For a long time, nutrition experts, your favorite magazines, and maybe even your doctor preached about "good carbs" and "bad carbs." These labels held enormous weight for some people. If you were one of them, you probably made food choices that helped you to feel "good" or "bad" about your diet for the day. But here's the thing: no food is good or bad. The most important rule of nutrition? A healthy balance.
Putting foods into the "good" bucket or the "bad" bucket is the simplest way to make quick decisions. We get it! But we also don't want to make anyone feel bad for choosing any food. So let's break down the science to understand why some carbs give you more nutrition than others so that you can make the best nutritional decisions for you.
List of Good Carbs and Bad Carbs
To help give you a starting point for choosing carbohydrates, we've compiled a list of carbs according to their nutritional offerings. This printable list includes foods that might be considered "good carbs" or "bad carbs," but you can decide for yourself how or if you want to include them in your eating plan. Click the image to download the list. You can save it to your desktop, add it to your files, or print it and put it on your fridge---whatever will work best for you.
Sample List of "Good" Carbs
In general, foods that are in their whole form and less processed provide greater nutritional value. These foods include:
- Green leafy vegetables, like spinach, kale, or mustard greens
- Whole vegetables such as asparagus, green beans, eggplant, carrots, or broccoli
- Whole grains, including brown rice, quinoa, oats, barley, or farro
- Foods made with whole grains such as whole wheat pasta or whole grain bread
- Whole fruits such as apple, bananas, mangoes, or citrus fruits like oranges
- Beans such as kidney beans, lima beans, navy beans or chickpeas
Sample List of "Bad" Carbs
When foods are heavily processed, they may include added sugars or added sodium that aren't as healthy for your body. These foods might include:
- Foods made with added sugars such as sweetened soda, candy, sugary breakfast cereals
- Foods made with refined grains such as white bread, cakes and cookies
- Sweetened beverages such as sweetened coffee drinks, soda or some sports drinks
- Snack foods with excess sodium, such as chips or some crackers
- Sweetened fruit juice or sweetened fruit candies
Different Types of Carbs: Simple and Complex
Carbohydrates, also called "carbs," are one of three different macronutrients that your body needs to function properly. Carbohydrates provide your body with energy. According to The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, between 45% and 65% of the calories a person consumes each day should come from carbohydrates. The other two macronutrients are protein (which helps to build and repair muscle and other tissues) and fat (which provides insulation and protection for your organs).
Carbohydrates can be further divided into two main categories based on their chemical structure: simple carbs and complex carbs. Both forms of carbohydrate provide your body with energy. But your body digests each of these differently and each type provides different benefits.
Complex carbs provide your body with longer-lasting fuel. This type of carbohydrate breaks down slowly in the body, giving you steady blood sugar levels throughout the day and making you feel less hungry and irritable when mid-afternoon rolls around. Many complex carbs also provide fiber and important micronutrients - vitamins and minerals that help to boost health.
Examples of foods that contain complex carbs include:
- Starchy or non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, spinach, sweet potatoes, or kale
- Whole grains and foods made from whole grains, such as whole grain bread, oats, and cereal
- Legumes and beans
Simple carbs, also called simple sugars, are digested more quickly than complex carbs, giving your blood sugar a quick spike. Simple carbs are useful for anyone who needs a quick burst of energy. If you're heading out the door for a run, for example, you might want some simple carbs to fuel your activity.
Examples of foods that contain simple carbs include:
- Foods with added sugars such as cake, candy, and cookies
- Sweetened beverages such as juice or soft drinks
- Milk and milk products
- Syrups (maple syrup, honey)
- Table sugar
Foods With Simple and Complex Carbs
If you want to categorize carbs as good or bad, you might be tempted to call simple carbs "bad carbs" because they tend to be higher in sugar. You might also lean towards assuming that complex carbs are "good carbs" because they provide more vitamins and minerals. But it is not quite that simple because many foods contain both complex and simple carbs.
For example, fruit contains fiber - a complex carbohydrate. But fruit also contains fructose, a simple sugar. When you consume fruit, you might get a quick burst of energy from the sugar (simple carb), but the fiber (complex carb) helps you to stay satiated for a longer period of time.
Furthermore, not all simple carbs, or simple sugars, are necessarily bad for your body. For example, lactose is a simple sugar found in dairy products. But when you consume dairy, you benefit from protein and minerals like calcium.
How to Consume More Good Carbs
Carbs are the fuel that makes your body run, and the type of fuel you put in your engine makes a world of difference. Maybe you want to eat more complex carbs and curb the simple carbs. But how can you remind and motivate yourself to choose the best carb choice when your stomach rumbles and that candy bar is looking oh-so-good? Try these tips for making carb choices:
- Keep fruits like berries and apples at eye level in your fridge
- Keep veggies prepped so foods like carrot sticks or broccoli florets are easy to grab as a snack
- Keep your sweet treats on a high shelf that's a little harder to reach
- Try brown rice instead of white
- When shopping for bread or crackers, look for phrases like "whole grain."
Make it as easy as possible for yourself to the carb choices you want to make throughout the day. As you try some new foods out, you may find yourself getting creative and coming up with ideas of your own.