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Are Carbohydrates Good or Bad?

Q: I am so confused about carbohydrates. Are they really as bad for you as we have been lead to believe? And are there some that are better for you than others?
 Thanks, Kate

A: Excellent question Kate. You are not alone! Over the past several years, carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap. They have been touted as the reason people are overweight and many clever marketing tactics have encouraged the elimination of carbohydrates through several popular diets. The truth is that carbohydrates are not the bad guy! Far from it ~ they are among the 6 categories of nutrients that are essential to overall health. Carbs provide the only form of energy that your brain can use, plus, they fuel your muscles so that you can go out for that nice relaxing walk or chase your toddler around the house all afternoon. If your body does not have glucose (made from carbs) to provide energy, it starts taking energy from your muscles by way of protein. When energy is taken from your muscles, it means that your muscles get smaller, and smaller muscles mean a slower metabolism. Plus, that protein is critical for your growing and developing baby! The body also uses fat as an energy source when on a low carbohydrate diet. When this occurs for an extended period of time your body goes into a state called ketosis, which is not a healthy metabolic state for your body. 

That being said, some carbohydrates are more nutritionally beneficial than others. Complex carbs (named for their more complex chemical structure) take longer for your body to digest and thus provide slower and steadier energy. These carbohydrates are also more nutrient-dense containing fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Carbohydrates from the natural sugars in fruits, vegetables, and dairy are also high in nutrients that their refined/processed counterparts cannot claim. 
The bottom line is that your body is built to use carbohydrates as its primary energy source. Pregnant woman need a minimum of 175 grams of carbs a day, while nursing moms need a minimum of 210 grams per day (non pregnant, non nursing adults need a minimum of 130 grams per day). Balancing your intake of protein and fat with sources of complex carbs and natural sugars (think fruits and veggies) in your diet will help ensure that you are giving your body what it needs to operate most efficiently.
 “Good” Carbohydrates
A good rule of thumb is to look at the ingredients list on any packaged foods you buy. To ensure you are choosing a whole wheat or whole grain product, those should be the first ingredients listed.

  • Fruits and veggies
  • Oatmeal/Steel cut oats
  • Whole wheat or whole grain cereals
  • Whole wheat or whole grain bread
  • Whole wheat or whole grain pasta
  • Brown rice
  • Bulgur
  • Wheat berries
  • Millet
  • Barley
  • Whole wheat couscous
  • Quinoa
  • Buckwheat
  • Beans – navy, lentils, black, garbanzo, kidney, etc.
  • Milk (preferably skim or 1%)

 “Bad” Carbohydrates

  • White bread
  • White pasta
  • White rice
  • Corn tortillas
  • Cakes, muffins, danishes
  • Candy
  • Syrups
  • Soft drinks
  • Chips
  • Registered Dietician Q&A

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