain ingredients and additives that contribute to weight gain.
- Lower your bread intake in general. Aim to consume more lean protein, fruits, and vegetables, and fewer bread products. Or, swap out high-carb loaves of bread with pitas, tortillas, or other lower-carb options.
- Swap out potatoes for beans. Beans are high in protein, digest slowly, and are an ideal substitute for potatoes at the dinner table. This also helps cut down on butter, sour cream, and other high-fat flavorings commonly added to baked and mashed potatoes.
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